The title — “Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop” — is as much a diagnosis as an ironic understatement in this hyperbolic fugue-documentary that follows the fast and furious comic blur as he burns through some very dark times. Rodman Flender may be the director, but O’Brien is setting the agenda and the breakneck pace.
The film unfolds during the legally imposed TV blackout designed to keep O’Brien mostly gagged for about six months in 2010 after his brief gig as host of “The Tonight Show” publicly imploded. The very messy final chapter in his mostly successful 22-year run with NBC (briefly interrupted in the early ‘90s for “The Simpsons”) — which began in ’88 with “Saturday Night Live,” thrived for years at “Late Night” before infamously ending on “Tonight” — left the comic bitter and at loose ends. Which is to say, somewhere between purgatory and pure hell for a guy whose every breath depends on playing to a crowd.
What was designed to keep him quietly and competitively out of sight while Jay Leno retook “The Tonight Show” reins, turned into a sold-out, cross-country comedy and rockabilly rave. Flender starts when the NBC-O’Brien split is still a fresh wound, that moment when the death of one dream starts to give birth to another — the Legally Prohibited From Being Funny on Television Tour, in which O’Brien takes his humor and rage on the road and Flender takes his camera along for the ride.
It’s a very candid camera, as it turns out, because O’Brien literally can’t stop performing. He’s equally “on” whether it’s the sold-out crowd in Seattle or the “surprise” appearance with Jack White in Nashville on a scheduled day off. On the verge of exhaustion, he can’t even resist the request to sign the bare midriff of just one more screaming fan, or complaining about it afterward.
Just as O’Brien doesn’t seem to have an “off” switch, neither does the filmmaker. On the plus side, it enables us to see the comic not only at his best, but at his worst — impatient, whiny, turning his frustrations into acerbic cuts that sting friend and foe alike. But in never stepping out of the maelstrom, Flender fails to mine the rich access he has for any deep insight into all that raw ambition he’s exposing, something that documentarians Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg did to such riveting effect in their 2010 portrait of another driven comic, “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work.”
This is Flender’s second documentary after a 2004 debut with “Let Them Eat Rock,” and he has a sheaf of horror writing and directing credits as well. In “Rock” he was looking at fame from a distance, through the eyes of a mostly unknown Boston rock band. In “Conan,” it’s fame from the point of view of someone who has it, isn’t always comfortable with it but really does not want to lose it. Much of the intelligent, self-deprecating style that began winning O’Brien an avid fan base years ago is on display here, and the film, like the tour, will satisfy the Conan cravings of hardcore fans the most, and prove an enjoyable enough diversion for the rest.
That Flender was shooting much of the 149 hours of footage himself (and editing too) helps to keep the film lean and loose as O’Brien and his team patch together a show. This is all coming before O’Brien’s talk show deal with TBS existed, and the fear that he might be forgotten can be felt alongside the comedy. You can almost hear the stomachs churn as they gather around a computer waiting for the tour tickets to go on sale. As shows start selling out in minutes, rather than relief, O’Brien just trades it for a new worry — how to make sure the show actually works.
Some of the best fun comes as O’Brien indulges his passion for music — casting his backup singers, wearing Elvis-evoking spangly suits, shredding his electric guitar, gyrating though his parody of “Polk Salad Annie.” Where the cinéma vérité style flounders is in its lack of restraint — a bit more filtering would have gone a long way.
At one point O’Brien says, “I don’t know what it would be like to stop.” You can’t help but think he’d be terrified to find out.