“It’s like a gall stone,” Conan O’Brien says about his fury at the way he was treated when Jay Leno swiped back the Tonight show. “It just has to work its way through my urethra . .. . and then I’ll be through with those fuckers at NBC.” This doc about his post-Tonight live tour charts that painful process – performing as anger-management therapy — convinces us that his anger was rooted in a deep sense of fairness, and also manages to be a high-energy, thoroughly entertaining film.
After being forced out of Tonight – even though he technically quit rather than be pushed to a later time slot – O’Brien was contractually blocked from appearing on TV for months, and went on the road with a comedy and music show labeled the “The Legally Prohibited from Being Funny on Television” tour. He took along Andy Richter and some of the band, the players who eventually regrouped for his current TBS show Conan. Director Rodman Flender, a college friend of Conan’s from their Harvard Lampoon days, took cameras along to film bits of the stage performances and talk off-stage to O’Brien. Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop is not bravura filmmaking, but it is terrifically fun and revealing.
No one is foolish enough to believe that even the most fly-on-the-wall doc captures the truth about a personality, especially one who’s so camera-savvy. All the late-night hosts have their fictional TV personalities. Colbert’s arch-conservative is the most conspicuously fake, but they all play roles, some winking at the audience more than others: Jon Stewart is the sometimes bumbling smartass who’s really super smart, Letterman plays the cranky old man, Conan the genial, self-deprecating nice guy.
He adopts a different persona for the tour, that of the mock-mean-boss; it’s a funny, effective routine, as he teases his assistant and constantly threatens to fire her. (She obviously adores him.) But we also see flashes of what has to be genuinely Angry Conan, even more than we glimpsed in his revealing 60 Minutes interview about the late-night debacle.
What’s most surprising is that he is less furious about losing Tonight than about being treated so shabbily. We believe him when he says he has no sense of entitlement, that he’s so angry because NBC violated his sense of fair play, not some streak of blind ambition. And oddly, because we believe in the source of that outrage, the anger burnishes his image and humanizes him, letting us peek beneath the cheerful mask.
These angry flashes don’t define the whole film. They erupt now and then, surrounded by great humor and some pretty good music. At his first stop, Conan stands on a desolate street in Eugene, OR and says, “Should I be worried that we’re opening in a town where nobody lives?” He picks up his guitar and plays with Jack White in Nashville; he introduces acts at Bonnaroo.
He signs so many photographs, greets so many fans and chats up so many reporters, that you suspect he’s not really joking when he laughs and tells Steve Kroft, who has been trailing him for 60 Minutes, that it’s the interviews after the show that are killing him. There are moments when he’s angry not just at NBC but at the way he has been overbooked and overextended on tour. Did he forget the cameras were there during those outbursts (I’d guess not) or decide he didn’t care enough to act calm?
Has the anger passed? Who knows? There’s no trace of it on his new show, but that may just be the genial persona. What’s clear is that the TBS Conan is looser, more inventive, more distinctly his than his cautious, slightly awed Tonight, and the new show gets better all the time. As the tour ends, he says he’s found exhilaration “out of utter despair.” Lucky for us, he has also reclaimed his own late-night voice.