In 2010 NBC and the Tonight Show became embroiled in controversy. Conan O’Brien lovers everywhere were outraged at the decision to favour Jay Leno’s new program at the expense of the O’Brien hosted Tonight Show. Rodman Flender’s documentary Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop follows O’Brien shortly after his decision to walk away from NBC, and looks at the creation and duration of his ‘Legally Prohibited from Being Funny on Television’ tour. The film offers a candid look into O’Brien’s creative process, and although it lacks much of a point, it is both a funny and raw look at an entertainer who refuses to quit.
The film opens with a few brief exposition segments, detailing O’Brien’s experience with NBC and the Tonight Show. In 2004, it was announced that O’Brien would inherit the Tonight Show in 5 years time. When 2009 rolled around, O’Brien took over the Tonight Show, and former host Jay Leno kicked off his own talk show that would play earlier in the evening. However, after 6 short months of disappointing ratings for both O’Brien and Leno, NBC decided to push Leno’s show into late-night, and bump the Tonight Show to a 12:01am start time. O’Brien threw in the towel, stating that delaying the Tonight Show into the next day would damage the brand, and he wanted no part of it. Leno would reprise his role as host of the Tonight Show in O’Brien’s departure. O’Brien’s contract prevented him from appearing on television for another several months, greatly restricting his professional movements. These restrictions galvanized O’Brien to create a live comedy show and travel the country.
The camera follows O’Brien from city to city, tracking his interactions with fans and his staff, as well as his live performances during the 42-show tour. O’Brien’s humour clearly strikes a cord with younger audiences, who eat up his energetic demeanor and self-deprecating jokes. Before the tour launches, O’Brien speaks candidly about his fury towards NBC’s decision. Although it is difficult to feel a great deal of sympathy for a man who walked away from a job and still received a large amount of money, O’Brien’s passion still evokes empathy.
Love him or hate him, one cannot deny that O’Brien was born to entertain. The man is constantly cracking jokes or trying to make people smile, even when he himself looks utterly haggard. Due to his tireless work ethic, O’Brien notes that he is often hard on himself and by proxy, his staff due to his high expectations. Thankfully, for the sake of the film, O’Brien does not seem to object to be shown in a less than favourable light. We see him doggedly tired, becoming irate with staff, and talking back to fans who refuse to stop taking his picture. Rather than see a one dimensional, always on and happy O’Brien, instead we are greeted with a more complex man, alternatively joyous, tired, furious, and always, always trying to make people laugh.
Despite its insights into O’Brien’s fervent creative drive, the film seems a little pointless, meandering around and following O’Brien on his various public appearances. It’s little more than an observation piece, watching O’Brien deal with the fallout of his failed Tonight Show stint, and dusting himself back off. I think Can’t Stop would have benefitted from a little more direction, rather than just showing us quick snippets of show prep and the shows themselves. A greater focus on interviews with O’Brien, or his staff would have strengthened this character study.
As it stands, O’Brien fans will eat this film up, though it may lack the consistent laughs or insight to keep other viewers thoroughly entertained.