There is a hell of a lot going on in “Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop.” It is essentially a complete portrait of a man. We’ve seen profile films before, but they usually just focus on the performance side of the subject. Rodman Flender’s film goes so much deeper, giving us an all-access pass into Conan’s brain. It’s a fascinating, scary and, of course, hilarious place. This is a man who wears his heart on his sleeve but protects it with a thin candy shell of biting humor. By the end, we really know him. Trouble is, once you really get to know people, you might not like them as much.
“Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop” has a lot in common with “Don’t Look Back” (1967), the documentary that revealed Bob Dylan as a brilliant prick. Though Flender has a long history with Conan, he didn’t impose any discernible bias in editing. He just turned the camera on and let the man reveal himself. This approach wouldn’t work for everyone. But when the subject is a firecracker like Conan, it’s practically the only way.
The film catches up with Conan soon after he receives his pink slip from NBC. As part of a tidy severance package, he is forbidden to appear on television for six months following his termination. Conan agrees to the terms but breaks out into a cold sweat at the thought of sitting on his ass for that long. So he immediately hatches a plan to launch a tour. He’ll bring a live show across the continent to repay all the loyal fans of Team Coco. At least, that’s the motivation he cites. But soon, it becomes clear that there is a secondary reason for going on the road. Simply put, Conan is addicted to performing. He absolutely needs his nightly dose of audience validation. It’s not clear what would happen if he went too long without it but something tells me we don’t want to find out. If he’s not playing to a studio or theatre audience, he’s going for laughs in the office, writer’s room, hotel suite, airport runway or street corner. One of the numbers in his stage show is a cover of Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again” with the altered lyrics, “I can’t wait to get my own show again.” He’s anticipating the next fix when the proverbial needle is still in his arm. It’s a sickness (That’s his word, by the way). Conan O’Brien literally can’t stop going for the laugh.
Comedy is a simple word with a complex definition. For the Dane Cooks and Carlos Mencias of the world, it is just entertainment. For others, including Conan, it’s a lot closer to art. Though I’ve never been a fan of the talk show format, I’ve always respected what Conan does with it. He’s infiltrating a very mainstream form of entertainment, injecting the classic dick-and-fart-joke style with a cocktail of cerebral subversion. I’m not sure that everyone who watches his show gets that. I don’t mean to sound pretentious. A lot of his fans are very intelligent, perceptive people. But some of them are folks who don’t want to think too much about the things that make them laugh. It’s because of his ability to straddle highbrow and lowbrow comedy that he’s earned so many rabidly loyal fans from all walks of life.
He assures the camera that it’s not that he’s unappreciative. It’s not that he feels entitled. But there are times when he seems unappreciative and there are times when he acts entitled. He has several diva moments throughout the film. In one, he threatens to fire his long-suffering assistant when his take-out order is messed up. Even though she wasn’t even the one who made the mistake, he uses it as cautionary tale for not following instructions. “If you were an airline pilot, people would be dead right now,” he tells her. At one point, he compares himself to Anne Frank. He’s barely joking. Later, he admits that he’s “hard on [himself] and it bleeds onto other people.” So at least he’s not without perspective. He knows when he’s being an asshole, but he just can’t help himself.
The title doesn’t just allude to the tour, but to Conan’s general inability to turn himself off. He complains of being exhausted but schedules extra performances on his days off. He whines that everyone wants a piece of him, but he never says no to the fans on the street or the endless parade of celebrities and VIPs who invade his suite after every show. He worries that he will lose his voice, but he never stops babbling and joking. Sometimes the jokes get a little mean. During a meeting, he decrees that his staff must speak to him using a banana as a phone. All they want to do is finish the meeting, but, eventfully, they comply. You probably didn’t realize that “30 Rock’s” Jack McBrayer was even capable of frowning but it’s all he does when Conan mercilessly mocks him in a redneck voice and improvises a tune called “You Stupid Hick” for a room full of people.
Conan isn’t just a brilliant dick, though. He’s also a really nice guy who is very angry about getting screwed over by a network to whom he gave 22 years of his life. The tour is his much-needed rebound. He exorcises a hell of a lot of demons on that stage. Despite being run ragged from the show and the schmoozing, he still goes balls to the wall every night for his audience. He never brings any of his bitterness, weariness or baggage to the stage. He never lets his fans see how exhausted he is by their demands for autographs and ten different photo combinations. Sometimes, he even says nice things to his assistant. It’s possible that since his return to television, he’s found a balance that’s more Dr. Jekyll than Mr. Hyde. However, he frequently hints that making mean jokes is how he deals (or doesn’t deal) with stress. Though not as demanding as a tour, having your own show probably isn’t a walk in the park.
Rest assured, within all this therapy fodder is a very funny movie. Like I said, Conan is a brilliant comedian. Furthermore, his talent is completely innate. He delivers some of his best jokes off stage. It doesn’t hurt that Andy is often in tow. I’m fairly certain Andy Richter hasn’t met an awkward situation he couldn’t defuse with a perfectly timed one-liner. Andy is Conan’s Jiminy Cricket, keeping him from falling all the way down the Ass Hole. Whenever Andy is missing, the tone of the room is much heavier.
As is often the case with genuine people, Conan’s anger comes from a well-meaning place. He just wants to do his best at all times. He is his own worst critic. Conan O’Brien has definitely taken James Brown’s place as the Hardest Working Man in Show Business. He deserves all the praise he receives. Besides, if he were only the happy-go-lucky leprechaun from TV, it wouldn’t be nearly as interesting a film. “I might be a fucking genius or I may be the biggest dick ever,” he surmises. “Or maybe both.” I’m pretty sure it’s both.