In the court of public opinion, Conan O’Brien clearly emerged victorious in NBC’s mishandling of him, Jay Leno, and “The Tonight Show.” (I suppose there are people who took Leno’s side in the debacle, but they comprise a small minority, and I prefer to pretend they don’t exist.) “Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop,” a documentary chronicling last spring’s live tour, will add to that goodwill — not because it’s self-congratulatory and fawning, but precisely because it isn’t. Our beloved ginger beanpole, though essentially decent and good-hearted, is revealed to have flaws and rough edges. This only makes us admire him more.
Like Conan himself, the movie is almost unceasingly funny, often pointedly so. If you wondered whether he was angry about losing “The Tonight Show,” seeing his unguarded observations about (and devastating impersonation of) Leno will clear that right up. Instead of growing bitter, though, Conan funneled his emotions into the “Legally Prohibited From Being Funny on Television” Tour. The hectic process is nerve-racking for him, and it’s fascinating to see how a person who is naturally funny uses humor to cope with crises. When things get frustrating in the writers’ room at one point, Conan decrees that no one can speak unless he or she is using a banana for a telephone. He’s being silly … but he also enforces the rule.
The doc (directed by Rodman Flender) uses the tour as its framework and includes footage from it, but the primary focus is behind the scenes, where Conan’s compulsive need to perform takes its toll on his well-being. He did 42 shows in 33 cities in 64 days, AND did meet-and-greets with VIP ticket holders, AND appeared in a talent show at his 25th anniversary college reunion — all because, well, he can’t stop. Yet he doesn’t come across as some “woe-is-me” prisoner of fame, the way wealthy celebrities who grumble about work often do. On the contrary, this illuminating glimpse into the frantic, complicated mind of a performer evokes sympathy. When Conan vents annoyance at having to meet and take pictures with all the family and friends of the show’s backup singers — after a show, when he’s already exhausted, and with the singers clearly having taken advantage of his kindness — we’re right there with him.
The tour becomes a grind, as such things tend to. “It’s almost over,” someone reassures him. “That’s what they said to Anne Frank,” he replies. But Conan keeps in high spirits by delivering energetic performances in every city, and by clowning around on the road with his crew and staff members, and verbally sparring with his assistant, Sona, who’s nearly as quick on the draw as he is. Apart from being a hilarious backstage story, “Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop” is a reminder that the only people who succeed in comedy are the ones who have hustle.
B+ (1 hr., 29 min.; )