One would have to live in a cave to be unaware of the brouhaha that erupted when NBC attempted to revise the long-planned rearrangement of their late-night schedule by retiring jut-jawed Jay Leno as host of the “Tonight” show and replacing him with Conan O’Brien, the spindly guy who’d been overseeing the program that followed it. Reluctant to lose Leno, who might migrate elsewhere, the network gave him a prime-time talk show, but when it cratered and O’Brien’s ratings slumped, the executives tried to bring Leno back to the “Tonight” slot and move O’Brien after him. When Conan refused, protracted negotiations led to his departure and Leno’s retaking his old franchise slot.
O’Brien got a big cash settlement, but as part of the agreement he had to stay off the tube for six months. So he cobbled together a live show to tour with, and Rodman Flender’s documentary follows him and his crew as they create it and take it from venue to venue. The resulting is a fascinating, often very funny and sometimes quite insightful inside look at the aftermath of a famous television debacle, as well as a revealing, not always flattering, portrait of a star.
O’Brien expresses his own feelings clearly throughout, beginning with his anger at the network’s failure to keep its commitment to him and making his mixture of self-confidence and anxiety abundantly clear. It all comes out in his attitude toward his colleagues—the writers especially—whom he often treats sharply, though he intends it all in a jocular fashion. The footage certainly shows him as a driven, intense personality, and he throws himself completely into whatever he’s doing, both onstage and off. He even attends energetically to after- (or before-) show parties and goes out of his way to meet and greet fans, although at times he might prefer to do otherwise. (At one point he intervenes to help a kid who might not be admitted to a casino venue get into one of the shows.)
The tour takes O’Brien and his crew—including occasional guest stars ranging from Jim Carrey to Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert—from Oregon to Las Vegas to Boston and New York, and even to his college reunion, where he appears in an alumni talent show. His shtick, as his ratings on the “Tonight” show suggest, won’t appeal to everybody—he’s awfully manic, and his humor has a sharp edge—but for his fans the clips included here will be fun to watch.
“Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop” is technically nothing special. Shot for the most part on the fly and sometimes scrappily edited, it lurches ahead more like an immersive experience than a coherent narrative. But it does serve as a clever, fairly satisfying coda to one of the tawdrier episodes in recent broadcast history.