Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop

September 5, 2011 at 11:42pm By: Mr. T Posted in Mr. T's Den

First of all, for anyone with more than a passing interest in the Tonight Show Conan/Leno episode, I can’t recommend highly enough Bill Carter’s book, “The War for Late Night: When Leno Went Early and Television Went Crazy.” This book does an excellent job of presenting the late night talk show landscape and all its network and personal rivalries, documents exactly why and how the unprecedented decisions were made by NBC executives to reshuffle its late night line-up, and the resulting mayhem and real-life drama that ensued. I could not put down this book, it was that engaging. It also contains tons of interesting insights into the machinery and personalities of the late night talk show industry (e.g., who knew Jeff Zucker wanted to cancel ‘The Office’ at one point because he thought it was a failure?), and really exposes the tension and fickleness that characterizes the relationships between the big TV executives and stars who headline the shows. Rather than playing up the perception that Leno’s camp vis-à-vis NBC pushed and bullied Conan out of the Tonight Show, “The War for Late Night” offers a much more balanced portrayal of the entire debacle, and doesn’t take obvious sides with either camp.

Having said that, I should state that I’m generally a fan of Conan, but wouldn’t consider myself a hardcore supporter. After having read the book, I’ve also come to the conclusion that Conan genuinely was wronged by NBC. This book is excellent reading material to accompany the film.

Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop basically starts where Carter’s book ends. The film follows the Legally Prohibited from Being Funny on Television Tour that Conan launched last summer in the wake of his parting from NBC. I knew from Carter’s book (who also appears in the film) that Conan is an extremely hard working performer. This aspect of Conan clearly comes across throughout Can’t Stop. The film is inter-spliced with both on-stage and backstage footage from his Prohibited from Being Funny Tour, showing Conan and his crew (including Andy Richter, Jimmy and the Band, etc.) not only maxing out the energy level during shows for the tour, but also doing performances on their days off. Fans of Conan will probably really enjoy all the footage of him interacting with audience members in various locations, and various gigs and get-togethers with other well-known Hollywood or pop culture personalities like Jim Carrey and Jon Hamm. 

Can’t Stop become more interesting when it comes to Conan himself. It is very evident from the first half of the film that he was, at least then, still very bitter about NBC, and he comes across as being somewhat excessive in both his anger and also some self-pitying. I’m really not sure if this depiction of him is due to clumsy film making, if it’s Conan trying to be manipulative, or if it’s how Conan genuinely felt and the camera just captured him expressing those feelings.

Another surprise in Can’t Stop is Conan’s relationship with his staff. I’m not sure if this was a function of being on tour, or more representative of the usual state of affairs within the Conan camp, but there are numerous instances in Can’t Stop showing Conan basically prodding and bad mouthing members of his loyal staff to the point of obnoxiousness. This is pretty jarring because before seeing Can’t Stop, most people wouldn’t have guessed Conan was like that. Based on interviews I have seen or heard of him, he’s always come across as being a very fair, personable, and sensitive person, and not someone who would ever be an ass to his staff.

The unfortunate thing I was disappointed in about Can’t Stop, is that near the end you really don’t know what to think of him as a person. It’s clear that he is tremendously talented, driven, and very complex, but there is no emotional payoff at the end of the film that really gives you insight into who he is.

Another big disappointment for me was in the performances they selected for the film. They showed several of the Tour’s performances at length throughout Can’t Stop, and everything they played was great, including performances with Eddie Vedder and Jack White. But what they

didn’t

play really irked me. Two (big name) surprise cameo guests showed up at one of his performances, and they and Conan were going to largely improvise a sketch before the audience with little preparation. In the lead-up to going on stage, we watch and listen to Conan and the two other big name stars backstage excitingly riffing about the sketch, increasing the anticipation to actually watch it. But then they never play the actual sketch! What a let-down. I won’t go into it more, but rest assured, if you see Can’t Stop, you will be disappointed, maybe even shocked, when they don’t play what could have been one of the highlights of the entire Tour. 

All in all, I enjoyed Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop, but it left me with a lot of questions both about Conan and about the film itself. It was unsatisfying on a few pretty important levels. But I’d definitely recommend it to anyone who has more than a casual interest in comedy or tv culture. It is playing at Film Streams until September 8th.

Also, I would recommend Conan’s interview with Marc Maron at the WTF podcast #163.

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