Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop: A Flickcharter’s Movie Review
The first time I saw Late Night with Conan O’Brien was on a small black and white TV when I was a 7th grader in 1997. It was on a cast off TV my parents had stashed in a wreck room that I commandeered because I had trouble sleeping and it was something to do besides lay in the dark staring at my ceiling while alone with my thoughts. In my mind, watching a syndicated sitcom was a perfect counter to thoughts of what dying is like, what kind of adult I was going to be, or any other thoughts that could eventually send my negative leaning mind into a small bit of intense anxiety. No one ever got emotionally overwhelmed by watching Cheers.
I only happened upon Late Night because the TV was already on NBC the first night I turned it on, and I probably wouldn’t have stayed on the channel if Conan O’Brien had not been the oddest looking person I’d ever seen on TV up to that point. I remember two specific things from my first few viewings of his show: a joke bombed in the monologue and he just laughed hysterically at the silence, and a sketch where they made fun of him specifically for having a big head and being pale skinned. I can’t completely convey the impact that sketch had on me. At the time I wasn’t very popular and felt very awkward in my own skin. I would get teased, and most often about having pale skin and having a big head.
I have said to my friends that Conan O’Brien was my Kurt Cobain. That may seem like a weird statement, but I have heard people say things like, “I never would have made it out of middle school had it not been for [insert band name here]” and that sentiment feels a little too overdramatic to me. I can’t say I never would have made it through middle school had I not discovered Late Night with Conan O’Brien. It’s not like I was going to run away, join a gang, and do a bunch of heroin because I had the “no one understands me” mentality. I would have been fine and gone to class everyday and ended up more or less the same as I am now. I only call him my Cobain, because Cobain is the cliched rock star that spoke to a whole generation. Only while Cobain spoke to angst-ridden youths who didn’t know what to make of themselves through music, O’Brien spoke to my angst-ridden self through self-deprecating humor.
That is the context in which I walked into Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop. I felt like I needed to explain his impact on me before the review because it obviously had an effect on my viewing that will be very personal to me.
The movie starts out shortly after Conan was let go from The Tonight Show as he was coming up with the cross country tour he was going to do since he wasn’t allowed to be on TV at all for 6 months. The time period gives us a glimpse of the actual mindset and emotions he had been going through, and at times it can get pretty raw. The audience comes to find out how important the tour actually was both as a source of therapy as much as it was a way to stay in touch with the fans who came to rally behind him.
I had one fear going into this movie. When you have a very high regard for a celebrity or sport’s figure, a glimpse into their personal life leaves the door open that you will see a side of them you don’t want to see. I’m used to the affable Late Night Conan. The one who has a good time with his guests and seems to be a very humble guy. Would I be seeing a very bitter and self-absorbed Conan, and if I did could I blame him? Can my opinion change on a guy who is acting like a normal person when they’ve had their dream taken away from them after only a short period of time? After the first scene I realized that wouldn’t be a problem. He wasn’t sitting in a dark room brooding while talking to the camera about how he got screwed. He was doing the things that made me like him in the first place, making self-deprecating jokes and acting like a goofball. There is bitterness and a sense of injustice in some of the things he says, and even a bit of self-pity. There are jokes he says about NBC or Leno in particular that have a very sharp edge to them but they don’t take over the whole movie. This isn’t a propaganda film to make you hate the people who scorned him, it’s a film where we get to peek behind the curtain and see a guy when he is at what may be the most transitional and exhausting part of his career.
Early in the film you can’t always tell if Conan is unconsciously acting differently because he knows he is being filmed, which is the bane of all documentaries. However, I had no questions about his authenticity once the tour started rolling. Once the exhaustion of constant travel and shows started to kick in you got the real look at O’Brien, at least the way he is when tired and stressed out. You get to see how human he is. You hear him tell people who call him Mr. O’Brien, “Call me Conan.” You witness his interactions with the people on the tour with him. You see him complain about having to do something that was thrust upon him during the tour, and then go absolutely all out when he doing it. You even get to see how damn exhausting it would be to hit his level of fame.
Famous people are generally looked upon by the common man to have great lives, and in many ways that’s probably true. They make good money for being in a career they love,and they get to be friends with many of the other people we put on the pedestal labelled celebrity. However, there is something to be said for anonymity, something that O’Brien would definitely have a hard time finding in America at this point. This movie points that out pretty overtly. Once O’Brien starts touring you see how rabid a fan base can be, and as the tour goes along you can see how vampiric it can become to the celebrity. Conan is great to the fans and wants to sign and takes pictures as much as he can, but when there is a seemingly never ending flood of people it seems quite daunting. There is a scene where he is signing things outside, and after his handlers – for lack of a better term – tell the crowd repeatedly, “no pictures” there is still a guy really trying to get a picture with him. He keeps harassing him about it and Conan jokes with him until he gets into his car, where he finally shows how annoyed he is. I’ve personally never understood why any adult would want an autograph or photo with a celebrity. It’s like they have an intense need to prove to their friends that (a) they are bigger fans or (b) they are much more important because they met someone famous who won’t remember them. It makes me wonder how big of a fan that guy really is. It feels like an actual fan would be considerate about the person they are a fan of and not just wanting a picture with them so they can show all their Facebook friends how hip they are.
There is a bitterness from me here that I fully acknowledge. Part of me has that elitist ‘I was a fan before he was mega popular’ mentality, but this guy who annoyingly asked over and over again for a picture presumably went to one of the shows and I didn’t. Nor did I make a huge effort to go to one. Maybe this guy is a bigger fan as I am, watched his late night show since the first year, travelled thousands of miles to go to the road show, and just got overwhelmed at being that close to his idol that he had to have a picture…or maybe he was just being an entitled jerk. Either way, Conan’s reaction in the car was my favorite part of the movie and probably the truest point of the entire film.
The movie isn’t without it’s faults. I think a sense of timeliness – regarding the Conan vs. Leno and NBC feud – will make it dated it in the long run. If you were to see this movie tomorrow you would probably feel more emotion about it than if you watched it in 5 years. It almost felt a little dated to me when I saw it early in it’s release. Also, the media coverage of the feud was so in depth and lasted for so long that many people might just be burnt out on it. Unfortunately, both these problems were unavoidable.
All in all it’s a nice movie that’s very funny and incredibly watchable. The director does a great job of editing so we get a nice mix of concert, backstage, and travel footage. No point is ever belabored and the audience never feels manipulated. This often occurs when directors include themselves in their documentaries, asking somewhat loaded questions or while doing their voice-over segues. Besides a few moments where Conan talks directly into the camera – whether prompted to or not – director Rodman Flender takes a very Frederick Wiseman like approach by just filming with a fly on the wall style. Most of the time he just points the camera and let’s the charismatic television veteran of 15+ years, and the people around him, do most of the work.
And here’s hoping for 15 more.
Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop is currently ranked #491 on my Flickchart.