Conan O'Brien Can't Stop
Conan, without a show, tries drama: Documentary follows O’Brien on his angry tour after losing ‘Tonight’ gig
Remember when Conan O’Brien was the most wronged man in show biz? After NBC had unceremoniously forced him from “The Tonight Show’’ so that the profoundly bland Jay Leno could return? When “I’m with Coco’’ became the rallying-cry of the blogerati and O’Brien’s “Legally Prohibited From Being Funny on Television’’ tour sold out in a matter of minutes?
Ah, early 2010. Good times, good times.
That was a year and a half ago, several dozen pop-culture cycles in the past, so you may find it difficult to muster the curiosity to see “Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop,’’ a documentary that prowls the backstages of that national tour. O’Brien was still milking the spurned-genius schtick, in part because his mock outrage played hilariously and in part because there was real rage just beneath the surface. “I am angry,’’ he admits during this movie. “And I’m the least entitled man in the world.’’
Well, yes and no, since there can be no fame in America without assumptions on either side of the contract. Anyway, Rodman Flender’s film is much more interesting for the rage than the mockery. There are solid laughs and meta-laughs to be had in “Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop,’’ but the movie is most worthwhile as a portrait of a celebrity in mid-hissy fit. A creative, self-aware hissy fit, but still.
Upon fleeing “The Tonight Show,’’ O’Brien grew a beard and styled himself as an exiled biblical patriarch: the comedian crying in the wilderness. But he has a late-night metabolism, and without a show to support it, it starts to feed on itself. This is a man who, like others in his small, eccentric tribe, has had to be funny every night for the past few decades. How do you just turn that off? You don’t — thus the tour and the documentary’s title. How do you keep it from turning on other people? With difficulty, apparently.
So the 44-date “Legally Prohibited’’ tour becomes a whistle-stop engagement with alt-America — those fans who value ironic conceptual yuks over Leno’s snoozy one-liners — and it’s also O’Brien’s first real encounter with the masses. His attitude toward them is genuinely complex, as befits a smart, gracious guy who is also a cosseted superstar. When he runs into a young man outside a stadium who gripes about a scalper “Jewing’’ him for tickets, the comedian guts the guy cleanly, ruthlessly, and with cool humor. Later, two old women in a car say they’ll pray for him — and do, right then and there, as O’Brien patiently waits.
Yet the toll of the road brings out Conan’s petulant side as well, and we see, too, the high-strung boss who can be hell on his minions. Backstage after the shows, there’s the usual scrum as fans with connections jockey to get their two minutes with the star. O’Brien dutifully slaps on a mask of genuineness that keeps slipping to reveal exhaustion, peevishness, nerves. “You know what I want to do?’’ he says at one point. “Not talk to 100 people.’’
Excuse me, but isn’t that the price one pays for the fantasy of stardom coming true? O’Brien believes that on some level, and he doesn’t dare take it out on all the people who want a piece of him, so he takes it out instead on employees and other celebrities. There’s a discomfiting sequence when Jack McBrayer of “30 Rock’’ comes backstage after a show and is barraged with crude hick insults from O’Brien. At first you assume McBrayer’s in on the joke and then you’re not so sure — the actor looks mortified — and you’re not even sure the filmmakers are sure. It may be that Conan himself doesn’t know.
The scenes we see of the “Legally Prohibited’’ tour itself are amusing without being truly boffo; it’s nice to see O’Brien gravely discuss the pain of being raised upper middle class in upper-upper-class Brookline. (“It. Was. Hell.’’) Too much of the show, though, feels like frenetic movement for its own sake, as though Conan were one of those cartoon characters who runs off a cliff and stays in the air through the ceaseless pumping of his legs.
The cartoon character always falls, though, and he also always survives. O’Brien is now back in the cocoon of late-night TV, this time on TBS. Did his brief sojourn into the wild teach him anything? Perhaps a lesson about what he owes the people who watch him and what they owe him. Perhaps not. “I’m entitled to have some fun,’’ he complains to one of his writers during the tour. The writer responds, “Yes, but at whose expense?’’
Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com.