Rodman Flender captures the exhaustion and exhilaration of life on the road in “Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop,” a documentary chronicling the grueling two-month, 30-city tour that O’Brien embarked on after he severed ties with his longtime employer, NBC. The network’s 2010 decision to reinstate Jay Leno as host of “The Tonight Show” resulted in a p.r. fiasco for NBC and stirred up a media dust cloud of outrage against both Leno and NBC. For his part, O’Brien’s ouster from the show left him feeling angry, abandoned, humiliated. To add salt to those wounds, NBC stipulated that O’Brien could not appear on TV, radio or the Internet for six months after his departure.
As much to maintain his connection with his fan base and to keep his creative gears turning as to get his anti-NBC ya-ya’s out, O’Brien dives into the demands of putting his show together. Flender captures the banter between O’Brien and his staff along with rehearsals involving backup singer/dancers, O’Brien’s house band, his sidekick Andy Richter and O’Brien himself as they strut, jam, wail and wisecrack their way through a multi-media comedy-musical revue. “Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop” is devoted largely to the tour itself, documenting in brisk, illuminating fashion the professional, logistical and physical challenges of putting on a road show.
Much of what Flender captures is genuinely funny. Some is flat-out annoying. Rating in the former is the rapport between O’Brien and Richter: Even in their off-hand moments, they’re hilarious together. You can’t manufacture O’Brien and Richter’s kind of comic chemistry; it’s there only in the most enduring and inventive comedy teams. And when he’s on a roll, O’Brien is a brilliant improvisational comedian – always has been – throwing out one zinger after another at anyone in his sights. Scenes in which he’s riffing with fans and backstage visitors like actor Jack McBrayer – who finds himself on the receiving end of an ad-libbed volley of O’Brien barbs – pack unexpected laughs.
Yet the culture of celebrity worship that Flender’s documentary reveals also brings with it the unfortunate side effect of alienating viewers. O’Brien comes off as the ego-driven ringmaster of his own traveling circus while his employees and followers come off as adulating sycophants. So much so that we get the impression that this merry, tight-knit band of industry professionals has found in O’Brien its winning lottery ticket – one that enjoys the fringe benefits of much media and public adoration – in a business where heartbreak and failure is one misfortune away. And these guys are clutching their ticket tight.
As the documentary’s title proclaims, Conan O’Brien can’t stop. If there’s a show on – on any stage or in any room – O’Brien has a compulsive drive to be at the center of it. We see how exhausted he is show after show, how he wrestles with pre-show anxieties and post-show exhaustion and subjects himself to endless self-scrutiny and -criticism. Through much of the documentary, he’s clearly drained yet he finds the will to power through it all. “Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop” depicts a fiercely talented performer who has created – whether by his own labors or his celebrity status – a temple to his own cult. While the resulting spectacle may be distasteful in its egotism and indulgence, there’s no doubting the drive and devotion of a man for whom the world truly is a stage.
Directed by: Rodman Flender
Written by: n/a
Cast: Conan O’Brien, Andy Richter, Jimmy Vivino, Mike Merritt, James Wormworth, Jerry Vivino, Mark “Love Man” Pender, Richie “La Bamba” Rosenberg