Funny how his cracks help him
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, June 24, 2011
If you’re a Conan O’Brien fan, you may already know that he has two kids, plays a pretty mean rock guitar and is half-Jewish.
Okay, that last part isn’t true. But the famously Irish Catholic comedian and talk-show host does joke about being half-Jewish — as well as many other things — in “Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop,” a documentary about the live stage show he toured the country with in the summer of 2010 after being forced by NBC to exit “The Tonight Show” but before starting up his current hosting gig on TBS. Partly about the making of the stage show and partly about the anger and compulsion underlying the making of it, the movie is often very funny. And when it’s not, it’s revelatory.
A mix of live music, stand-up, vaudeville, random guest spots from the likes of Eddie Vedder, Jim Carrey and Stephen Colbert, and public confession, O’Brien’s “Legally Prohibited From Being Funny on Television” tour was an almost instant hit, selling out even before the show’s contents had been created. (The title refers to a stipulation in his settlement with NBC that prevented him from performing on television for several months.)
Much of the first half of the film consists of scenes showing a tortured-looking O’Brien and his writers brainstorming ideas about the show, without much apparent success. Later scenes show a hilarious tour.
According to O’Brien, though, it’s the prep work and not the finished product that he loves best: hunkering down with his creative staff. In those scenes, O’Brien comes off as the funny, demanding, slightly impatient boss you wished you worked for. His favorite thing, he says, is “working things out” with his people.
Again, O’Brien is fudging the truth.
What becomes clear in the film, directed by Rodman Flender, is that what O’Brien really loves best is being in front of an audience. It’s called “Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop” for a reason. How does he spend one of his days off during the tour? By performing at the amateur talent showcase of his 25th college reunion at Harvard. Scene after scene shows him signing autographs, posing for snapshots with fans and schmoozing and/or joshing with such celebrity hangers-on as Steve Kroft, Jack McBrayer and Jon Hamm at pre- and post-show grip-and-grins.
But rather than portraying him as the extroverted though humble people-pleaser that a more fawning documentary might have done, “Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop” also shows him complaining — at great length — about those very public contacts. The nature of his relationship with his audience is love-hate.
Make no mistake: He never comes across as rude. Far from it. In general, O’Brien’s very funny, even when (maybe especially when) he’s being caustic, which is often. But those two equally strong, though opposing, pulls — toward the crowd and away from it — reveal fascinating cracks in his public facade that serve only to humanize him.
He makes jokes at everyone’s expense: his writers, his personal assistant, McBrayer, his fans. But O’Brien is funniest, and most revealing, when making them about his own fame and ego, his own neediness and self-doubt.
“Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop” isn’t the first movie to observe that a lot of comedy comes out of anger or that performers are sometimes emotionally needy people. It isn’t as sad a movie as “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work,” another behind-the-mask documentary. It’s funnier. But it’s just as illuminating.
Contains obscenity and sexual humor.