Five Things I Learned Watching Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop

by Andrew Osborne


Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop is a documentary (in limited release today) about The Legally Prohibited From Being Funny On Television Tour, the musical road show that kept Team Coco occupied in the months between leaving The Tonight Show and finding a new home on basic cable.  And the wounds suffered by O’Brien and his staff in their skirmish with NBC are still very fresh as the film begins.  Yet some may have trouble sympathizing with O’Brien’s onscreen bouts of self-pity, especially given the eight-figure severance package he received as compensation for the damage inflicted on his career (and ego).  Not only that, but looking back on the controversy now, it’s hard to argue with the facts that arch-rival Jay Leno’s ratings were simply better and O’Brien’s ouster from the network was essentially self-inflicted.  As Jerry Seinfeld notes in The War For Late Night (Bill Carter’s juicy insider chronicle of the kerfuffle), “…your show isn’t working—how about a new idea? […] All of this ‘I won’t sit by and watch the institution damaged.’ What institution?  I thought he should just say, ‘Yeah, let me go at midnight.'”


Of course, Team Coco supporters argue their hero deserved The Tonight Show because he’s way funnier than Jay Leno…and director Rodman Flender’s all-access peek into the ginger comedian’s life certainly provides ample proof of the claim.  From onstage bits with special guest stars like Jim Carrey and Stephen Colbert to unmerciful backstage teasing of celebrity pals like Jack “Kenneth the Page” McBrayer and weary, pissed-off wisecracks in the wee hours of the morning, it’s clear that O’Brien is a bottomless pit of comic invention.  (Yet even so, his sardonic sidekick Andy Richter and bemused personal assistant Sona Movsesian still manage to steal the documentary away from him just about every time they appear.)


As a kid from a well-off family who went to Harvard and then landed just about every dream job in Hollywood (Saturday Night Live, The Simpsons and, of course, his very own show), O’Brien is clearly aware of (and grateful for) his good fortune.  At the same time, his smug, entitled dark side is on full display in the film as he bullies and berates co-workers (in that “good-natured” way underlings have to laugh off publicly whenever the boss is doing it).  And in true prima donna fashion, he bitches angrily on-camera about the imposition of having to meet-and-greet the friends and family of the Coquettes, i.e., the dancers backing him up in the exhausting, self-glorifying show he imposed on himself – though he’s all smiles when he eventually shows up for that (and similar) bantering autograph sessions.


To his credit, O’Brien is self-aware enough to realize how he comes across, and his frequent self-deprecation is just as sharp as anything he dishes out.  During an onstage mock-blues number with the Coquettes, he sings about the “struggle” of his affluent upbringing, and acknowledges the irony of performing his live show at midnight after refusing to move his network show to the same hour.  Most telling, however, is his willingness to grant Flender’s cameras full access to his life for a truly warts-and-all portrayal.  All of which leads to the inescapable conclusion that…


And, no, I’m not talking about the comedian’s on-and-offstage jam sessions with the likes of Eddie Vedder and Jack White throughout the film.  By “rock star,” I mean Flender’s documentary is a fascinating portrait of a man with precisely the sorts of larger-than-life qualities that separate audiences from icons.  Coco may have started out with certain advantages, but his extraordinary talent, charisma, anger and insatiable drive are clearly the elements that made him unstoppable.


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