Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop (Review)

Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop is a 2011 documentary following the legendary late night host as a mounts his 2010 Legally Prohibited from Being Funny on Television Tour, after being ousted from The Tonight Show in favor of Jay Leno. And wow, what a movie. I know that I should technically try to stay impartial towards that whole debacle, especially since it happened almost 10 years ago and the dust surrounding it has since settled, but I can’t help but quickly fire off my very unique, never before had opinion of it: Jay Leno is awful.

There, I said it. I’m sorry. It’s done. Back to Conan.

Actually not back to Conan because those who don’t know what happened with him and The Tonight Show is going to need a bit of a primer for this post/the film.

Basically, the TL;DR for the debacle was:

• Conan O’Brien was promised The Tonight Show when Leno retires.

• Leno retires, Conan gets the show. 

•Leno gets a new late night talk show that doesn’t do well in the ratings, while Conan’s Tonight Show doesn’t perform that well either, likely because it still needed some time to find it’s footing with The Tonight Show’s audience, and because Leno’s show preceded it on the time slot which basically cannibalized it’s audience.

•There’s some back and forth regarding time slots with NBC, which ultimately leads to Conan receiving a settlement to leave The Tonight Show, which Leno then goes on to host again.

•As a part of Conan’s settlement, he’s told he can’t appear on TV for several months. 

And now we’re all caught up. The movie picks up from there, showing Conan prepare and perform a comedy tour to pass the time until his still-on-the-air TBS show gets up and running. It also deals with Conan as he works to process what happened with NBC and, because of this, is in full comedic-catharsis mode.

As a longtime Conan fan (the guy is a comedic idol for me), it’s interesting to watch him act a bit differently than how I’m used to seeing him act on his show. This could either just be because of the change in format from late night to documentary, because of the amount of stress/exhaustion he must be going through from being on tour, or because of how genuinely hurt losing The Tonight Show was for him. But regardless, he seems a lot more on the attack than I was expecting him to be.

Conan has always been known for comedically jabbing his staff members in the name of a good bit on his show but in Can’t Stop, his skill as an improviser and goofball almost feel weaponized to the point of making Sona, his long-time and still-to-this-day assistant, appear visibly upset with being picked on over a botched lunch order.

In another bit, Conan picks on Jack McBrayer (Kenneth from 30 Rock, a show Conan had appeared on back in it’s first season) and his midwestern upbringing which, while initially funny, quickly starts to outstay it’s welcome.

Now don’t get me wrong, both of those bits have some pretty funny stuff in it, and I’m not accusing Conan of being a mean or rude person, it’s just genuinely jarring to watch after years of associating him with being the best self-deprecating talk show host on television.

As for those apparently out of character moments, it’s all up for argument as to why they’re there to begin with. After all, documentary is just one persons presentation of the truth, this could all be the result of a strange decision in post-production or a simple bad edit. Either way, it’s something I found equally perplexing and interesting about the movie.

The rest of the film, the snippets of performances, the (many) sequences of Conan forcing himself through meet and greets, and interactions with the fans are seldom a chore to sit through. Watching Conan play rhythm guitar in a replica of Eddie Murphy’s suit from Delirious isn’t something I knew I needed until now, but I am very thankful that it was something I got to watch in this movie. 

And it isn’t something Conan related if it doesn’t involve appearances from other celebrities. Some of the famous faces that crop up in this movie alongside him are Stephen Colbert, Jon Stewart, Jim Carrey, Jack White, and Jon Hamm and watching Conan interact with them is a genuine delight. I especially loved getting to watch Conan plan a bit with Stephen and Colbert and Jon Stewart before a show in New York at Radio City Hall, which is literally right next to the NBC building. That show didn’t need an excuse to be better than the rest, what-with all the NBC drama and the fact that it was a spitting distance away, but having two other classic late night hosts there with him had to have led to a great show.

I say had to because we didn’t actually get to see much of them on stage with him. As a matter of fact, we honestly didn’t get to see much of his performances at all. While we do get segments showing him performing songs throughout the tour, I’m a little bummed that we didn’t get to see what the rest of the show looked like as… It’s Conan. I would’ve killed to see as much of those shows as possible, even if it was just relegated to the bonus features on the Blu Ray.

That omission isn’t enough to tank the movie for me, but it does feel like such a missed opportunity, especially given Conan’s rapport with… well, just about everybody. I mean, the guy could talk to a bowl of hard candies that have had googly eyes slapped on them and it would make for riveting television.

Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop is an interesting film, and it’s one I recommend to fans of the comedian. But I honestly find it hard to recommend to people who are less familiar with his work as I feel it doesn’t really encapsulate what makes him such a blast to watch/listen to. Conan’s known for his over-the-top remote segments, his self-deprecating humor, and his charisma/chemistry with guests on his shows, which is all a bit absent in this documentary. I feel like this film was trying too hard to show us a side of Conan that we hadn’t seen before, during a time in his life when we would’ve benefited from seeing more of the guy we love, than the guy NBC had rejected.

For people curious about getting into Conan O’Brien and his genuinely incredible sensibility as a humorist, I’d recommend checking out new episodes of his show on TBS, as well as the treasure trove of material he has on YouTube. His team is also apparently working on a website that will curate and host as many previous episodes of each of his talkshows as they can possibly find which is going to be the easiest streaming subscription I’ll ever make, should they charge for it (and they should).

On top of that, Conan’s a podcaster! His show, Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend is the perfect encapsulation of what makes him such a comedic legend, and it also gives us peeks into his life off the air. In a lot of ways, it’s probably the idealized version of this movie and listening to it is always the highlight of my week. He recently just completed a mini-series with another comedic idol of mine, Dana Carvey, which is available on his main podcast feed and is also a total blast to listen to. 

But what do you think of Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop? Sound off in the comments below 🙂

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