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Review: Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop (2011)

Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop (2011)

Directed by: Rodman Flender

Premise: A documentary about Conan O’Brien’s “Legally Prohibited from Being Funny on Television” road show that followed his departure from The Tonight Show

What Works: The best material in Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop is in the first half hour as the film documents O’Brien coping with the loss of his job at The Tonight Show and working with his staff to develop the road show. The best documentaries about entertainers give insight into the performer’s motivations and the day-to-day grind of creative work. Pictures like Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, and the Bob Dylan documentary Don’t Look Back are superior examples but at times Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop manages to hint at the impulses that drive him to perform and the relationship between the man, his work, and his audience. The bits of the stage show that the documentary does include are very entertaining and frequently funny and it does successfully convey the chaos and exhaustion of life on the road.

What Doesn’t: The trouble with Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop is that it never suggests anything beyond the obvious. The impetus for this whole adventure is O’Brien’s termination from The Tonight Show and his anger with executives at NBC. That anger and O’Brien’s desire to stick it to those executives provide the root of his creative motivations on the road show but the film never addresses the specifics of why O’Brien feels he was mistreated or why he was let go in the first place. Early on, the film also shows that he has a vocal fan base who took his side in the very public struggle for control of The Tonight Show but beyond some news footage of protests there is very little in the film that suggests what role the audience had in this or why they defended O’Brien so vehemently. The other major problem with Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop is that once the film gets into the road show it becomes a continual loop of backstage meet-and-greets between O’Brien and his fans with brief musical interludes from the stage show. But the documentary does not include enough footage of the show itself. After watching this film there is no way to really make a judgment about the stage performance. Was it a mobile version of O’Brien’s Tonight Show? Was it some kind of contemporary vaudeville show? Or was it just O’Brien venting his anger before a receptive audience? There is no way to tell because after a brief clip of the performance the film predictably cuts to O’Brien sprawled on a dressing room couch fretting about exhaustion and whining about how he misses his family. In the backstage moments the film documents cameos in the stage show by celebrities like Jim Carrey, Stephen Colbert, and John Stewart and they describe on stage antics that may have been very entertaining but there is no way to tell because the film does not show them to us.

Bottom Line: Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop is a film that does not have enough of the on stage comedy or enough of the back stage drama. Like the posthumous Michael Jackson documentary This is It, the film might have played better as an extra feature on a DVD of the actual performance. For O’Brien’s fans this film is a must-see, but no one should expect to come away from the documentary having actually learned something. 

Episode: #348 (July 17, 2011)