Die-hard fans of Conan O'Brien -- the kind who wear "I'm With Coco" T-shirts and who got cable just to watch his TBS series -- will adore the documentary Conan O'Brien Can't Stop from beginning to end. And while casual fans might occasionally find themselves wondering if a guy who has the mere chance to perform in front of auditoriums of adoring fans really has a right to complain about anything -- even losing The Tonight Show -- the humor and energy of the movie are still too enjoyable to deny.
The film is a tour documentary about O'Brien's "Legally Prohibited from Being Funny on Television Tour" -- a frantic and often hilarious process that begins with living-room writing sessions involving his whole TV staff and ends with exhaustive performances that meld sharp and ridiculous comedy with real, no-holds-barred musical performances involving costume changes, a full band, and backup dancers, not to mention a surprising degree of musical chops from O'Brien himself.
It's explicit from just about the first moment of the movie that O'Brien took on this project as a means of coping with his anger and grief over a morass in the world of network programming that left him without a show (however briefly). Unless you live in a cave, you no doubt know all about the late-night debacle, but to briefly summarize: Late Night with Conan O'Brien aired at 12:30 a.m., after The Tonight Show With Jay Leno. O'Brien signed a contract with NBC to take over The Tonight Show in 2009, following Leno's planned retirement. When the date finally rolled around, though, it was clear that Leno was still beloved by old people and the network wanted to keep him around, so as O'Brien took over The Tonight Show, Leno was handed a new comedy show, The Jay Leno Show, which started airing at 10:00 p.m. However, viewers didn't find Leno as funny during prime time, and his new show suffered terrible ratings -- consequently dragging down the ratings of The Tonight Show, which fewer people were leaving the TV on to see.
So NBC, assuming Leno's fans would come back if only he were on later, offered to push Leno's new show back to 11:30 p.m., thus pushing O'Brien's Tonight Show to midnight. But O'Brien found this unacceptable. His reasons were probably that if Leno's new show wasn't funny, then it just wasn't funny, and it would serve as a crappy lead-in to The Tonight Show no matter what time it aired. There was already plenty of smack-talk going on in the media about the late-night wars, and publicly, O'Brien said it would degrade The Tonight Show franchise to air it after 12 -- pushing it into the next day. He took a 45-million-dollar settlement to be released from his contract (giving 12 million of it to his staff), and signed a deal promising to remain off of TV and radio for the next six months. Hence, the name of his tour.
This premise is provided at the beginning of the movie in the form of title cards, but if you're hoping for any further details on the story -- what was said between Leno and O'Brien, how he was treated by network execs, etc. -- don't get your hopes up. Despite the fact that O'Brien continually talks about his feelings of loss and anger throughout the film, we're never given even a deeper or more nuanced explanation of the how's or why's behind those feelings. All we know is that The Tonight Show was pushed back a half hour, and this was apparently the cause for O'Brien's unhappiness. Clearly, there are probably more nitty-gritty interpersonal details that could flesh this out, but they're never discussed.
That's too bad, because it would probably make the otherwise fun and enthralling journey of the LPfBFoT tour a lot more satisfying. It's generally fascinating to watch people cope with the madness of the road -- complete with choreography, throngs of obsessed fans, and guest appearances by Jim Carrey and the Masturbating Bear. But what's even more fascinating is watching O'Brien and his staff craft and shape the show. comedy writers are an odd group, and they're constantly using humor to communicate. Unsurprisingly, this often amounts to passive aggression, but quite surprisingly, O'Brien frequently comments on this very process to the camera, essentially breaking the fourth wall of his own social rhetoric and admitting to his own shortcomings.
Of course, he also says things like "I am the least entitled person you'll ever meet," which just rings as ridiculous. O'Brien would definitely be better off admitting, "I guess I am entitled. I like being on TV and enough people seem to like seeing me there." Without copping to being a little spoiled, O'Brien's honesty about feeling slighted sometimes comes off as whiny. That's not enough to turn anybody off of the movie as a whole, but it probably won't convert any neutral viewers, who weren't wearing "Team Coco" badges in the first place.
cast-crew for Conan O'Brien Can't Stop on AllMovie
Conan O'Brien Can't Stop (2011)