Rodman Flender’s documentary, Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop offers an unexpectedly intimate look into the behind-the-scenes goings-on of last year’s “Legally Prohibited from Being on Television Tour.” What’s most unexpected about the documentary is not the nature of O’Brien’s psychological break-down in the aftermath of “The Tonight Show” debacle, although there’s a lot of unspoken insight into that in Flender’s documentary — O’Brien’s gaunt, washed-out appearance in the days after that episode, and his periodic bouts of catatonia, moments in which you can almost feel the anger and disappointment churning away in his stomach. What’s most surprising about a documentary commissioned by the subject himself, however, is exactly how often Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop depicts the talk-show host as a dick. He’s passive-aggressive with his writers, frequently a jerk to his assistant, an asshole to his handlers, and often visibly frustrated with his fans. What’s even more surprising is how easy it is to sympathize with O’Brien, to understand how he can be a dick at times, yet remain as genuinely likable as he is.
There’s a lot to unpack in Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop, not least of which is as a document of the tour itself, a lively, hilarious, soul-baring onstage purge of O’Brien’s anger with NBC. But it’s also an eye-opening and honest documentary on the nature of celebrity. As a bystander, as someone who only witnesses the end results in a movie or on television, it’s easy to dismiss a celebrity’s complaints about his loss of privacy, about the grueling travel schedule, and about the never-ending commitments.
But Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop puts you inside of Conan O’Brien’s state of mind. When he says, before walking into yet another meet-and-greet autograph session, “I’m going to go give away another piece of my soul now,” your first thought is, “That’s not a very appreciative thing to say.” But your second thought is: That’s exactly how it must feel. How does this man ride around in a bus all day; schmooze with his fans for two hours before a show; put on a spectacular, exhausting performance; and then spend another two hours signing autographs, engaging in small talk, posing for pictures, and exchanging tedious banter with people he doesn’t know, only to wake up and do it again the next day? In one scene, for instance, Conan tries to find a few minutes to himself in his dressing room, only to have one of his back-up dancers barge in with her entire extended family to pose for pictures. Conan naturally and politely obliges, but once the door is closed, takes issue with his handlers for allowing a non-stop parade of people to come into his dressing room and take another piece of his soul. In another scene, after a performance, when Jim Carrey — who performed onstage with Conan — pays him a visit, you can see the look of resignation on Conan’s face, a look that says: “God, I’ve got to glad-hand another guy I barely know and spend the next ten minutes stroking his ego.”
Arguably even more impressive is the way that Flender’s documentary truly captures the push and pull between O’Brien’s shyness and his need to have an audience at all times. The reality for Conan is, even when his handlers (who are also his closest friends) allow Conan a few free moments, he pushes himself out into crowds, willingly submitting himself to appearances. On scheduled days off, Conan arranges events for himself, only to complain about them both during after after, chastising himself for putting himself in that position.
But that’s just one aspect of the documentary, and of Conan O’Brien himself. He’s also warm and adoring of his co-workers and fans, and genuinely funny, the kind of guy who often seems like he speaks only in pithy one-liners. Indeed, beyond the look into Conan’s celebrity, the documentary itself is consistently funny, often in a real, non-jokey way, as in the scene following the Bonaroo festival — where Conan spent the entire day in 100 degree heat introducing acts — and his delirium on the flight back overtakes him, when he spends much of the flight amusingly pestering his unfathomably patient assistant and Andy Richter.
But all those neuroses, the jerky-moments, and even the jabs at NBC and Jay Leno and the mockery of TBS, never make Conan seem petty or mean-spirited or at all a bad person. Like no other celebrity documentary I’ve seen, Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop humanizes its subject, exposes his vulnerabilities, lays out his weaknesses, and invites us to accept him for the mess of a man that he is. And you will. By the end of the film, you will have spent the better part of two hours laughing yourself silly, but you’ll also better appreciate Conan O’Brien the person, his tireless work ethic, his unflappable sense of humor, and yes, his understandable testiness. It’s an amazing documentary, not just of Conan O’Brien’s tour, but of the drawbacks to fame. It allows us to see something we may never get to see again: An honest look at a celebrity’s fall and a firsthand account of how he purged himself of the past and picked himself back up for the future.
Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop originally screened at the SXSW Film Festival. It’s opening in limited release today.