Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop being a jerk

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.

-Remington Smith

9 responses to “Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop being a jerk

  1. Though most of what you say is true, I think you may have missed (or neglected) to look at the bigger picture this documentary offers.

    For all the bitching he did behind the scenes, Conan was ALWAYS nothing but TOTALLY kind and professional when face to face with the thousands of fans / VP’s / visitors he had to deal with at (and in between) each and every stop.

    And though I agree that his ‘joking’ with Jack McBrayer was a bit over the top, he has been a guest on Conan’t show(s) NUMEROUS times, and I get the feeling they are very good friends in real life, based on the ‘tenor’ of his interviews with the guy (though I could, of course, be wrong).

    Obviously NO ONE would treat a guest like this unless they were either VERY good friends, OR complete jerks in real life…….and anyone paying any kind of attention to the rest of this documentary would QUICKLY realize that Conan O’Brien is anything BUT a big-time jerk (though he admittedly gets testy at times (though if you noticed, ONLY with those he knows and/or employs) as the tour slowly shredded his voice, and physically beat him down over the course of two long months on the road).

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to be an apologist for Conan…..simply pointing out that even the best of us would probably come off looking bad at times with a camera crew following us around the country for two full months, while trying to grind out 40+ shows on a continuous summer tour all over North America, shortly after having suffered through the catastrophic heartbreak of losing the “Tonight Show” gig…

  2. McBrayer working on Conan’s Late Night show long ago and they are old friends It is a long running shtick between them..

  3. I too was really astounded what a cynical, sarcastic he seems to be. It does go against his persona. Conan to me always came across as someone who came to this somewhat cheesy world of late night TV by accident who didn’t give much thought about fitting in and that’s what made him stand out. Now when we learn that in reality he’s this greedy guy who demands the same determination to work from his underlings wo get paid a wage as from himself who’s a multi-millionaire, and openly says he’s only in it for money and real estate (even if jokingly so), we should ask ourselves if we can still laugh at his stuff, or if we are looking at a masquerade.

    The only benefit of doubt I can give him is that such a tour means extreme pressure and can drive people into this kind of behaviour.

  4. This review suffers from a sense of a child being told Santa isn’t real. Do you think you accomplish a lot in this life from being a self-deprecating pushover? Or for that matter do you think that show business is an endless party? Or for that matter have you ever collaborated on a project in the lead position? It’s demanding, these people are professionals at the end of the day as well as employees. The whole reason they are there is to support the man at the top and he demands a lot because that is what it takes to make something great. It’s stressful and what, are we to be shocked that he’s not the red-headed clown behind the scenes. You don’t graduate Harvard with top honors being a slouch. And you failed to note the honest affection and dedication his staff has for the man, this isn’t toadying, I believe his assistants tears at the end to be from a place of affection/admiration rather than being released from the grip of a madman. And besides people are taking his time but he gives it freely. Its exhausting to have to mount the show and add on top of that people demanding your attention, taking little pieces of yourself and the time you would have had to rest away with them. I believe Conan didn’t interfere with the cutting of this film because it is a frank, if a bit underwhelming and meandering, portrait of an artist at work. And it is work. And if a bit is not up to the standard the man sets then he’ll let you know about it. And that’s what anyone in this industry would want, to be better than what they think themselves capable. And he’s not berrating children for Chrissakes, these are adults after all. You could have saved all of us alot of time by skipping the actual article and just tweeting that O’Brien is a jerk, that’s about all the substance this review contains.

  5. there isn’t a good excuse for the way he treated mcbrayer, or whatever his name is. i was a conan fan, but i don’t see him the same way, just like the reviewer suggests. i got a few real close friends and we joke around in ways that may seem hurtful to an outsider, but you can tell by seeing mcbrayer’s face and reaction that he feels he’s being somewhat assaulted by an overbearing, more powerful person. conan is a jerk. his drive is his, and so is his success, and peoiple rely on him for employment, but his commitments are his too, and were made by him. if he is overwhelmed by his schedule and routine that gives no excuse for some of his behaviour. i am now rooting against him. oh, and it wasn’t funny.

  6. Just watched this and I gotta say, my view changed quite a bit… He’s a real life douche, a fake, a BIG FAT PHONY!

  7. Everyone. Go watch the doc and listen to the behind the scene. Even Jack McBrayer admits it’s all acting. Cmon now.

  8. Conan is known for being a total dick to the “little people”….he treats hotel personnel, maids, and staff like SHIT. I know one hotel that actually warns the entire staff when he is coming. And, the fucker is NOT funny.

  9. Mcbrayer does look Conan was being a little too manac and annoying, but this article completely misses that McBrayer used to work for Conan doing hillbillie sketches on Late Night. Even if their not besties, the two are either friends or friendly former colleagues, and I’m sure McBrayer didn’t go back stage not knowing what he was in for.

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