Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop premiered at this year’s SXSW in the 1200-seat Paramount Theater to a capacity crowd who hung on every quip and sarcastic remark that flowed from O’Brien. From its first moments, when Conan shouts out his car window at an L.A. celebrity homes tour, the crowd immediately roared and never looked back, with their laughter sometimes drowning out the following dialogue in the Rodman Flender-directed tour doc. From beginning to end, Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop is a portrait of the backstage Conan, whose offhand jibes work just as well as his jokes on our TV screens, albeit with a lot more bite.
A longtime friend of O’Brien’s from their days on the Harvard Lampoon, Flender followed Conan from the conception of the “Legally Prohibited From Being Funny on Television” tour through its completion, shooting 149 total hours of video. Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop isn’t a concert film by any means (though Flender does provide some concert and rehearsal footage), so if you missed the tour and were hoping for a rehash, you’ll have to settle for small glimpses. Flender explained at the premiere’s Q & A that when taking on the documentary, he was specific with O’Brien that he was making an honest portrait and not a vanity project or concert film. Instead, the movie documents the tour’s production process, O’Brien’s grueling tour schedule, and his interactions with fans. It dispenses with a quick rundown of last spring’s NBC-Leno-Conan showdown with a news animation from Taiwan’s Apple TV, and Flender wastes little time getting to the meat of the story: watching Conan get over his TV-breakup by cathartically throwing himself into the tour, showing his vulnerable, self-deprecating, and often cranky sides. Flender includes interviews conducted with O’Brien immediately following the Tonight debacle when his anger was still palpable, and his genuine disappointment and hurt show through.
While it’s not surprising that O’Brien is funny throughout the movie, what’s most revealing and difficult to watch is the way he flips from grouchy whiner to garrulous performer in an instant, particularly in his interactions with fans. As the tour gets underway, he seems at once put upon by post-show meet-and-greets (“You know what I want? I want to not have to talk to 100 people who I don’t know after a show”), but just as equally disappointed when fans don’t come out to see him. In one of his funniest and more self-deprecating moments, O’Brien exits his plane at the start of his tour and walks onto the tarmac petulantly asking his staff to push back a nonexistent crowd. In another backstage scene, he complains about a pre-show party while outside it only to switch on the grateful charm as he walks in the door. And both these sides of O’Brien appear in practically the same take. Although he had final approval of the movie, these moments stayed in, to O’Brien’s credit. In the SXSW Q&A, he elaborated, “I wanted people to see that there’s a yin yang — I thought as a kid that performers had fun all the time.”
But O’Brien also clearly adores his fans, amiably agreeing to sign autographs or whatever a fan might bring him. A few have him sign empty Pabst cans. One woman asks him to sign her back, so she can get it tattooed. A few others ask if they can pray for him and immediately launch into a prayer right then and there. He even allows a couple fans with a ticketing problem to watch a rehearsal, despite one of them unfortunately using the word ‘Jew’ as a verb. After an awkward pause, O’Brien dryly responds, “I’ll have to overlook the anti-Semitic response,” promising to help if the fan swears he’ll never use the phrase again. Pleasing the constant barrage of people is nearly impossible to sustain, though, and he’s quickly put on vocal rest from too much post-show socializing. Even as O’Brien grouses throughout the tour about talking to fans after shows, it’s clear he wouldn’t know what to do without them, particularly when he insists on signing autographs after his Radio City Music Hall show. When his staff tells him to rest, O’Brien counters that it’s a let-down to do nothing after a huge show.
As its title suggests, the movie highlights Conan’s manic energy as he picks on his assistant, wrestles with his writers, and becomes insecure when his jokes fall flat. (After attempting a banana phone bit that leaves the writers silent, Conan whines “You guys, there’s no support here.”) Later in the movie, Jim Carrey, who made a surprise appearance on the tour, tells Conan backstage, “I always have this intense compulsion to go onstage, no matter who’s onstage.” It’s telling that Flender included the exchange in his brisk 88-minute cut (where, sadly, there is merely a glimpse of Reggie Watts!), because Carrey’s admission is just as revealing of O’Brien. As much as Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop is a profile of a particular comedian going through an especially public crisis, it’s equally a study of performers’ compulsive need for an audience. It’s so strong in O’Brien’s case that he spent his one day off performing in the talent show at his Harvard 25-year class reunion.
Within days of its premiere, Can’t Stop was picked up in a multi-platform distribution deal, which is business-speak meaning distributors have taken note that O’Brien’s fans want viewing options beyond traditional channels. While no official release date has been announced, AT&T U-verse and wireless customers will get first shot at seeing the film before it hits theaters, while Abramorama will distribute it theatrically nationwide and Magnolia Entertainment will handle viewing on demand and DVD. It’ll be interesting to see how these viewing options affect fans’ reactions to the film. While O’Brien comes across as charmingly cranky in a theater full of his laughing fans, I can’t help but wonder if Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop would strike me differently if I watched it alone.
Erica Lies is a writer and performer in Austin, Texas. She doesn’t twitter, but she does have a web series.