Published on July 7th, 2014 | by Clint Davis
Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop 
Summary: The kind of movie all fans would love to see made about their idols. Conan proves to be an interesting subject but the movie feels like it was made by friends and comes off self-serving more often than not.
R | 89 min.
Director & Editor: Rodman Flender
Studio: Pariah | Distribution: Abramorama, Magnolia Home Entertainment
Box Office: $267,965 (#280 of 2011)
“I can’t shut up.”
That’s one of the final lines spoken in Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop, by none other than the irreverent television host named in its title. By the time the words are uttered, nobody in the audience would put up any shred of an argument.
This 2011 documentary, which is now streaming on Amazon Prime, is the type of picture that fans of Conan O’Brien will adore yet it likely won’t convert any of his detractors because well, what you see on his nightly talk show is exactly what you get.
Conan O’Brien Won’t Stop hit theaters less than a year after O’Brien’s TBS talk show Conan debuted. The show is still going 500 episodes later and it’s no surprise as O’Brien has proven to be one of the most successful, respected and original late-night television hosts in the history of the time slot. In this film, director Rodman Flender documented the tumultuous time in Conan’s career that led to his current show, following a highly-publicized and controversial split with NBC.
Anyone who was alive and moderately paying attention to the news in 2010 remembers the soap opera that ended with Conan’s swift departure from hosting The Tonight Show and the way NBC’s executives collectively stepped on their dicks during the whole situation. In the end, Conan got a tidy cash settlement and a six-month ban from appearing on television. Flender’s film opens with a quick recap of the entire situation but the rest of Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop focuses on the host’s subsequent nationwide variety show tour that filled the half a year of restless angst in his life.
Flender’s previous directing credits include episodes of The Office, Arli$$ and Dawson’s Creek as well one of my favorite horror flicks from adolescence, 1999’s Idle Hands. The director and Conan knew each other as students at Harvard in the 1980s, but in reading about the pair online I was unable to figure out how close their friendship actually is. In most scenes of Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop, the subject seems to be wearing a clown’s mask and putting on a show but there are a few moments of raw honesty in which he drops the act and lets his frustration show.
“I might be a genius or I might be the biggest dick in the world,” O’Brien says in one scene after berating a staffer, half-jokingly. Later, Conan admits to Flender’s camera that he uses the guise of joking to say hurtful things to the people closest to him, such as his wife. The man is a father of two young kids, whom we see a few times in the picture but rather than take the six month television ban as a well-deserved vacation to spend with the family, Conan constructs an elaborate live show and takes it on the road with a grueling schedule of dates. Reflected in its title, this movie shows Conan as an obsessive entertainer, undergoing a brutal bout of spotlight withdrawal.
The tour, cleverly titled “The Legally Prohibited from Being Funny on Television Tour,” comes together before the viewer’s eyes from a concept to a full-blown event being performed to capacity audiences across North America, including a pair of dates at Radio City Music Hall. This film is interesting in its depiction of the creative process and the start-to-finish formulation of a live show.
Early on, we see Conan and his production team auditioning for a pair of backup dancers, we also see the writing staff coming up with sketch ideas. The viewer gets to see the process of a joke pitch after the idea is thought up, however this procedure comes off as more than a bit smug because the guys doing it are a lot of well-off guys who used their Harvard educations to write jokes for a living.
Conan has the tendency to be more than a bit in your face, making him a trying subject to watch for 89 minutes straight. He seems to be performing constantly and the joke wears a little thin sometimes but as I wrote before, there are moments of genuine emotion from the comic. Presumably talking to Flender in one scene, Conan says he’s “very angry” about the way NBC treated him after he took over The Tonight Show, he says the bitterness is so strong sometimes he is unable to breathe. However, these authentic scenes are undercut by the amount of screen time in which Conan is seen as a mere jester, sarcastically firing his assistant over her mistake when ordering him a piece of fish for dinner.
A huge roadblock to this film’s success is the constant feeling that it was directed by a friend of the subject. As I mentioned in my review of Jim Jarmusch’s Year of the Horse, it’s dangerous for a filmmaker to be too close to the story they are trying to tell and it proves true again here. Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop is full of good PR moments for Conan. He is shown constantly giving autographs and taking pictures with fans before wiping away his giant grin and bitching about it to his assistant once the crowd is gone. In one scene, Conan helps a teenage fan get into his show at a Canadian casino after he lost his ID. Instances like this come off as self-serving for the host’s image rather than a vital part of the film’s narrative.
Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop is above all, a funny film–which is rare in the documentary genre. Conan’s signature so-lowbrow-it’s-actually-highbrow sense of humor comes through in spades and any fan of his should certainly add this one to their collection. The movie actually left me frustrated that it didn’t contain more scenes from the actual live performances; we see quite a few instances of Conan playing guitar and singing while Jimmy Vivino’s always-tight band backs him, but few of the funny stand-up and filmed bits that were part of the show
In this documentary, we get to see the creative process as it unfolds as well as the stress that goes along with being newly unemployed, even if you’re a millionaire television host with cable networks beating down your door. Do we need an awkward 8 minute scene of Conan hanging out backstage with Jon Hamm and Jack McBrayer? Of course not, but Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop is a portrait of a restless man who doesn’t perform because he needs another Porsche, but rather because he can’t live without doing it.