Most days, Judge Erich Asperschlager can't seem to start.
"I don't know what it would be like to stop. What do you mean stop? What does that even mean?"
The story of Conan O'Brien's fallout with NBC became national news in early 2010. The network tried to push The Tonight Show back by half an hour to give The Jay Leno Show a more favorable timeslot. O'Brien refused, setting up a battle of wills that ended when he stepped down from his dream job (which NBC gave back to Leno) and into career limbo. Conan left The Tonight Show with a large cash settlement, his pride, and a contract stipulation that he not make any TV, radio, or Internet appearances for six months.
During the course of the Tonight Show debacle, Conan O'Brien was elevated to folk hero status by Twitter and a groundswell of fan support. To members of "Team Coco," he became a symbol for integrity in the face of corporate greed, a performer who would rather burn the bridges he'd spent 17 years building than sell out. The reviled Leno might have won back his job, but O'Brien took the moral high ground. But the high ground can be an awfully lonely place.
Facts of the Case
Away from the cameras and furious at his former employers, O'Brien focused his energy into creating a live stage show. "The Legally Prohibited from Being Funny on Television Tour" took O'Brien, his TV band, sidekick Andy Richter, and a host of writers and crewmembers on a tour that covered 32 cities over 10 weeks. Night after night, Conan took to the stage, using music and comedy to thank the fans who had supported him—and director Rodman Flender was there, capturing it all for the documentary Conan O'Brien Can't Stop.
If you watch this documentary looking for dirt on what happened at NBC, you'll be disappointed. Although the controversy certainly informs things O'Brien says and does, Flender isn't interested in the past. He leaves the job of summarizing The Tonight Show fiasco to a goofy CGI video by Taiwan's Next Media Animation company. With that out of the way, Conan O'Brien Can't Stop turns its full attention to the hardest working redhead in show business.
Judging by popular opinion, you'd think Conan O'Brien left The Tonight Show on a cloud borne aloft by an angelic host. Flender's documentary humanizes O'Brien, showing him in all his imperfect glory. Instead of the flame-haired Napoleon shown on Team Coco banners and T-shirts, Conan O'Brien Can't Stop is the portrait of a man whose sole purpose in life is to entertain, whether or not he has an audience. Like the film's title suggests, Conan is like a comedy shark; if he stops performing, he'll die.
Flender's film is handheld and freeform. It follows a loose chronology, but is mostly a collection of moments from the tour. He'll ask the occasional question, but director Rodman Flender is happy to be a fly on the wall, aiming a camera at O'Brien and letting him do his thing. It reminds me of D.A. Pennebaker's classic music documentary Bob Dylan: Dont Look Back, trading Dylan's rock star attitude for O'Brien's improvised comedy. Conan constantly jokes with his writers, assistant, and fellow actors, but there's an undercurrent of anger—directed not at the people around him, but the executives who screwed him over. In one candid moment, he admits to that anger, saying the tour is his way of dealing with it. As confident as he appears in the spotlight, the camera is just as likely to find him sitting quietly by himself backstage. Despite selling out his tour in record time, despite the support, despite the accolades, O'Brien is the kind of person who, when someone tells him a show was great, wonders "what was wrong with the other ones?"
Although Conan O'Brien Can't Stop isn't always upbeat, it is very, very funny. There isn't nearly enough footage of O'Brien's stage show, but what's included is hilarious—including the "Eight Stages of Grief" for someone who lost his talk show, and a bit about people who look like him getting banned from TV. Say goodbye to the Wendy's girl and Oscar-winning actress Tilda Swinton. Behind the scenes, O'Brien is even funnier, forcing his writers to talk into a banana like it's a phone, and fake-humiliating his comedy pal Jack McBrayer.
Conan O'Brien created this tour in part to repay the fans who supported him. The neverending crush of people who want a piece of him makes me wonder whether he regretted it. As accommodating as he is, Conan can't help being annoyed by the sheer volume of well-wishers and hangers-on. It's uncomfortable to watch at times. O'Brien's appreciation, combined with his need to entertain, makes him willing to do whatever fans ask of him—complaining only after everyone has left. Even so, you can tell that he loves it. By not glamorizing O'Brien, Flender shows us an imperfect comedian who deserves respect. In a world of inflated celebrity egos, it's refreshing to see someone who understands just how hard it is to make it to the top, and loves the hell out of being there.
Conan O'Brien Can't Stop doesn't gain much from being on Blu-ray. The 1.78:1 AVC-encoded 1080p transfer is true to a source material that widely in quality. There's a crispness to static shots, but Flender never leaves the camera in one place very long. The camera is always in motion, giving the movie a kinetic feel at the cost of detail. Even so, the minor bump in visual quality is enough if you're thinking about the upgrade. Similarly, the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix is likewise limited by the film process. Dialogue is clear and easily understood, but the surround speakers rarely get used. The mix shines brightest during the musical numbers. O'Brien's stage show is a mix of comedy bits and songs, giving Conan plenty of opportunities to show off his guitar skills on numbers like "Rock This Town," "The Weight," and "Twenty Flight Rock" (played with Jack White at his Nashville studio, as part of a secret show).
If the film's 89 minute run time isn't enough for you Coco-holics, Conan O'Brien Can't Stop on Blu-ray comes with a hefty helping of bonus features:
• Audio Commentary: With O'Brien, Flender, head writer Mike Sweeney, Andy Richter, and O'Brien's put-upon assistant Sona Movsesian (who appears in the film almost as much as he does). It's a funny and informative commentary, filling in a lot of background details missing in the actual movie.
• Additional Scenes (42:02): Deleted scenes can be hit or miss, but pretty much everything here is a winner. This extensive batch includes extended writer's room hijinks; Conan's reaction to a dress rehearsal populated by ex-Tonight Show staffers; stand up comedy courtesy of opening act Deon Cole; Conan announcing his TBS show on Twitter; and more stage show footage.
• Interview (14:26): Recorded for AT&T U-Verse, this interview finds Conan removed enough from the tour and NBC aftermath that he's able to reflect on the events in the film, and his mindset while it was being made.
• Interview Outtakes (3:30): From the same U-Verse interview, this extra showcases O'Brien's improv skills in the presence of a pretty web TV host.
For all the drama surrounding Conan O'Brien's departure from NBC, it all worked out for him in the end. After a sellout tour, he returned to late-night television, on TBS. The whirlwind documentary Conan O'Brien Can't Stop might not have the same urgency as when it was filmed, but it's still a compelling portrait of a major TV star at the lowest and highest points in his career—and like O'Brien's stint on The Tonight Show, it's over way too soon.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Magnolia Pictures
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