Conan O'Brien Can't Stop Review
It's been a fairly long time since the whole NBC latenight debacle. But in case you had been living under a rock in early 2010, here's a short recap of what went down:
More than five years ago, Conan O'Brien's contract was running out at NBC. In order to keep him on board and away from competition such as FOX and ABC, who was actively looking to get into the late night game, NBC signed him to a huge deal which guaranteed him Jay Leno's job as host of the Tonight Show. While Jay promised to step out from under the spotlight when Conan's time came, he seemed to have a change of heart when the time of the switch was finally rolling around. So NBC was faced with the exact same problem they were five years ago: if they didn't come up with something, one of their two late night stars would be headed to the competition. So what did they do? They gave Jay his own primetime show, five nights a week at 10PM, and Jimmy Fallon the old Late Night show. It was an ambitious and risky plan, and one that I thought was interesting at first. Jay would offer an alternative to the same old cop dramas we're forced to watch on weeknights, a lighter side to things, if you will.
But the problem is that late night style shows aren't as marketable as dramas, which tend to bring in huge ratings. Show while Jay's show was profitable to NBC, it wasn't doing well in the ratings, and that was affecting the news broadcasts that it would lead into, and, inevitably, Conan and Fallon's ratings. The whole thing kind of blew up in their face, and they were left with a third dilemma. Their original solution to this bind was to put Jay back on at 11:30 for a half hour show, Conan at midnight for the Tonight Show, Jimmy Fallon at 1AM, and Carson Daily somewhere where even less people would see him.
Conan thoughts this would hurt the integrity of the Tonight Show, a staple of the business for decades, and that it was something he didn't sign up for, so he refused. NBC chose "Team Jay", opting to buy out tens of millions of dollars of Conan's and his staff's contracts, in order to bring Jay back at 11:30. People took sides -- mostly Conan's unless you were an NBC exec -- and the whole fiasco led to some classic moments in television, including Jimmy Kimmel trolling the hell out of Jay Leno on his own show, an entire month of David Letterman making fun of Jay on The Late Show, and the best week of any Conan show ever aired that was so raw, so natural, so emotial, the week before he left. In the meantime, Conan was "Legally Prohibited From Being Funny On Television", so he used that name and went on a cross-country tour.
"Conan O'Brien Can't Stop" takes us through what Conan did for those six months, as well as the highs and lows of a man who just wanted to be funny at 11:30 on NBC.
Before we continue, it's pretty important to say that this documentary isn't for anyone. If you're sick of hearing about Conan and Jay, then it's not for you. However, if you don't find Conan O'Brien to be funny, then you might actually be interested in watching this. The film shows the life of an obviously insecure man who doesn't want anything more than to use his talent to entertain people, and the things he goes through to bring that funny to crowds despite all the barricades and hurdles put up in front of him by greedy network executives.
Off the bat, the film maker, Rodman Flender -- a friend of Conan's from their days at Harvard and a TV director -- makes sure that the audience knows that the film isn't meant to air the dirty laundry of NBC, Jay Leno, or Conan O'Brien. It's simply a tale of a funny man going through something he hadn't gone through ever before in his life. In fact, there are few actual references to people at NBC, and never once do you hear the names Jeff Zucker or Dick Ebersol uttered, and the jabs at Leno are very limited. What we're shown is instead a character piece of a man who tries to balance being funny for audiences, friends, and workers alike 24/7, and dealing with his own issues and insecurities, such as vanity, anger, bitterness, and yes, even a sense of entitlement scraped away from him by a television empire.
Instead of focusing on issues past, the film focuses on what it took to put together 44 live shows in nearly as many cities. This was a first for Conan and his staff, who spent 20 years working a regular job on TV. Live shows, however, are obviously completely different. While there are some guests, it's not the simple monologue/skit/guest/guest/musical-guest format that kept Conan going for so many years at NBC. It's Conan on stage for however long. And that had to include coordination, music, original skits, and plenty of energy. Large portions of the documentary are about Conan dealing with a grueling physical schedule that he isn't used to. I couldn't count on one hand how many times they show Conan doing the same strobe-light dance in however many cities.
The film shows Conan going from city to city, being away from his children, and dealing with things he's never dealt with before, like having to host parties BEFORE his shows and meeting entire families of his staff, or inadvertently agreeing to host an entire music festival, and generally blaming his producer Jeff Ross about it.
The whole thing is as light-hearted as it can by, all the while dealing with some pretty uncomfortable scenarios for this half-broken man. Between glimpses of seeing Conan for who he truly is, you see the defenses the same man raises with comedy. Making people laugh, jokingly (maybe not so much) going on power trips, insulting his staff for the sake of his own amusement and even punching them. There's even a good five or six minute segment where he just continuously and mercilessly makes fun of 30 Rock's Jack McBrayer for having a southern accent.
If you like Conan's style of humor, and you want to see him both come out of his bubble while still being well within it, then you're very much going to enjoy "Conan O'Brien Can't Stop". It has laughs, it has heartfelt moments and even some awkwardness. If you don't like Conan, then you might be interested to see what he's like off a late night stage. A lot of the time he ends up being the same off the stage, but nonetheless.
The only thing I wish for is that Conan would take what he learned and accomplished on this team and apply it more to his own show. I hate to say it but his show is stuck in a rut. It's just painfully stiff and formulaic. Conan does his monologue, he does a couple of bits or takes a camera crew out, and then he interviews guests. It would be nice to see him pick up a guitar once in a while and just jam with the band, to see more of his own staff, which can be very entertaining when he does show them, to see him out of his host shell.
In the end, what Conan O'Brien "can't stop" is entertaining. He always has to have his guard up, he always has to be joking, he always has to be in front of the crowd. It's a trait that's gotten him to the highest of his highs, and the lowest of his lows, most of which were well encompassed in this 90-minute documentary, from the low of being in the early stages of planning a show no one had any idea what to do with, to the high of actually pulling these shows off and selling them out, to the lows of travel, of fatigue, of having to entertain people when he just wanted to rest or wind down. And it makes you laugh all the way through, for exactly the same reasons Conan's made us laugh for 20 years and running now -- because the man and the people he surrounds himself with are naturally funny, not the fabricated non-funny we get from people like Jay Leno.
As a final note, this isn't about Conan grinding his ax at NBC and Jay Leno. It's not about his bitterness and anger, although that does come through in this, a documentary filmed over a year ago. It's about delving into the life of Conan O'Brien, his fans and his friends. And that's something they accomplish greatly.
8.5 out of 10