In 2010, Conan O'Brien famously resigned from The Tonight Show after Jay Leno stabbed him in the back and NBC gave him (and the show) the time slot run around. As part of his agreement with the network, Conan was prohibited from appearing on any television or Internet program for six months. While his return to the airwaves was inevitable, the idea of sitting around and doing nothing for a half a year wasn't an option for Conan, a known workaholic. With that in mind, Conan and his team set out on a 40 city comedy tour with his star-studded "Legally Prohibited from Being Funny on TV" showcase. Filmmaker Rodman Flender rolled tape on the entire affair, recording over 140 hours of footage that was whittled down to the contents of Conan O'Brien Can't Stop.
In my mind, there are three types of documentaries:
1.) Informative/investigative documentaries - These are the documentaries that generally get the most attention. The idea is to bring light to the truth of a given situation or event and usually involves background information and often interviews with the subjects. Joan Rivers: Piece of Work would be a recent example. Another would be my favorite documentary of all-time and my pick for best film of 2009, It Might Get Loud.
2.) Faux-umentaries - A documentary that is clearly scripted, at least in part. Think Catfish, I'm Still Here, or even some parts of Waiting For Superman.
3.) "Turn the camera on and see what happens" documentaries - To be clear, this is an element of almost every documentary. Perhaps the best part of It Might Get Loud is when Jimmy Page, Jack White, and The Edge sit around in front of a camera and simply talk about music. But whereas other docs might take it a step further and delve into the details of the subjects past or a given event, this category of films stays at home and lets the subject do the storytelling, so to speak.
Can't Stop falls into that third group of docs. At the outset, a few simple sentences are splashed across the screen describing the events that led to the "Legally Prohibited" tour and from there on out, it's just Conan and his team going through their day-to-day lives on tour. And what very strange lives they live! One minute Conan pitches the idea of a tour, the next the shows are all sold out (the one in Dallas was sold out before I could log into Ticketmaster) and he's taking dancing lessons, fine tuning his guitar chops, and developing new bits with his team of writers. Before long, they're on the road, jumping from place to place taking shots at Jay Leno and working with a litany of celebrity guests from Eddie Vedder to Jim Carrey. It is the behind-the-scenes footage, however, that Flender focuses on the most.
Above all else, Can't Stop is incredibly honest. It does not pull any punches or attempt to paint Conan in a positive light. In fact, there are plenty of moments in which Conan comes off as a jerk and a demanding one at that. Much of Conan's humor is of the self-deprecating variety and his work ethic is legendary and the truth is, those two traits often make one a sarcastic and sometimes harsh employer. It isn't that he's mean-spirited but rather that he's made a living for 20 years making fun of others and pushing himself to be funny all the time. That doesn't happen without making a mark on your life. To their credit, you get the impression that all those around him know this and have accepted it. And as an audience, you must remember that when Can't Stop was being filmed, Conan had only just been booted from the network where he'd worked for almost two decades. There is an undercurrent of depression and anger that runs through the film and while it never boils over or becomes the center of attention, it is a pretty big supporting player that has a little more to do with the man's mood than might seem readily apparent.
At the same time, Conan's affection and understanding for his fans shines through throughout the film's runtime. He takes the time to sign every item that is pushed in front of him and heads out into the masses even when his handlers tell him not to. In his trailer he complains about the toll all the handshaking and storytelling has taken on him but when push comes to shove, he jumps right back into it on each and every leg of the tour. Conan has built a rapid fan base over the years and what sets him apart from Letterman, Leno, and the rest is his endearing understanding and appreciation for those who have made him popular. As a lifelong and loyal Conan fan, it is this quality that keeps me coming back for more, whether he's at NBC, TBS, or BET and a big part of what makes Can't Stop so engrossing.
And while there is certainly some creative editing at work, Can't Stop does a wonderful job of displaying Conan's greatest strength (and maybe his biggest weakness): he cares. He cares what his friends think, what his family thinks, and perhaps most of all, what his fans think. It is this caring that drives him, that pushes him to the edge of sanity at times. It is also what makes him successful and what will probably kill him at some point, hopefully many years in the future. Like so many performers, the stage, whether it be a late night television program or a tent at Bonnaroo, is where he gets affirmation and at least part of his self-worth. While neither he nor anyone involved with Can't Stop comes right out and says this, it becomes clear that in many ways, Conan needs his fans as much if not more than his fans need him. This is why the title of the film is Can't Stop rather than Won't Stop or Doesn't Want to Stop. It is an excellent, well-made film and its subject rivals even the best documentaries in terms of complexity and intrigue.