Tuesday, June 26th, 2012

Getting Introduced to Conan's Dark Side in 'Conan O'Brien Can't Stop'

It’s no secret that sometimes comedy is taken a bit too seriously. Comedy obsessives love not just the jokes, but the mechanics and emotions of the comedy world. There are a raft of comedy documentaries exploring comedy and comedians, but do they really have anything significant to add to the discussion? This series looks at comedy documentaries and whether they’re interesting, insightful, and possibly even…funny?

There are few comedy documentaries as prominent as Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop. Then again, there are few comedy personalities as big as Conan O’Brien, and few comedy stories as notorious as his memorable departure from The Tonight Show in January of 2010, when comedy nerds and ordinary folk alike were fixated on the drama engulfing one of the most respected comedy institutions in the country.

The documentary follows O’Brien as he hits the road with his Legally Prohibited from Being Funny on Television Tour. The film’s focus is on O’Brien’s astonishing work ethic and drive; planning the next stage of his career began on the day of his last Tonight Show. “I don’t know what it would be like to stop,” he says early on. “What do you mean, stop? What does that even mean?”

But the real thesis of the film comes a bit later. “I might be a fucking genius and I might be the biggest dick ever. I don’t know. Or maybe both.” There is certainly ample evidence to support both sides. On the genius end, his boundless energy is incredible, and he’s genuinely funny even when he’s exhausted. Though the film can’t use any material from his NBC shows, “genius Conan” has been seen on TV for years.

But it’s his showmanship that also brings out his worst side. Even when he’s tired, cranky, and bitter, he can’t help but entertain the legions of well-wishers and friends who want to see him. How awful it must been have been for anyone he met on that tour to watch this documentary. In person, he seemed so happy to see everyone; in the film, he can’t stop talking about how much he hates it. It’s especially true of a staged birthday party, where he walks towards the room complaining about how it’s “exactly the opposite of what I would have wanted,” then exclaims, “This is great!” as he enters the party.

His nastiness is a result of a Hollywood-stroked ego. There are many times in the film when O’Brien wants sympathy for his brutal schedule, but it’s hard to feel too bad for anyone in a private jet, especially someone who, over the course of the documentary, compares himself to Mozart, Napoleon, and Anne Frank.

The film’s biggest strength is that it’s so intimate that the viewer becomes, in a sense, an expert in “Conanese.” When a wardrobe guy is showing him clothing options and says he can pick whatever he likes, he snaps in “on” Conan-style, “Don’t talk to me like I’m a child.” He then immediately downshifts. “Don’t put up with it, just stand up for yourself.” And, in that moment, I actually do feel sorry for him. He is a genius, and a dick, and he can’t stop being either one.

And so, in conclusion…

Is it interesting? Absolutely. It helps that the portrayal of O’Brien is far from reverential — it would be hard to blame anyone for disliking him by the end of the film. Some people seemed taken aback by the darker, crueler side of O’Brien revealed in the film, but it feels like a natural flip side to the goofy string-dancer of late night.

What does it have to say about comedy? Comedy, interestingly enough, isn’t a major focus. O’Brien’s writers are around a lot, but we don’t seem much of them actually writing. It gives the impression that being funny is the easy part for him; the rest of the job is the struggle.

Is it funny? There are some cute gags, both intentional ones like O’Brien pretending to receive a telegram from Jay Leno that finishes with the line, “What’s it like to have a soul?”; and unintentional jokes like him confidently telling his producers, “We’re not going to TBS.” But overall, the film isn’t too concerned with being comical.

Can I stream it on Netflix? Yes!

Any comedy documentaries you’d like to see discussed? Do let me know.

Elise Czajkowski is a freelance journalist in New York City. She naps frequently.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/jasonfarr Jason Farr

    I think "dick" is a really too harsh a word to describe him.  I've seen that documentary a half dozen times at least and even in moments like that I don't take it as seriously as others have apparently. I've read "he's a dick" or some form of that in one or maybe two other reviews and I just think, in print, it makes those moments sound a lot worse than they are.  
    I think people will see the movie expecting to end up disliking him or thinking they'll see something much worse than what is there given the framing of reviews like this.  (Not that it's a poorly expressed one – good writing for sure on your part).  I just mean to say I think he came off jovial in moments like "Don't talk to me like I'm a child."  Yeah, he's acerbic and caustic, but in that "rye sense of humor" kind of way that would happen when someone grows up in a big ol' Irish family…and it's always funny when he does it.  He's not ugly to people like a "dick" actually is.  Ya know what I mean?

    • Donna

      Well said.

    • TJ O'Pootertoot

      "Yeah, he's acerbic and caustic, but in that "rye sense of humor" kind of way that would happen when someone grows up in a big ol' Irish family…"
      He's far from the stereotype of growing up in a big ol' Irish family – he's a rich kid:

      "O'Brien was born in Brookline, Massachusetts (a suburb of Boston) to Thomas O'Brien, a physician, epidemiologist, and professor of medicine at Harvard,[5][6][7] and Ruth O'Brien (née Reardon), an attorney and partner at the Boston firm Ropes & Gray.[8] He is the third of six children." 

      This actually crystallizes a problem I have with his comedy. In one scene, he vamps over some blues chord progression about his upbringing, which was extremely privileged. Using the art form associated with hard luck to extoll one's good luck is not funny, it's tone deaf, at best. In my opinion, comedy from a place of privilege is only funny if it is self-deprecating. 

