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‘Can’t Stop’: Backstage With A Comic In Transition

Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
June 23, 2011

“If you work really hard and you’re kind, amazing things will happen.” It was with those words that Conan O’Brien bid farewell to his audience last year after his brief stint as host of The Tonight Show, just seven months after taking over for Jay Leno. His sudden departure arose from NBC’s decision to push Tonight back to midnight in order to accommodate a half-hour Leno-hosted show in the 11:30 slot, a move that O’Brien wouldn’t accept. So he said goodbye to his dream job in an emotional speech of unalloyed sincerity, a rare moment that found the host dropping his usual manic goofball shtick and speaking from the heart.

Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop documents the “Legally Prohibited from Being Funny on Television Tour,” a 30-city/42-show live tour O’Brien embarked upon in the hiatus between his Tonight Show exodus and his new show Conan on TBS. This behind-the-scenes look at the tour reveals two things about O’Brien: that his “schtick” is essentially a slightly more genial, practiced version of his everyday personality, and that the deep and abiding love for his work and his fans professed on that final Tonight Show remains a driving force of exhausting proportions.

Director Rodman Flender captures the restless energy of every scene, from the writing and rehearsals leading up to the tour to the relentless activity backstage, on stage, and in the planes and buses that carry O’Brien and his crew from city to city. Not quite a concert film, the performance footage that is included often ends up being the least interesting material, mostly because of the many candid moments Flender’s unobtrusive camera picks up offstage.

O’Brien has been in front of cameras too long to be completely unaware of their presence, and there are times—whether he’s facetiously threatening his loyal assistant with termination over a botched carryout order, or forcing staffers to talk into a banana during a creative session—when it’s clear he’s performing. But as the tour wears on, O’Brien wears down in kind, as weeks of over-commitment and non-performance-related drudgery make themselves plain in his bleary eyes and fits of exasperation.

Nowhere is this more apparent than at a show at Los Angeles’ Gibson Amphitheatre, where O’Brien has to hobnob with media suits and celebs at a pre-show party, and then meet and greet still more A-listers back in his dressing room. (You know you’re a big deal when other celebrities are waiting in line to meet you.) Though O’Brien horses around agreeably with recognizable faces like Mad Men’s Jon Hamm and 30 Rock’s Jack McBrayer, it’s exhausting just to witness all the pre-show socializing, and O’Brien hasn’t even hit the stage yet. By the time a clown car’s worth of his backup singers’ friends and relatives begin piling into the room, one begins hoping for Conan’s sake that someone would just say “no” on his behalf.

But as the title suggests, O’Brien can’t say “no” any more than he can stop his constant drive forward, fueled by an obsessive desire for perfection and the need to give just as much appreciation to his fans as they give to him. Coming face to face with physical and emotional limitations is a sobering realization for him, because as the tour nears its end, he expresses his belief that these two months have brought him closer to the heart of true show business than any venture he’s engaged in previously. Yet it’s clear that if he continued any longer, the chaos of being outside the controlled environment of a TV studio — coupled with his compulsion to always accept one more extra gig, sign one more autograph and take one more photo request — would drive him into the ground.

Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop reveals what happens when he applies the philosophy he articulated on that last Tonight Show. No one on the tour works harder than he does, and his kindness — even under stress, fatigue, and occasional frustration — is tempered only by his need to keep from collapsing. And, just as he promised, amazing things happen. [Copyright 2011 National Public Radio]

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