AUSTIN, Texas -- "Conan O'Brien Can't Stop" made its world premiere on Saturday at the South By Southwest festival, and if the audience reaction at the Paramount Theater is predictive of the documentary's success in wide release, the film, which is directed by Rodman Flender, will be an unqualified pleasure for fans of O'Brien and film fans alike.
The story of Conan O'Brien's departure from "The Tonight Show" after only seven months has already become the stuff of legends. In 2010, as O'Brien's stint hosting the venerable talk show came to an end prematurely, he took not a moment to rest. Near the beginning of the documentary, O'Brien expresses confusion with the idea of "stopping." So it's natural that on the very last taping of "The Tonight Show," his mind was already thinking about what would come next. What resulted was a 32-city "Legally Prohibited From Being Funny On Television Tour," a vaudevillian comedy and music show that gave O'Brien, sidekick Andy Richter, his live band and other staff members an opportunity to stay active while their future on television was indefinite.
O'Brien's greatest gift is arguably his ability to channel his naturally manic energy into crisp, pointed comedy. The Conan O'Brien displayed in "Conan O'Brien Can't Stop" -- a film which is essentially 89 minutes of O'Brien comically riffing with (and on) his friends, co-workers, family and strangers -- exhibits this characteristic more fully than his television persona. Fans of O'Brien may have long suspected that his comic schtick is hardly an artifice, and that he's nearly always "on" whether the cameras are rolling or not. These suspicions are proven accurate in the documentary, with O'Brien throwing out quips and improvising elaborate comic landscapes as a function of his personality.
At the Austin screening, the sense in the room prior to the film seemed to be unsure what the audience was about to see: a melancholic portrait of a comedian during a time of crisis, or a documentation of a comedy tour.
In addition, the headlines generated from the "Tonight Show" debacle often overshadowed O'Brien's skill as a comic. The film opens with O'Brien giving an interview while he drives around Los Angeles, and on a whim decides to confuse a bus of Los Angeles tourists by drawing attention to himself, frantically waving and shouting his name as he drives past them. The instantaneous roar from the audience diffused any doubt that the film would aim to be anything less than a celebration of O'Brien's nonstop, unflinching, artful approach to comedy.
But that's not to say that the film is without glimpses into the less funny shades of O'Brien's life and career. The legal arrangement of O'Brien's divorce from NBC, specifically with regard to publicly disparaging individuals or the network, was never made entirely clear to the public, but "Conan O'Brien Can't Stop" includes the harshest words about NBC yet heard from O'Brien and his team. He mocks Jay Leno backstage before a show (O'Brien recites a fake telegram from Leno: "What's it like to have a soul?") and implies, without naming names, who he blames squarely for the disastrous late night wars. (It should be noted that much of the film was shot a year ago, so many of the sentiments expressed may have long since expired.) O'Brien's exasperation and impatience becomes visible as the tour goes on, but never does the comedy stop flowing. Even after a particularly grueling performance at Bonnaroo marred by miscommunication and sweltering temperatures, O'Brien scores perhaps the biggest laugh of the film with an extended bit in which he brags to anyone within earshot that he introduced Nas and Damien Marley.
"Conan O'Brien Can't Stop" does not claim to be a biographical film about Conan O'Brien, but in documenting a contentious time in O'Brien's life and career in which the stakes were at an all-time high and his back was up against a wall, a poignant portrait of a man who knows no other M.O. in life than to make people laugh.