In explaining the concert tour that is the subject of the new documentary Conan O'Brien Can't Stop, the comic muses, "Really, my main goal for this is to have fun." Behind the camera, director Rodman Flender asks, "Do you think you could have fun without an audience in front of you?" O'Brien does not answer. He doesn't have to.
The tour came about when O'Brien walked away from The Tonight Show after only seven months, following NBC's protracted attempt to reinstate his predecessor, Jay Leno. (Perhaps you heard about it). Forbidden from appearing on television, radio, or the web for six months as part of his contract buy-out, O'Briend decided to take his show on the road, embarking on the 30-city "Legally Prohibited from Being Funny on Television Tour."
Flender and a crew came along, and frankly, from a technical standpoint, the results are almost a home movie. But the picture benefits from that low-fi intimacy, catching private moments, candid confessions, and the slowly overpowering grind of tour life--the rehearsals, the travel, the endless barrage of meet-and-greets, the highs and the lows.
L'affaire Tonight reached such a boiling point of media saturation that the film--and O'Brien--risks tipping too far into the realm of self-pity. "I'm really angry at times," O'Brien confesses. "Sometimes I'm so mad I can't even breathe." But he's not a wallower; he seldom talks about Lenogate explicitly, and shrugs off comments on it by fans. However, one of the few times it does come up directly provides one of the film's funniest moments, when a backstage reading of congratulatory telegrams yields one from "Jay Leno," who asks, "What's it like to have a soul?"
Most of the time, if he is angry (and he doesn't seem to be, all that often), he takes it out on himself, suffering from the common comic's affliction of "inherent neediness." After a particularly good show, for example, he receives a compliment, but confides to the camera, "That's me--whenever someone tells me it was amazing, I wonder what was wrong with the other ones."
Again, this is nothing new; the self-doubting, insecure comedian is something we've seen before, though seldom with this kind of up-close perspective. What separates Conan O'Brien Can't Stop from other comic profiles or tour documentaries is that, quite simply, it's very, very funny--a perfect vehicle for O'Brien's responsive, off-the-cuff wit. Arriving at the deserted airport of their first city, O'Brien immediately barks, "Push this crowd back!" When bagpipes play at his college reunion, he notes of the sound, "Why do I always feel like a fireman died?" He plays Bonnaroo, but the A/C breaks down in the "comedy tent," creating an atmosphere akin to "a Native American sweat lodge"--"In six months," he tells the crowd, "I've gone from hosting The Tonight Show to performing at a refugee camp." And then there is his constant back-and-forth with his assistant Sona, who is nearly as good a foil as Andy.
The 1080p MPEG-4 AVC-encoded transfer is, well, a bit problematic. We understand that most documentaries, by their very nature, do not lend themselves to pristine video, and the equipment used doesn't appear to be first-rate. So since much of the video is shot catch-as-catch-can, graininess from underlit scenes and wash-outs for overlit ones are par for the course. More troublesome are the color temperatures in performance scenes, which tend to blow out the image; the hot blues and reds of the stage lighting overwhelm and bleed badly. It's a concert movie--it happens. But it's a problem nonetheless.
The 5.1 English DTS-HD Master Audio track is a good one; again, the audio is occasionally recorded in less-than-ideal circumstances, but audibility is, for the most part, on point. Most of the action is in the front channels, though the rears are nicely engaged in performance sequences--the musical numbers, in particular, are full and robust (especially the intimate show at Jack White's studio). The mix doesn't dazzle, but it works.
English SDH and Spanish subtitles are also included.
The primary bonus feature of note is the Audio Commentary with Conan O'Brien, Andy Richter, Sona Movsesian, head writer Mike Sweeney, and director Rodman Flender. As expected, it is funny (Richter on the "Cocettes" auditions: "We had each of them blood-tested for sass"), ribbing (O'Brien: "This is rare footage of Sona actually doing some work"), esoteric (Richter makes a Frederick Wiseman joke), self-deprecating (O'Brien, oh himself in his undershirt: "That's not sexy..." to which Richter replies, "C'mon, it's kinda Mormon sexy"), and a lot of fun.
Next are ten Additional Scenes (42:07), and while none are essential, there are some robust laughs, some fun backstage scenes, and plenty more good stuff with Sona. Highlights include a bit with his kids checking out his dressing room hot tub, an extended Larry King bit in the writers room (or, as it is hopefully jokingly described on-screen, the "wrtiers room"), and a performance by the very funny Deon Cole; there are also some extra show clips, "courtesy of AT&T U-Verse" (?).
AT&T is also behind the "Interview with Conan O'Brien" (14:26), which is slickly produced, but is redundant as a supplementary--there isn't any ground that doesn't get covered, at greater length and depth, in the film proper. The Interview Outtakes (3:29) are much more fun.
Additional Magnolia Trailers close out the bonus section. The disc is also BD-Live compatible.
Throughout Conan O'Brien Can't Stop, Flender gets at the psychological story--who O'Brien is, why he went through what he went through, and how he used this tour as a therapeutic reconnection to his audience. What he doesn't really delve into (disappointingly) is the sociological side of the story: what the Tonight Show flap tells us about the current (and frantic) state of the entertainment business, about the readjustment, at this very moment, of the popular culture metrics. That's a lot to ask, of course (and even Bill Carter's excellent book on the matter, The War for Late Night, barely scratched that surface). Flender's film, above all, is funny--and that seems to be its primary goal.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.