Backstage during Conan O’Brien’s “Legally Prohibited from Being Funny on Television Tour,” Jack McBrayer has just stopped by. Before he’s even through the door, Conan is launching into a cavalcade of country bumpkin jokes. McBrayer’s Southern accent, familiar to fans of his character Kenneth Parcell on 30 Rock, turns out to be genuine, and O’Brien’s verbal jabs continue to slap his visitor like he just caught him screwing grandma on the kitchen table on Christmas day. Of all the people we see passive-aggressively maligned by O’Brien’s sarcasm in the documentary Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop, McBrayer is the only one not on his paid staff and is therefore the only one who can properly express slack-jawed dismay that Conan O’Brien is a dick.
Shot by Rodman Flender (whose credits, puzzlingly, include The Unborn, Leprechaun 2, and Idle Hands), the film picks up with O’Brien immediately after his 2010 fallout with NBC and Jay Leno, and follows him straight into the pre-production stages of launching his vaudeville tour across the U.S. As the tour takes off, it’s obvious where the title comes from: O’Brien often comments on his exhaustion and complains he needs time away from backstage visits and fan meet-and-greets–yet he immediately volunteers to jump straight into these and other events. From writers’ meetings to an extra show with Jack White, O’Brien is like a shark – as soon as he stops entertaining he’ll drown in the silence.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, and it makes for some hilarious banter. Yet Conan’s actions don’t reflect his words (and vice versa), and ultimately the jokes aren’t enough to keep viewers from turning sour. O’Brien is gracious and friendly with fans, but as soon as he steps away into his car he’s muttering “get me the fuck away from here,” and that’s not an isolated incident.
To be fair, O’Brien’s tour is grueling and rests squarely on his shoulders. If cameras were around any of us when we’re at our most annoyed and exhausted, it wouldn’t reflect well on our overall character. The problem is that out of 140 hours of footage (the film is 90 minutes), O’Brien is never seen apologizing for insulting staff or for biting the hands of the rabid fans who kept him from falling into obscurity after leaving NBC. Which is perplexing, because it’s obvious that Flender isn’t attempting a character assassination piece: the ending includes O’Brien’s teary-eyed assistant and some final words with the man, and seemingly shoots for an unfounded redemption. One is left to conclude that despite Flender’s attempts to soften O’Brien’s image, this film is an accurate portrayal of Coco.
It isn’t surprising to find out that a comedian is a bit of a jerk in real life (Kevin Smith, Jon Stewart), but it specifically goes against the persona O’Brien has crafted over the years as a self-deprecating everyman who is humbled by his work and professes to live by the mantra “Work hard, be kind, and amazing things will happen.” This film shatters that image, sets it on fire, and pees on it for good measure. Placed within this context, you can’t help but wonder if Jay Leno might be the nicer guy.
In the full light of Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop, the “Aw, poor Conan” narrative that ensued when he lost his show now seems a deft bamboozle of the highest order. The only thing left is the nagging curiosity: What does O’Brien himself think of this? According to Flender in this interview, O’Brien saw the final edit and didn’t try to force edits or block the film’s release. Which is even more puzzling since hardcore fans are the obvious audience for the picture, yet it’s a slap in the face to that demographic. Maybe the whole thing is a grand display of public seppuku aimed kill his public persona and force O’Brien to stop, because your perception of Conan O’Brien will never be the same.