      "He's not ugly to people like a "dick" actually is." 

      I don't agree – his quite ugly to numerous people in the movie. I imagine he's quite ugly to many people in most interactions. He's just a dick. Many successful people are…

      • Guest

        That's a nice second post about someone who "doesn't merit a second thought." 

        Personally, I think it's a dick move to hold someone's upbringing against him.  I suggest we agree to condemn bad behavior regardless of the offender's socioeconomic roots.

    • http://splitsider.com/user/671/elisecz/ Elise Czajkowski

      I agree that "dick" is a harsh word, but I used it because it was his word. I would never have called him that on my own, but I felt like that quote really explained the dichotomy of his personality. For the record, I still like Conan, but I wouldn't want to work for him.

      • http://www.facebook.com/jasonfarr Jason Farr

        I hear ya, but I think it overlooks his writers say about working with him in interviews.  And at the end of the day, none of us know the guy, but they do, and a movie just isn't an accurate representation of his overall character. 
        From what I've read, he takes care of his crew and that would explain why they had his back during the Tonight Show debacle.  Did you read "War for Late Night?"  The first thing he said to Zucker when they met was this, "Here's the thing I regret the most.  I have a great staff.  I have a staff that loves this show, a young staff that really believes in it.  A lot of people moved out here.  They believe in what we're doing.  They see what's happening.  And for an hour today, for no reason, they thought they were canceled.  That makes me sick to my stomach."  The first thing a dick does is not stand up for his staff like this.  That's a man I'd love to work for.

      • Donna

        The fact he has staff that have worked for him for years, many from the very beginning in 1993, speaks volumes about what it's like to work for him.

  • http://twitter.com/ninesnowboots Ben

    Even in his less than shining moments, I still don't think he has the potential for a Chevy Chase-type reputation.

  • jfruh

    The only part of the movie I found genuinely shocking was when Jack McBrayer (aka Kenneth the Page) was hanging around with him in a big group backstage and Conan kept taunting him for being a "hick".  It started off as seeming like a mean-spirited joke and then stopped even seeming like a joke — there wasn't even any mean-spirited humor to it, it just seemed like he was deliberately trying to make McBrayer feel uncomfortable (and it rather obviously worked).  Maybe his entourage just knows to brush that sort of thing off but McBrayer didn't, but it was a really awkward moment.

    • Donna

      That was a bit. I've seen Jack on Conan's various show several times (in fact he worked on the Late Night show years ago doing bit parts) and this is the schtick that they do when together.

  • luke

    I really enjoyed this movie. It was approchable and didn't seem overly concerned with crafting a message so much as just showing the person that Conan is. As far as a dick, I wasn't left with that impression. More just that he had a tremendous amount of anger that he struggled to keep contained. Keep in mind the context, and it's impressive that he's not more of a dick.

    After watching this, I watched Conan on Inside the Actors' Studio (youtube), which was excellent and actually more insightful and interesting to me than this movie. It was also hilarious.

    Another good comedy documentary to review that's also on netflix is about Bernie Mack. I don't remember the title, but there can't be too many Bernie Mac documentaries out there.

  • TJ O'Pootertoot

    This is a very thoughtful essay about someone who, in my opinion, doesn't merit a second thought. He's a dick, an overgrown frat boy with a persecution complex. How else to describe an adult male who punches his co-workers in the arm or his faux-abuse, which is actually 'real' abuse of his interns. 

    And really, we give his genius far too much credit. He is no doubt funny and talented, but like anyone successful, he has parlayed ability and luck into something much more massive than himself, a super dense collapsed comedy star that sucks in other talented people and emits something funnier than the sum of it's parts. I was struck by how much funnier and nicer Andy Richter seems. 

    Anyway, I'm glad you brought it up, because this movie forever turned me against Conan.

    • http://twitter.com/thechrishaley chrishaley

      For the record, the only person he punches in the arm in the documentary is his brother. Yes, his brother is a writer on the show, but my experience is brothers grow up punching each other, and never stop.

  • http://twitter.com/Zulkey Claire Zulkey

    I'm a longtime Conan fan but had to take a bit of a break from him during this time. I had a feeling he was trending towards dickishness during this period (which may be justifiable) but I preferred not to see him that way (I know this may make me naive).  I had a feeling this doc would show me the side of O'Brien I didn't really care to, and this confirms that I'm OK to skip it. 

  • dockovich

    I wouldn't describe his a dick at all.  Everything I've read about him says he has some depression/darkside problems and extreme sensitivity (which likely contributes to his comedic genius), and putting myself in his shoes documentary, there was vast uncertainty and reflection goin on in his life.  He had a massive commitment of going on tour, and he kepts his (well founded) complaints away from his fans.

    I commend him for being able to smile for fans despite a grueling schedule, regardless of what type of aircraft he traveled on.  A dick is someone that can't put a smile on when they're unhappy, and cause others to suffer with them.  In this doc, Conan treated his fans very well.  Even the backup dancer's extended family–I would have freaked out.

  • http://twitter.com/linkhare Glenn Lazo

    I caught this doc the other day and it really shook me the way he just stand a lot of shit from a lot of people. It comes a bit dickish? I think it does, but it's not THAT much. Really good review of it.

    Also, i would like to recommend "6 Days To Air", the South Park Documental. Really short, but really good :D