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Tragic as it may be, turning to drugs and dying an early death is an all too common thing among comedians. From John Belushi to Mitch Hedberg, Lenny Bruce to Chris Farley, one can only imagine the pressures that comes with feeling the need to be entertaining every minute of your life. Conan O’Brien, however, is not a cocaine or heroin abuser. A television host since the early 90s and a family man, O’Brien’s drug is performing, and when The Tonight Show was taken away from him in early 2010, he went into his own special form of withdrawal that resulted in a countrywide tour and a fascinating psychological study in the form of the Rodman Flender-directed documentary Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop.
Beginning immediately after the events that resulted in the lanky Irish comedian being “legally prohibited from being funny on television,” the film begins with O’Brien in his mourning stage, feeling support from his fans but also furious at the network executives at NBC that took away the job that he loved and worked his entire life to get. Compelled to get back in front of an audience again, O’Brien, his writers and his friends begin planning a 42-show comedy tour that would take him to 32 cities across the country in a little over two months. The movie looks at the star both on and off the stage, crafting an incredible portrait of a man who lives to entertain.
What’s most compelling about Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop is the relationship between the man and his fans. While endlessly appreciative of everything his supporters did while he was doing battle with the suits, O’Brien is frequently shown as being completely exhausted and drained by those both wanting and needing his attention. The crippling problem is that he is always acquiesces to any request, no matter how much it might take out of him. There are countless examples throughout the documentary of the comedian expressing just how tired he is before seeing fans that want to meet him and then going out to shake hands and sign autographs. What’s incredible about this, though, is that he never seems to be eating shit with a smile. Rather, he truly enjoys every moment. It’s hard to imagine given his amicability, but there is not a single phony bone in Conan O’Brien’s body.
But while the deeper, more psychological elements will be what you’re thinking about walking out of the theater, the film is, as can be expected, truly hysterical. Though the humor is generally darker than what we usually see from O’Brien on television, it’s actually the meaner jokes that get the most laughs. The jokes never feel like their coming from a bad place – I hesitate the define the style as “mean spirited” as it’s not O’Brien’s intent – and audience members may actually find themselves laughing a little too hard as the star absolutely rips into 30 Rock star Jack McBrayer when he comes by to wish O’Brien luck or makes one of his staff members speak into a banana like it’s a phone. It all balances out with plenty of self-deprecating humor. Conan is never afraid to make fun of his own foibles, situation, persona or appearance.
What’s important to note is that Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop is not simply a love letter to the entertainer. While the documentary exists for the simple reason that O’Brien is a beloved figure and brilliant at what he does, Flender doesn’t shy away from moments that don’t show his star in a great light. At times Conan’s anger comes out and he can’t help but express his frustration, and these are the scenes where the audience gets the real, well-rounded look at the talk show host as a person. Viewers won’t walk away with a soured view of the man, but they will have a deeper understanding of who he really is once he goes back behind the curtain.
While it does have its problems, largely limited to pacing and choppy editing (particularly in the beginning of the film), Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop is a truly fantastic documentary. The film provides a wonderful insight into one of the most interesting performers working today during his most troubled period, stimulating questions about the entertainer’s mental state while also providing uproarious laughter. By the end, you can’t help but be happy that he has his own show again.