It’s a great feeling when you realize that the most consistently funny movie you’ve seen in years also happens to be on be one of the best documentaries you’ve seen in a while. Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop is a concert film, a peek inside Conan’s post-NBC anger, a character study, and a biopic- but all only of a specific time in Conan’s life. What Can’t Stop attempts to do is demonstrate how absolutely innate Conan O’Brien’s need to entertain is, and how that affects him when he’s suddenly left with no outlet. Director Rodman Flender was granted intimate access to his life and the development of the road show he cooks up to focus his energy during his TV hiatus. Called The Legally Prohibited From Being Funny On TV Tour, you’ll laugh more and see more from this documentary, than you ever would have sitting in the audience of the show.
It can’t be exaggerated how funny this doc is if you’re a fan of O’Brien. This is a 100% pure tapped stream of constant humor from the comedian, and you’ll see the difference in his comedy from what he delivers on stage, and what he delivers off stage, or when he’s with his writers, or when he’s with a group of meet-and-greet strangers. If you weren’t already aware, you’ll find that Conan is, frankly, kind of a dick. His humor is aggressive, self-deprecating, and often dry as a bone, and when someone else becomes the target there is always just enough of an uncomfortable edge to make everyone feel a little funny. It’s even more clear though, that he adores the people he works with, and would do anything for them. More importantly he’s devoted to his very core to pleasing his fans and the people that support him- a group never closer and more immediate than they are in the twitter age, and when he’s touring across the country and seeing them face to face. The main conflict of the documentary comes from the growing friction between Conan’s physical ability to manage the tour, his frustration with the glad-handing and VIP obligations at each stop, and his unwillingness to ever say “no” to a group of fans looking for an autograph. What’s most illuminating is how frustrated he becomes when he encounters the fans that just won’t quit with a picture request, or who drop casual a casual anti-semitic comment when he’s trying to do them a favor. His face during these moments speaks volumes, and think we can all relate to frustration with people who have no tact, and just don’t grasp the meaning of what you’re giving to them with your time and effort.
Besides being consistently hilarious (to the point that you’ll need to re-watch it to catch every line that you laugh over) the thematic pay-off and structure that director, editor, and cinematographer Rodman Flender has engineered is much stronger than what you’d find in a typical concert documentary. The first act is mostly the development of the tour, casting, rehearsal, ticket sales, and is where we get to know the Conan that can say the “fuck” word, has kids and a wife, and who is more than a little depressed and angry about the NBC situation. While it’s never the focus, that nasty network separation looms over much of the proceedings, and those that eventually found themselves hoping Conan would get over and past it might get a better understanding why that was so difficult for the comedian. From there it becomes about the tour, and the difficulties and victories that come with it.
Among all this are subtle windows into the relationships in Conan’s life. A few key moments with his wife and kids in the beginning make his phone calls home and the times he mentions missing them all the more potent. His relationship with his personal assistant is a unique one, and one you wouldn’t have been able to guess at before seeing the documentary. A young professional woman with a little bit of attitude of her own, it’s interesting to see her stand up to Conan’s humor when it’s aggressive, and laugh to the point of tears when it’s just simply funny. The relationship between Andy Richter and Conan is something you could probably guess more accurately, since Andy and Conan have a comedic shorthand, and Andy seems to be one of the few people who can come and go as he pleases and do what he wants and still weather Conan’s professionally demanding environment.
As the tour progresses and becomes more grueling, a conflict arises between Conan’s joy at having the most direct conduit to his fans and their energy he’s ever had, and the physical and mental exhaustion that the tour is creating for him. The way he deals with the conflict inspires the title, which captures perfectly the fact Conan can’t, and is not likely to ever stop. More than just a comedy concert film, Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop is a brave look into what really goes on in the head of one of late night television’s funniest guys, and what it was like to be with him at the most interesting time in his career.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars
On how he gained access so quickly after Conan’s show ended, and how did he edit it so quickly…
Conan and I are old friends and that’s how I got the access, and then in terms of editing it so quickly- coffee and ritalin.
Considering the frustration Conan was dealing with, how did he manage adding another layer of frustration with the cameras always rolling…
I tried to be as much a fly on the wall as I possibly could. Cameras were pretty small- I was more or less a one-man crew. I did my own sound. In some of the cities I had help, some of the shows had more than one camera. For the most part is was just me and I would find corners to hide in, so I tried to stay out of his way as much as I possibly could. I mean, the challenge was just to keep up with him- he’s always on the move, he doesn’t stop. So it was more of a challenge for me to chase after him and keep up with him than the other way around.
What evolution in the show across the tour did you observe?
You saw the writer’s session where they really came up with, you know, the seven stages of grief [a major bit in the show]. and all the big comedy bits. He kind of knew the anchors- Polk Salad Annie was always going to be the opening number, and then he had those writers with him, and they would sort of tailor those jokes to each city. So he had these kind of anchors -he knew what the beginning would be and how he was gonna close the show with 40 days and running into the audience and playing guitar, and then it sort of left wiggle room to adjust it between each city. But it was more or less the same show every night.
How does Conan feel about the doc, and the audience being able to see such intimate parts of his life?
You’d really have to ask him, but he’s very brave to give me the access that he gave me, and to let all of you see it. But he’s a very honest person.
Mod: What he said backstage when he was here was that it’s important for people to know he’s human, and important for them to know there’s process, and you work through things, and you’re a creative person. That was one answer I heard.
What is the main point you want the audience to walk away with?
The purpose of making the film is that wen Conan found himself in the situation when his nightshow ended very abruptly, and he didn’t know what he was going to do, he ran this idea by me of putting together a tour very quickly. It’s the only thing- he couldn’t go on TV and I though this was a very interesting moment to capture. I wanted to capture that moment and that process, where he was at, at that time. I wasn’t interested in doing a career retrospective and I wasn’t interested in doing a commercial kind of Conan O’Brien product or a tie-in or anything. I just wanted to see- I didn’t quite know what he was going to do, HE wasn’t sure what he wanted to do, and I just thought it would be interesting to see that process as it evolved. I was trying to capture the evolution of that process while it was happening.
I hope that’s what I would up with. I think the film is about the creative process, I think it’s about dealing with anger through creativity, through comedy/ I think it’s a movie about performers and performers’ addiction to audiences, and needing that audience and needing to get on stage- loving it and hating it at the same time (as one does with something one’s addicted to). Ultimately, just to show what a funny guy he is, because I thought Conan at his funniest was not a Conan you see on TV every night.
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