In June 2009, Conan O’Brien, longtime devotee of NBC, finally nailed his dream job. He was going to be the host of The Tonight Show, the long running late night comedy show begun by Steve Allen and made famous by Johnny Carson. No longer would he be playing second fiddle to Jay Leno, or so he thought. Conan’s version of The Tonight Show (as well as Leno’s new program) weren’t receiving the ratings the network execs had hoped for. In response, they decided to move The Tonight Show back to 12:05am with Leno preceding it in a new half hour show. Conan refused to continue if this happened, arguing that The Tonight Show isn’t The Tonight Show if it is moved into the next day. So Conan and NBC reached a contractual agreement that ended his tenure at the network. He was to step down and not appear on television or radio until September.
Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop is about this transition period, after the fallout and before his resurgence on TBS. If you think it doesn’t seem like a topic with much ground to explore, given that the NBC debacle is common knowledge, you’re mostly right. The film feels less like a probing documentary that gets to the heart of an issue and more like a concert DVD where we get to see our favorite performer behind-the-scenes. And that’s probably because it is. Between television gigs, in the period when he was prohibited from making broadcast appearances, he went on a 30 city tour, humorously called The Legally Prohibited from Being Funny on Television Tour. The film, in its admittedly limited scope, follows Conan through the planning and execution of that show and little else.
However, the reason Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop still works is because Conan is simply funny. He knows how to make people laugh and has been doing it since the 80’s as a writer on shows like Saturday Night Live and The Simpsons. He’s a natural comedian who can take random situations and milk them for comedy at every possible chance. Because of this, Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop is hands down the most consistently funny movie of the year, outshining Bridesmaids and usurping fellow documentary, POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold.
Nevertheless, those looking for a previously unseen side of Conan are going to be disappointed. Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop isn’t as emotionally raw as some will expect. While you will hear him say a few choice words not allowed on broadcast television and see the occasional burst of anger, it never feels genuine because that anger never goes further than sarcastic joking. For the most part, Conan stays cool, calm and collected when in front of the camera. Despite vocally detailing his emotional turmoil at the way he was treated at NBC, you never actually see it. Since this is a very pro-Conan documentary, you can’t help but feel like the more controversial footage may have been cut to preserve Conan’s image.
Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop isn’t the slickest documentary and sports occasionally rough audio that features a faint whirring in the background, but when your movie is as funny as this, the audio and video begin to feel less important. Conan is a performer and, like the title suggests, he needs to entertain. It’s true that documentaries never fully capture real life because its subjects are constantly aware of the camera filming their every movement, but Conan is such an amiable fellow, you get the feeling he’d be acting out backstage with his crew even if the cameras weren’t there. It can’t really be defended as anything particularly special, but Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop is flat-out hilarious and is a must-see for Conan fans.
Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop receives 4/5