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Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop (2011)

by Corinne Rizzo

According to Conan O’ Brien, there are seven steps in mourning the loss of one’s own television show. The first step, according to O’ Brien, is denial. The seventh step is Cleveland.

This is the type of dark humor that surrounds Conan O’ Brien when the bright lights are dimmed and the freckle concealing foundation comes off during Can’t Stop. The film opens with a plethora of charts and graphs that chronicle O’ Brien through the steps which lead to his public dissent, losing out to Leno once again, leaving him without a show. And then a man who was once clean shaven with a proper pompadour appears fully bearded, freckles gleaming and slightly more real than he had ever appeared on television. Slightly more tired, slightly more dragged through the mud, slightly more human.  An underdog if there ever was one. A subculture super hero.

From the beginning O’ Brien describes his feelings toward the discontinuation of his show as anger filled, which sets a cumbersome tone that could potentially make a viewer uneasy. This guy that headed a late night revolution rooted in comic relief appears to have been brought to his knees, though the more somber moments throughout the film are balanced with random clips reminiscent of what fans of O’ Brien’s love about him: getting into costume, dancing an improvised jig or singing a song laden with parodied lyrics. O’Brien does an excellent job of balancing the severity of the situation he’s been left with and the undying passion for getting a response out of people.

Bound by contract to not appear on television for six months after a settlement he received from NBC, O’ Brien almost instantly began to develop ideas for a tour. Technically, the idea for the tour came before the ideas for the actual show itself. After building a team of support to get the show on the road, the film follows the team as tickets for the show sell out in hours leaving heaps of pressure on O’ Brien and the people he has to pay to get this show out of his system.

The entire process is approached in a very similar fashion to creating a sitcom or variety show. A team of writers agree on a set of ideas, they pitch the ideas to people who can produce the show, then scramble to come up with enough material to fill a live variety show. The film shows this scramble through tireless casting sessions and brainstorming sessions where it becomes evident that O’ Brien isn’t just trying to make the best out of a situation. Instead a savant is depicted, showing a constant, unrelenting attention to entertainment.

The time lapse from brainstorm to stage takes little to no time as the first show opens, sold out, in Eugene, Oregon. This is the first peek the viewer has to the Legally Prohibited to Appear on Television Tour and it is filled with lights and music and comedy skits and most importantly, with the full beard intact, a lean, well tailored suit.

As the first show comes to an end, O’ Brien, hunched over and unkempt slinks warily down the stage door steps, sits down and with exasperation comes to the conclusion that he might need to tone down the excitement. At forty eight years old, O Brien, leaping and bounding across the stage, gives it all he’s got, but it’s clear he is no rock star. He is hard working and grateful for his fans. With the close of the first show comes no excitement, no high fives of glory. The first run is a trial run in a writer’s mind and fifty three rewrites are just around the corner.

As the documentation continues fans of O’Brien make it on camera. Some say weird things, some can’t compose themselves enough to say anything that makes sense and some are famous. Among those that O’Brien pairs up with are Eddy Vedder (Pearl Jam), Jack White (White Stripes) and Andy Richter ( of early O’ Brien fame).

Richter’s role in the documentary is overtly defined as he seems to appear during pinnacle moments in which O’ Brien really seems to struggle. When O’ Brien is tired or frustrated or disappointed or feeling too close to feeling sorry for himself, Richter seems to be the only cure to O’ Brien’s brief reality checks, which almost stop him from performing altogether.

O’ Brien hits the stage night after night responding to the audience as if their applause makes it all worth while and one can’t help but wonder why one man would put out so much energy, night after night. But the more the story unfolds the easier it is to see that O’ Brien, as he says, is like Tinkerbell. The more you applaud, the more he responds. And that exact sentiment carries through the entire documentary.

During down time between shows or during small post show interviews or even just sitting at home with his wife, the viewer sees O’ Brien in his everyday life and he is just as witty and on point off camera as he is on television. A scene where he mockingly scolds a writer for interrupting him saying “When Mozart is playing his 9th, you don’t jump in his lap and play chopsticks,” or when he becomes distracted by his wife in the kitchen behind him continually creaks open the door of the dishwasher,he hollers “Are you goin’ to grease that thing?”  It’s obvious feels at home in front of the camera and understands every inflection and expression can be used to reach his audience and O’ Brien doesn’t take it for granted once.

He even captivates the people who work with him. His assistant Sona clearly adores him and every writing session involves someone crying from laughter. But it’s just his natural inclination to take advantage of every opportunity he gets to make his audience laugh that produces an emotional connection with this late night icon. Toward the end of the film Conan expresses that the live show that he has produced was “themost satisfying thing” he had ever done in show business, but he also confides that he couldn’t possibly do it forever. Which is about where the documentary leaves off.

The red operating light on a camera flickers and the bright lights are full on. A gun metal grey, fitted suit strolls out onto a hardwood stage and stops where he is marked to stop in order to deliver his monologue.Director Rodman Flender (Party of Five, Ugly Betty) successfully connects us with a man we’ve all dozed off watching and shows us that while nice guys might finish last, obsessive and compulsive entertainers will always finish first in show. Grade: B