The following is a reprint of our review from SXSW.
The maelstrom of controversy, sensationalized media coverage and generally hurt feelings that broke out during the kerfuffle that surrounded the decision to dethrone Conan O’Brien from his position as the host of “The Tonight Show” after seven months (to replace him with Jay Leno… the man he replaced), was something supercharged and grass-roots out-of-control, eclipsing even the late night battle that had David Letterman angrily leaving NBC for greener pastures at CBS. In other words: it was an even bigger deal than the last time NBC fucked up.
And in the aftermath, O’Brien, legally banned from appearing on television for several months, took all the outrage and strong emotions (both good and bad) and funneled them into a traveling live show, which included a bold mix of music and comedy. It’s both the live show and the accompanying feelings that take center stage in “Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop,” an unstoppably hilarious and surprisingly moving documentary.
In a brief recap rendered in cheapo Taiwanese news footage animation, we are told the story of Conan being usurped and replaced, with title cards that explain his idea for a touring comedy show that would span the summer (and ultimately bridge the “Tonight Show” and his TBS gig). We are then thrown into the madcap mind of Conan O’Brien: his compulsion to be applauded and his equally strong compulsion to entertain, the kinks that have to be ironed out for the performances (like finding background dancers and making sure everyone on the staff wants to come out for the on-the-road edition).
It’s in these early sequences that the movie establishes itself as both a winning, charming, you’ll-miss-stuff-because-you’re-still-laughing-too-hard concert documentary and a peek behind Conan’s psychological curtain. The movie wouldn’t have been much if it had only been one half of this equation, but the two sides of the movie enrich it in profound and unexpected ways. It could have been really funny or really serious and still been good, but combined, it’s downright amazing.
The tour and the documentary were launched almost immediately after his painful separation from NBC and the subject still seems very touchy and raw. Conan, addressing the camera, openly talks about the anger and grief that he feels very intensely, towards a job that he worked very hard at. The talk show host comes across as a complicated character indeed, and these asides (which pepper the rest of the film), give it an added dimension of weirdness and sadness. You get the impression that as disappointed as he is in the situation, he’s more disappointed in himself.
Of course, the concert footage, which is doled out in large chunks so that by the end of the film you feel like you’ve pretty much seen the whole shebang, is side-splitting in its intensity and hilarity. Even funnier, too, is the behind-the-scenes footage. A particularly jolting sequence has Conan visited by his former “Late Night” costar (and current “30 Rock“-er) Jack McBrayer. Conan belittles him and performs nasty songs about him, all in a thick hayseed southern accent that, in and of itself, may have you busting a gut.
As the movie wears on (but ends before the 90-minute-mark, meaning there isn’t a wasted moment), you grasp a fuller psychological understanding of what makes Conan O’Brien tick: his painful insecurities, his driven workaholism (which sometimes borders on dickishness, something he fully acknowledges), and his deeply felt ties to his wife and children. It’s a round portrait, one full of contradictions and nooks and crannies of darkness and occasional self-loathing, and it’s a story that’s beautifully told. Through “Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop,” you see the man in full, even if it is a little blurry because you’ve been crying with laughter. [A-]