“I'm like tinker-bell,” Conan O’Brien comments, “without applause, I die.” For the 48-year old comedian, cracking jokes in front of a captive audience is a kind of addiction. He may be an attention whore, but it was his “I’ll do anything for a laugh” mentality that made us all fall in love with him in the first place. Filmmaker Rodman Flender’s documentary Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop is an intimate portrayal of the comedian as he embarks on his 32-city “Legally Prohibited from Being Funny on Television Tour.”
Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop starts off with a short explanation of what transpired before the launch of Conan’s two-month music and comedy tour. In 2009 Conan inherited The Tonight Show, NBC’s long-running late night program, from Jay Leno, who moved into an earlier timeslot as a result. Within six months, the network felt it necessary to rescue Leno, whose ratings had plummeted in prime time, and restore him to his former 11:35 timeslot.
This move pushed The Tonight Show into the next day with a 12:05 airtime. And Conan wasn’t happy; he viewed the act as a personal insult and a kick in the nuts to The Tonight Show as an NBC institution. Consequently, he opted to leave his post at The Tonight Show and sever his 22-year relationship with the network.
NBC reached a settlement with Conan, which allowed him to walk away from the network. The settlement barred him from appearing on television, radio and the Internet for six months until September 2010, but it didn’t prevent him from performing before a live audience in a concert setting. While many of us would have relished the time off (not to mention the $32.5 million buyout for the remaining two and a half years of his guaranteed contract), O’Brien instantly set to work on “The Legally Prohibited from Being Funny on Television Tour.”
The tour kicked off in Eugene, Oregon. Looking around the site of his first show, Conan snidely remarked, “Should I be worried we’re opening in a town where nobody lives?” But 2,500 people showed up in support of Conan, bolstering his confidence. By the end of the tour Conan and his crew had blazed through 32 cities with 45 shows — including performances in Las Vegas, New York City, the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival in Manchester, Tennessee and even a surprise show at Jack White’s Third Man Records recording studio.
Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop highlights the creative process behind the tour, providing its audience with a rare glimpse at the wizard behind the curtain. The documentary is a brilliant portrayal of an artist trained in the art of making people laugh, as Conan and his team of writers create, mold and refine the various jokes and musical acts that he performs throughout the tour.
In addition, filmmaker Rodman Flender succeeds in showing Conan’s multifaceted personality, painting him in as truthful a light as possible when the subject has final approval of the editing. But as a whole the audience is able to relate to Conan as an individual — with cravings, limitations and serious mood swings. At times he acts like a cranky, petulant child, but on the rare occasion when he stops slinging snark and sarcasm, Conan gets real. “Sometimes I’m so mad I can’t even breathe,” Conan says, adding that he is “the least entitled person you’ll meet in the world.” The audience sees Conan at his funniest but also at his most vulnerable, leaving no doubt that his anger was the driving force that fueled the tour.
Conan takes every opportunity imaginable to flip NBC and Jay Leno the bird. Decked in a bedazzled outfit from the disco days, Conan performed a rendition of Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive.” Then he takes it one step further with a twist on the classic Willie Nelson song “On the Road Again.” “I just can’t wait to have my own show again,” he sings. “I'd even take a prime-time show that’s on at 10; anything to have my own show again.” It’s obvious from that outset that Conan values the tour as a sort of cathartic experience. Despite the rage that initially motivated the tour, the audience’s laughter seems to nullify the pain, even if only infinitesimally.
At times it’s difficult to feel sorry for Conan; he’s a Harvard graduate, born and raised in the upper echelon, and he banked millions for refusing to go on the air past midnight. But at the same time it’s fascinating to watch a man who craves the admiration of an audience to such an extreme degree. It really makes you wonder whether or not he could have fun — or survive — without an audience in front of him.