Conan O'Brien wasn't legally prohibited from being funny on stage.
“Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop” just might be the most entertaining therapy session ever filmed.
The documentary film follows O’Brien as he bounces back from his biggest – and very public – career setback, when he was controversially replaced as the host of “The Tonight Show” by his predecessor Jay Leno after just seven months on the job.
Shot by filmmaker Rodman Flender, a friend and former Harvard classmate of O’Brien’s, “Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop” traces the unexpected, phenomenally popular concert tour the host mounted while legally prohibited from appearing on television which, as the film reveals, allowed him to work through the disappointment, frustration and apparent pain he experienced and reconnect with what he does so well: entertain people.
“I have all this energy and I really need to be in the harness – I need to be working,” O’Brien tells PopcornBiz. “I love to get out in front of people and entertain them. So very quickly, this tour came up. I had someone say ‘Who designed this campaign of how you’re going to respond to all this?’ And I said ‘Nobody.’ Everything felt like ‘Okay, now let’s do this; let’s do that.’”
“The last Tonight Show we ended with Free Bird with Will Ferrell and this lineup of great rock musicians,” said O’Brien of the genesis of the tour plan. “I remembered how that show ended, and I said ‘That was fun. I like playing the guitar. I like singing rockabilly music. I’m not allowed to appear on television, but what if I went on tour?'"
“I’ve had some people say to me ‘Isn’t this great that you got to have a year off?’ And I don’t remember a year where I’ve worked harder than the last year.”
“I think that is part of his nature,” Flender, whom O’Brien tapped to follow him as the show was assembled and performed, told PopcornBiz. “He's just a genuinely very funny guy and how he uses humor and comedy to deal with disappointment and anger and setbacks. That's who he is and that's what interested me.”
Flender says he made it clear to O’Brien from the outset that anything he ended up capturing on camera during the process would have to be fair game for the final documentary. “Right from the get go I told him when I pitched this documentary project to him, I said, 'I'm not interested in making a quote-unquote Conan O'Brien product,’” says Flender. “’I don't want to do something that might seem like it came out of your publicity machine. I don't want to do a Valentine to you. Once he accepted that and knew that's what I was going for, he was fine.”
One of the film’s more amusing elements is O’Brien’s frequent complaining about being constantly required to do this meet-and-greet or that photo opp, yet he also grabs every opportunity to be “on” for the smallest audience even when no one forces him to. “That's why I came up with the title,” said Flender. “The title directly speaks to that inability to stop. As tired as he gets or as much as he resents that, he'll still go out and sign every autograph and give and give and give every fan what he can.”
As the film progresses, it becomes clear that O’Brien is both creatively and emotionally energized by the evolving, free-form nature of the tour. Indeed, the host chose to embrace mining for “found comedy” and bring it to his subsequent TBS talk show.
“On tour I’d be out there every night and big rooms,” said O’Brien. “There’d be a top of the show where we obviously had bits that we worked out but the top of the show really evolved. It went from more of a set, here are some jokes that I’m going to do, but then by halfway through the tour I was sort of just prowling up and down the stage and talking and finding things much more in the moment. I’ve always liked that.’”
In the end, O’Brien admits he came out of the on-the-road odyssey with a new perspective. “I think there’s a feeling that came out of the tour probably of just confidence in the moment and confidence in that I’ve been here doing this a long time and my goal is not to do this forever,” he said. “I just want to do it really well, as well as I can possibly do it, for a period of time until I have nothing left to say and then go away. I think that’s a feeling that came from the tour to a certain degree which is just ‘People are here, this is a moment, it’s visceral – be in this moment and play with it.’”
"Conan O'Brien Can't Stop" opens in limited release today