Let me start off by saying that when Conan O’Brien was kicked to the curb by NBC, I was with Team Coco. I’ve got nothing against Jay Leno, but Conan O’Brien is as funny as it gets as far as the late night guys go. And that includes Letterman.
That said, I’m kind of confused about Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop, a documentary about O’Brien’s Legally Prohibited From Being Funny on Television Tour, which was his reaction to the split from NBC. In return for something like $40 million, he had to stay away from TV for six months. The film has the familiar characters – O’Brien, Andy Richter, and even the Masturbating Bear – and much of the manic energy of both of his previous late night shows, but what’s missing is the humor. Maybe that’s the point – the tour was fueled as much by anger as it was by a need to be in front of an audience.
What we do see is O’Brien bitching and moaning about everything from NBC to Jay Leno to burning himself out with too much “ON” time and not enough down time while on tour. It’s O’Brien being human, but there’s also a sense of it being a different kind of performance than being the funny guy. There are no real talking head interviews. It’s shot in the direct cinema style of D.A. Pennebaker, a la Don’t Look Back, the documentary about Dylan’s 1965 tour of England. But unlike Pennebaker’s classic, I didn’t feel like Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop added up to much.
O’Brien’s a hardworking man, for sure. The tour, which consisted of 44 shows, wound all over the lower 48, with very little time off for the cast and crew. Even on days off, O’Brien usually arranged an impromptu show or entertained fans – often to the point of losing his voice. The tour was a wild success, seeming to sell out in every town, with loyal fans waiting and waiting to get some time with the object of their obsession. Through it all, O’Brien smiles for the fans, then kvetches in private. I just don’t know which was fake and which was real.
Watching Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop, I was reminded of Otto von Bismarck who supposedly once said “Laws are like sausages. Better not to see them being made.” Perhaps the same applies for carefully orchestrated comedy tours.