When Conan O’Brien lost his prime time show last year, he did what stars in a major career crisis do best -- he took his misfortune on the road. This Friday a new documentary film called Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop sheds new light on the 48-year-old Harvard educated Irish American funnyman.
CAHIR O’DOHERTY checks out the long strange road trip O’Brien took between the Tonight Show and his latest late night gabfest, Conan.
The “Legally Prohibited From Being Funny on Television Tour” was chat show host Conan O’Brien’s two-fingered answer to the contractual stipulation that banned him from appearing on television, radio or the Internet for six months after his last network show aired on NBC in 2010.
It was an unexpected -- and nasty -- career hiatus that turned out to be a personal and professional rebirth, and director Rodman Flender’s cameras were there to capture it all in Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop, the new documentary film that opens this Friday.
It started like this -- NBC executives wanted to increase favored talk show host Jay Leno’s dwindling audience share at his 10 p.m. timeslot. To do this they decided to put Leno’s show back on the air at 11:30 p.m., where he had garnered great ratings as the host of the legendary Tonight Show.
Only problem? The move would necessitate bumping O’Brien’s newly minted version of the Tonight Show to a later start time too.
Network bigwigs wanted to stall O’Brien until five minutes after midnight, putting Leno in the 11:35 PM slot. Leno clearly had more clout with the network.
After months of this insulting corporate tinkering, O’Brien finally snapped. He wrote a letter of protest, but not to his paymasters. Instead he wrote to the people who had made him a star in the first place -- his fans.
“People of Earth,”O’Brien’s public statement began. “In the last few days, I’ve been getting a lot of sympathy calls, and I want to start by making it clear that no one should waste a second feeling sorry for me. For 17 years, I’ve been getting paid to do what I love most and, in a world with real problems, I’ve been absurdly lucky.”
It’s that self-deprecating impulse, which he says comes from his Irish background, that marks O’Brien out in both public and private. He knows he’s a pampered star with an eye popping bank balance, and he knows it would be unseemly to grouse about his troubles when compared to others, but he’s not about to stand by and get screwed either.
“Last Thursday,” O’Brien continued in his statement, “NBC executives told me they intended to move the Tonight Show to 12:05 a.m. to accommodate Jay Leno. For 60 years the Tonight Show has aired immediately following the late local news. I sincerely believe that delaying the Tonight Show into the next day to accommodate another comedy program will seriously damage what I consider to be the greatest franchise in the history of broadcasting.”
O’Brien wasn’t about to get fired, so he quit, thus ending one of the most embarrassing episodes in NBC history. After a 22-year relationship with the network, he hit the road with a 32-city music and comedy show with two aims -- to exhibit his considerable performing skills and exorcise his angry demons.
O’Brien, we discover in the new documentary, is the kind of man who receives compliments by asking what he was doing wrong in the past that you suddenly like him now?
If he can be hard on his team of gifted comedy writers he tells us it’s because he’s he utterly lethal on himself.
But as Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop makes clear, he’s not a controlling monster. In fact we learn that there’s a terrific mount of empathy under his barbs
Born in the upscale neighborhood of Brookline, Massachusetts (a suburb of Boston) O’Brien’s father is a professor of medicine at Harvard University and his mother is an attorney at a Boston law firm. So, although both of his parents are Irish American, we can deduce that he didn’t spend listless days kicking around lower Dorchester.
In fact, O’Brien graduated magna cum laude from Harvard and from the beginning was in possession of the kind of freewheeling, mercurial wit that makes other people look half asleep.
O’Brien is also clearly proud of his Irish American heritage, and he has noted on his own show that although his ancestors came to America in the 1850s they only ever married into other Irish families, making him 100% Irish himself.
Agreeing to the unscripted Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop was a risk he decided to take. Many stars have let the cameras turned on their private lives in the past with very mixed results, but just occasionally they can make a celebrity look even more appealing, as is the case in this new film.
The title isn’t an accident either, because as we learn from watching the film O’Brien is a performer who can’t stop performing, singing, or pushing his loyal staff or himself.
O’Brien excels at improvisational wisecracks, and the new film captures him rising to one of the most challenging moments of his career. The tour sells out as soon as it’s announced, thanks to a legion of fans dubbed members of Team Coco (as opposed to being members of the dastardly Team Leno/NBC) and suddenly O’Brien finds himself given a very public forum to work out his private feelings on a public stage.
He also finds himself having to pull what he calls a “half-assed” show together quickly, now that the seats have been sold.
Working with O’Brien, you won’t be surprised to hear, is not like working for a typical employer. For one there’s his seriously offbeat sense of humor, which enjoys exploding any and all forms of authority (another Irish impulse). This keeps his both his audience and his staff on their toes.
“One of the funniest things he did,”director Flender told the press, “was a full crew meeting. The tour manager gathered the entire crew together and Conan decided to sit in, which was a little odd.
“After a few moments of weird silence and awkward glances Conan announced in a complete deadpan, ‘I’ve been called here because we know two of you are stealing.’ The panicked look on their faces was priceless. Then he burst out laughing.”
O’Brien’s keen sense of absurdity spills over into his attitude to his own treatment by NBC heads.
“Not only am I prevented from going on television,” he tells the audience during the film, “but people who look like me are prevented from appearing too. So that’s bad news for the Wendy’s mascot girl and for Jimmy Neutron and of course for Oscar winner Tilda Swinton.”
Cracks like these cause the audience to erupt in laughter but they come from a place of real anger and defiance, which make them even funnier.
Longtime fans also know that although O’Brien is the funniest man on the nighttime talk circuit, he’s a singer and musician of real talent. One of the surprises of the new documentary is the time it gives to O’Brien rocking out.
For a white guy, he has – it must be said – more funk than many. It’s just one more revelation about a man we thought we knew in a film that’s filled with them.
“You had 40, 000 people in the palm of your hand tonight,” O’Brien’s personal assistant gushes after his final live show in New York. “You were like Hitler,” she adds, “only a nice one.”
In Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop O’Brien emerges not only as a stand up comedian, but also, very clearly, a stand up guy.