Like many people, I dig Conan O’Brien but didn’t always make time to actually watch him, either on “Late Night” or once he moved over to “The Tonight Show.” In theory, I appreciated that he was the host of the most-famous franchise in late night talk show history, and I thought it was appropriate, but I don’t watch much TV of any type at this point, and certainly I don’t feel the need to watch something which is largely about publicity, since I get plenty of that through my job every day.
When the entire flap about Jay Leno and Conan erupted last year, it was remarkable how vocal Team Coco got, especially considering the overall lackluster ratings that his “Tonight Show” had. That’s why I think many people were like me… fans in theory, if not in practice. And in the end, that cost him the show. It was ugly and awkward and public, and if he had become bitter and retreated from show business for a while, no one would have blamed him.
Instead, he turned his anger into a live tour and kept himself busy until he could go back on the air with his new show, “Conan,” and thanks to director Rodman Flender, audiences will get a look at that time between the TV shows in the new documentary “Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop,” which had its world premiere at the SXSW Film Festival.
I wish I’d been at the first screening, where Conan appeared, because it sounds like it was a crazy experience. Still, I enjoyed my viewing of it as the last film I saw at the festival this year, and it works completely as a movie. It is funny, but it also shows a vulnerable, human side to the performer that makes me like him even more than I already did. Yes, there are some moments where he is less than a ray of sunshine, and some people have reacted to that saying that the film offers up a “negative” portrayal of him. Nonsense. It just makes him seem like a normal rational person who is working through feelings of hurt and betrayal and embarrassment, and it made me understand just how much he was invested in “The Tonight Show,” but also in that nightly back-and-forth a talk show host has with an audience. It’s a real life “Larry Sanders,” and it’s tremendously engaging.
The fact that Rodman Flender shot this surprised me, but that’s because I still really only known him as a feature director. And when your feature resume is “The Unborn,” “In The Heat Of Passion,” “Leprechaun 2,” and “Idle Hands,” that is not something that inspires confidence. What I really didn’t know is how much TV Flender’s done, and how wide a variety of stuff he’s directed. He’s one of those people who has hopped from style to style and worked with everybody at some point, shooting shows like “Ugly Betty,” “The O.C.”, “Gilmore Girls,” “Millennium,” “Tales From The Crypt,” “Party Of Five,” and more. With this film, the most important thing is access and intimacy, and that’s what he gets. Conan allows Flender to shoot everything. At the start, I’m not even sure Flender knew what he was getting into completely, because we see the evolution of the live tour that O’Brien undertook, from the first thoughts about it to the first creative meetings and then the announcement and ticket sales, before finally seeing it come into focus while it’s actually on the road.
The double-edge that defines O’Brien’s humor is what makes the film really interesting to me. The tour, after all, was called the “Legally Prohibited From Being Funny On Television” tour, and it was a mix of material about the NBC situation, familiar faces from Conan’s show, and musical and comedy material designed to give Conan a way of pure expression. It’s pretty remarkable to see how much of the show seems to be a reaction of nearly pure aggression channeled into entertainment, and Conan certainly unleashes on those around him, peppering his writing staff with punches to keep them lively and almost incessantly teasing his 20-something young assistant Sona Movsesian, who rolls with it with such good grace that I have no doubt she’s going to work in the business forever. Being around O’Brien, people have to be sharp the way he is or they’ll drown, and his writers and his co-performers all seem up to the task. That’s part of the pleasure of the film, certainly, seeing smart people take a miserable kick in the nuts and turn it into a sort of rally of the fanbase that reconnects O’Brien to his love of performing in a very real and direct way.
I really enjoyed the evolution of the material, and watching Conan get an idea like wanting to wear the leather outfit from Eddie Murphy’s “Raw,” one of the ugliest sartorial choices in film history, and then actually executing it, the laughs in the movie actually build. It is often so funny that the audience I saw it with drowned out whole chunks of dialogue, but that just means the movie will reveal some fresh pleasures next time I see it. If you’re already a fan of O’Brien’s work, this will reinforce all the reasons you like him, but even if you’re not, this is the sort of documentary that takes such pleasure in the act of turning our real-life frustrations into entertainment that I think it would win anyone over.
“Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop” will be rolling out on various platforms later this year, and we’ll keep you updated as that comes closer to happening.