Back in early 2010, or several lifetimes ago in celebrity news cycles, Conan O'Brien severed his relationship with NBC, where he had worked for 22 years. After network executives told him his Tonight Show was shifting back to midnight to accommodate Jay Leno's return from prime time, O'Brien and NBC had a public, messy divorce.
Now we have the documentary, Conan O'Brien Can't Stop, which follows O'Brien's 32-city music and comedy revue called the Legally Prevented from Comedy on Television Tour. The tour was apparently intended to flout NBC's attempts to keep him out of the public eye while allowing O'Brien to fulfil his rock-star fantasies and keep his staff employed.
Television director Rodman Flender takes the classic rockumentary fly-on-the-wall approach in recording the tour. He never asks a question, but wanders freely about, recording snippets of the concerts, rehearsals, group writing sessions and backstage meet-and-greets. We start with auditions for back-up singers and rehearsals with members of O'Brien's Tonight Show band (though not bandleader Max Weinberg). Later, we catch moments, onstage and off, on dates from Eugene, Ore., to Las Vegas, Calgary, Boston and the Bonnaroo Festival in Manchester, Tenn.
While a lot of geography is covered, as a concert film, Conan O'Brien Can't Stop is decidedly thin entertainment. Conan's an energetic, but no more than competent rockabilly singer and guitarist, whose signature tune is a reworking of Willie Nelson's On the Road Again ("I want my own show again"). Guests – including Jack White, Eddie Vedder, Jim Carrey and fellow TV hosts Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert – appear too briefly to leave much of an impression.
What, then, do we learn about the real Conan? What seems to purport to be a "warts and all" profile is superficial – freckles and all, at best. The buoyantly inventive, silly, preppy talk-show host is revealed to be a quick-witted control freak with a caustic edge and a constant need for an audience. In other words, he's a fairly typical comedian. Occasionally, O'Brien gets tired and petulant and acts like a prima donna, complaining, for example, about a grilled-cheese sandwich soaked in butter. Again, on a 32-city tour of eating hotel food, presumably even the Dalai Lama would whine occasionally.
Mostly, O'Brien seems to be mocking the spoiled celebrity bit, just to prove that he really isn't like that. We see him rough-housing like a 12-year-old with his writers, teasing and playfully bullying the young woman who works as his assistant. He meets many people before and after the shows, signs countless autographs and complains about how onerous it is, or exults in how rewarding it is to play in front of a paying audience.
Every once in a while, he talks about how angry he is with NBC. "I'm angry," he says. "Sometimes I'm so angry I can't even breathe."
Though there's no evidence of breathlessness in the film, O'Brien's sense of grievance seems real enough – although the film might have mentioned his lavish buyout ($32.5-million [U.S.] for himself and another $12.5-million for his staff). Ultimately, there's just not enough material here, either in the tour footage or the backstage kvetching, to justify Conan O'Brien Can't Stop. If you need your Coco fix, you can see O'Brien's new show, every Monday to Thursday, in a less rambunctious, but more polished, version of what this inessential documentary offers.
Conan O'Brien Can't Stop
- Directed by Rodman Flender
- Starring Conan O’Brien
- Classification: 14A