SXSW Journal: ‘Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop’

When Conan O’Brien was fired from his gig on ‘The Tonight Show’ and replaced by the show’s former host, Jay Leno, it sent ripples of shock and outrage throughout the media and general populace. There was a sensation that something very wrong had occurred, and somebody had been screwed. That sentiment is shared by Conan in the surprisingly intimate new documentary ‘Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop’. The film is ostensibly about his summer live comedy tour, but acts more like a psychological portrait of a man driven to succeed and broken when he doesn’t.

The documentary (and subsequent tour) start almost immediately after Conan has been fired. He looks dejected. His long face is worn by disappointment and despair. In a particularly candid moment, he talks about waking up angry about the situation, and the way he was treated.

However, you get the impression that his anger is less directed at the powers that be at NBC (although there is, of course, some of that), and more directed inward. He seems to take a lot of the responsibility himself, and feels bad for his crew and staff who are now out of work. (Allegedly, part of the reason he did the tour was to pay his staff during the period of time when he couldn’t legally perform on television.)

What’s so ingenious about the documentary is the way that it breaks up bits of the actual performance. By the time the movie’s over, you’ve gotten a pretty good understanding of what it was like to see Conan on tour. (I personally did not, so I’m very thankful for this element of the film.) There aren’t large chunks of the movie devoted to the performances, though. Rather, they’re sprinkled throughout. That’s nice because it allows the movie to cover more thematic ground, and to include additional material that might not have fit had the documentary stuck so closely to the performance film model.

Really, the behind-the-scenes flights of fancy are some of the best stuff in ‘Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop’. In particular, there’s a moment when Jack McBrayer from ’30 Rock’ (and Conan’s ‘Late Late Show’) stops by for a pre-show visit. Conan mercilessly mocks him while Jon Hamm, of all people, watches on and is sent into fits of hysterical laughter. It’s one of the most hilarious, bizarre things I’ve seen in a while, and I could only hear a small portion of it because the audience was laughing so uproariously.

In the end, it’s the mixture of the introspective and the completely off-the-wall that makes ‘Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop’ such a magical experience. Had the documentary either been exclusively behind-the-scenes stuff or only the on-stage performances, it would have faltered. Instead, in its encapsulation of both, it offers a rare portrait of a visionary man who fell on hard times… and decided to hit the road.

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