Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (September 13, 2011)
F. Scott Fitzgerald stated that “there are no second acts in American lives”. Don’t tell that to Conan O’Brien, who turned his public humiliation into a long run of sympathy and renewed popularity – well, until he actually returned to TV, at which time the general public remembered that they didn’t really care about his talk show.
With 2011’s Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop, we revisit O’Brien’s brief moment of riding on top of the world when he milked public sympathy between his short Tonight Show gig and his current TBS talk show. We get a quick recap of the way that O’Brien earned the Tonight gig but got bounced after a short period.
O’Brien’s deal with NBC wouldn’t allow him to launch a new talk show for a certain period of time, and it also kept him off the tube. With nothing better to do, he created the “Legally Prohibited from Being Funny on Television Tour”. O’Brien took along some of his TV pals, included a bunch of guests, and created a variety show that scored good crowds in its 32 cities. Stop follows the development of the tour and its progress across the US.
In terms of my viewing preferences, I never had a dog in the Conan vs. Jay hunt. Writing DVD/BD reviews long along claimed all my TV-watching time; I used to be a Letterman guy, but my last regular late-night viewing ended in the early 2000s. I’m not sure I ever checked out an entire episode of either Leno’s or O’Brien’s Tonight Show incarnations, and I can’t claim that I know I ever saw a full Late Night with Conan O’Brien, either.
That said, I sided with O’Brien. Partly that’s due to my general dislike of both Leno’s shtick and his behavior during the whole Tonight debacle. Actually, I loved Leno back when he’d guest on Letterman’s Last Night in the 80s, but when he got the Tonight gig, he lost all his edge and became pretty unfunny. Even before the O’Brien fracas, I held no warm feeling toward Leno.
As for O’Brien, I was neutral until early 2010. Like many other fairly impartial observers, the crap treatment he received from NBC led me to feel sympathy for him and to root for him to succeed – though not enough to actually watch him, of course.
I actually thought about attending one of the Legally Prohibited shows but passed for reasons I don’t recall. Based on the evidence seen during Can’t Stop, I can’t say that I think I made the wrong decision.
We do get a reasonable amount of material from the various stage performances, but those aren’t the documentary’s most interesting moments. While they’re useful and necessary, Can’t Stop gets much of his juice from its many behind the scenes moments.
Those certainly give us a different view of O’Brien – and not an especially complimentary one. The film depicts an angry O’Brien – a really, really, really angry O’Brien. We can understand a lot of his ire – NBC did job the comedian – but these emotions seem out of touch with O’Brien’s nice guy image and make him seem more than a little like a jerk along the way.
O’Brien’s anger plays best in the early parts of the documentary. At that point, we understand the freshness and rawness of his emotions, and his inability to do much more than sit around the house allows us to see why he’d be so restless and irritated.
But then a funny thing happens. O’Brien hits the road, gets to perform in front of adoring crowds – and he seems even more POed! Once he goes on tour, O’Brien appears to be in a perpetual snit due to the horrible demands of stardom. He must schmooze with fans, journalists and other celebs, all of which apparently detract from His Grand Pursuit of Art.
Or something like that. I have to imagine that any viewers of Can’t Stop who have ever been in touring bands will want to punch O’Brien as he whines about meet and greets and other non-performance components of his life. Heck, I’ve never lived such an existence and I wanted to slug him! Yes, I know that life on the road can be grueling, but come on, man. You’re a wealthy guy who finds praise and sympathy at every turn, and you’re traveling in style; it’s not like O’Brien was crammed in the back of a VW bus with a bunch of smelly roadies.
After a while, it becomes unclear what the heck makes O’Brien so angry. He just seems to be bothered for no apparent reason. It’s like he decided he’d spent enough time fuming over the Tonight debacle but still harbored the same negative emotions so he found other ways to be mad – even if those other causes didn’t make much sense.
O’Brien’s anger gets tiring and tends to drag down Can’t Stop. I admit I occasionally wonder if O’Brien wasn’t really Mad Mad Mad all the time but the filmmakers made it look that way to create a sense of “realism”, though. This way the movie gets to show you a bitter Conan you’ve never seen and seems “grittier”. Whether or not it’s true is a different subject.
O’Brien’s hyperactive negativity leads to the film’s most unflattering sequences. In particular, we get a backstage sequence during which he mocks Jack McBrayer without end. In the Blu-ray’s commentary, O’Brien indicates this is a form of snarky palling-around among the comedians and McBrayer was a willing participant in the gag – and I believe him - but it doesn’t come across that way. Instead, O’Brien just looks like a mean-spirited bully, and that’s not a pose that fits him.
At least the anger keeps Can’t Stop from turning into a tedious lovefest, though it still feels rather self-congratulatory and self-pitying at times. The Legally Prohibited tour was essentially a chance for O’Brien to revel in his martyrdom, so we see some of those elements. The nearly relentless bile undercuts these, of course, and gives the film a darker tone.
But apparently not such a dark tone that Can’t Stop turns off O’Brien’s fans; it seems to get high marks among his faithful. As one with a neutral attitude toward the comedian, I must admit the documentary made me like him less. It gave me some appreciation for what he went through emotionally after the public humiliation he received over the stewardship of The Tonight Show, but it painted him as too angry and mean to maintain much sympathy.