Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop (2/5)
In the second late night wars of 2010 it was easy to side with Conan O’Brien over Jay Leno. Conan was the upstart, the underdog, who pushed his craft in order to create a unique brand of humor that owed plenty to early Saturday Night Live as well as David Letterman, but still refused to be shackled by his influences. He was also, unlike Jay Leno, funny. If you have choice between a comedian who makes you laugh and one who doesn’t, then it’s not much of a choice is it? So the documentary, Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop, which follows Conan on the live tour he assembled following his departure from NBC, has plenty of material to work with. The movie should have been an easy win. And yet, the documentary ends up being an unfocused piece of work that can’t pick a single narrative strain to follow, or even to competently present the few moments of insight it manages to stumble across.
For some it might be a little shocking to see Conan O’Brien outside of his “Conan O’Brien” persona. Any performer on stage or screen is acting, even if that actor happens to be playing his or herself. Conan has fashioned a great character over the years. He plays himself as an anxious bundle of nerves who is at times naïve, geeky, lascivious, and flummoxed. Certainly the “real” Conan is in there somewhere, but when we tune in every night we’re watching a performance, not the Conan O’Brien who sits on his couch to kill a Sunday morning. But in Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop, the person behind the persona can be funny, kind, cutting, vain, and somewhat bitchy. If the only version of Conan you want in your mind is the one who shows up on weeknights to tell jokes, then I would recommend skipping this film altogether. I’m sure plenty of people don’t need to watch Conan O’Brien complain that his assistant fetched him food with too much butter, because he is, after all, watching his weight.
But for those who don’t mind seeing the man behind the curtain, the film has some passing moments of insight, even if they mostly go unfulfilled. At one point Conan explains that he has a habit of telling “jokes” to his staff that are in actuality critiques of their work. There’s an unspoken bargain struck between Conan and those working for him where he undercuts his complaints with humor but they understand that he does in fact want them to step up their game. These tense exchanges make sense. After all, Conan and his writers have been responsible for putting on a show five times a night for most of the year. That sort of output requires discipline, and you cannot fault Conan for applying pressure on his writers and himself. But even if we receive a few insights into Conan’s process, the film never follows up on it. He is never asked who his major influences are, how he came to comedy, how performing late night differs from writing for others.
This complete lack of curiosity on the part of the filmmakers makes some sense, since the film is following Conan on his The Legally Prohibited from Being Funny on Television Tour. Besides, Conan’s actual life seems rather run of the mill, a fact he plays on during his tour by telling his life story in the form of a Southern Blues song of hardship and pain before finally admitting to the audience that he was born to well to do parents in the affluent Boston suburb of Brookline. But the tour winds up being little more than an afterthought. The movie is less about Conan the artist than it is about this specific moment in Conan’s life. For some reason the filmmakers felt that whatever is going on back stage was much more interesting than the pyrotechnics on stage, a tragic decision. There are several moments where we get to see Conan interact with guest stars who have joined him on stage in several cities, such as John Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and Jim Carrey. But we don’t actually get to see Conan perform with these people. It’s as if the director thought to himself, sure, I could show a clip of Conan and Jim Carrey singing a duet, but the audience probably just wants to see the two of them complimenting each other backstage.
And this is the most frustrating aspect of Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop. We spend maybe twenty percent of the film watching footage from the tour (which is, admittedly, really funny) and about eighty percent of the film watching Conan and his entourage snap at each other as the pressures of constant touring increasingly weigh on them. The movie at times resembles a concert film, but with the percentage of music to interview is completely flipped. In another, fairer, universe, Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop is the comedy equivalent of The Last Waltz, but here in our dull little world it’s nothing more than a missed opportunity.