Thursday, June 30, 2011

Conan O'Brien Can't Stop

Spoiler alert-o-meter: A few spoilers ahead.

After Conan O’Brien quit/was fired from the Tonight Show in 2010, he was one late-night talk show host with a chip on his shoulder. Due to the crappy way NBC and Jay Leno handled the debacle, O’Brien was left feeling burned and angry. Conan O'Brien Can’t Stop chronicles the preparation and tour O’Brien launched in reaction to being legally forbidden to appear on TV or the Internet for six months after leaving the Tonight Show.

During Conan’s last Tonight Show appearance he played his swan song on guitar backed by a full, celebrity band. Here, his tour, dubbed the The Legally Prohibited from Being Funny on Television Tour, includes a full band consisting of many members of his erstwhile Tonight Show band and two backup singers/dancers. He gathers around him some of the same writers, producers, and assistants he employed at his old show. He also brings along his longtime sidekick, Andy Richter, who throughout is familiar and welcome face.

Scratch the surface of most of the funniest comics and you’ll find a lethal mixture equal parts anger, shame, guilt, bitterness, bipolar disorder, and other dysfunctions. So it’s no surprise that Conan’s performance on tour is hilarious and scathing. He sings mostly real songs with mock lyrics. He customizes On the Road Again to suit his current situation.

In one faux blues song where he discusses his roots, he mentions how he grew up in Brookline Massachusetts. Where, in the wealthy upper class suburb of Boston, his family was a member of the less fortunate upper middle class. His mother was a lawyer and his father was a doctor. It’s a wonderful pastiche of music and honesty that fuels much of the performance.

Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop is only playing in one theater in the Boston area, Coolidge Corner Theater, which happens to be in Brookline, Massachusetts. The crowd in the very small theater gave a hoot when he referenced Brookline and lyrics like, “My mother, she shopped at Whole Foods.” There were two ladies of a certain age sitting in front of us, and I imagined they could be his mother and aunt. Or maybe neighbors.

Much of the movie consists of backstage tour footage mixed with his live performance. The film does a surprisingly good job of building momentum and keeping you interested throughout. There is no inherent conflict in the story, no ugly secret that needs to be revealed, no end-of-journey plot twist. The drama comes from watching the nights on the tour tick away.

Opening night – everybody thought it went well, but thought it could have gone better. L.A. – a pre-show gathering turns into a full-blown Hollywood party after which O’Brien is wiped out as much as if he done his full performance. By the time Jim Carrey, Jon Hamm, Tina Fey, and other celebs swing by after the performance, you feel Conan’s exhaustion and frustration at being performing monkey. The most disturbing moments come at the expense of 30 Rock actor Jack McBrayer, who (whether staged or not) is forced to endure sarcastic barb after barb from Conan.

Early on O’Brien claims to be one of the least entitled celebrities, yet you can’t help not feeling too sorry for a rich celebrity whom millions of fans adore. Don’t get me wrong, touring is a hard business (I couldn’t do it). And he obviously got almost no downtime on the tour bus, before or after performances. Even his days off were full of obligations, such as performing in a talent show at his Harvard class reunion. Still, the tour was only a couple months long and it wasn’t just for him to let off steam, but to keep himself fresh and in the public eye so that when he did come back to TV, he would still have an adoring audience.

The movie becomes one of the best chronicles of life on the road I’ve ever seen. O’Brien could be a rock star the way his fans wait for him outside his tour bus and vie for an autograph before the show. Indeed, he jams with Jack White for a small but adoring crowd at White's recording studio in Nashville. At one point O’Brien plays the Bonnaroo Music Festival, where he not only performs his act he is also booked to introduce many of the major acts.

Near the end of the tour he is shown scrambling in a huff off the bus during an unscheduled pit stop at a New England service area. He then strikes up a casual conversation with a mini-van load of women heading to Martha’s Vineyard. Here he remains Conan O’Brien, the showman who can’t stop himself from being “Conan O’Brien.” But when they tell him he got a raw deal you realize that’s all he really wants from this tour, for his audience to understand and empathize with his anger. When they ask if they can pray for him, he is surprised but genuinely touched by the offer, and joins them as they bow their heads and wish him a good tour. This shows both Conan O’Briens, the showman and father, husband, and nice guy who just wants to do a good job. And one reason Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop.

Note: During the tour he signed with TBS to do a new talk show which debuted on November 8, 2010.


Theater location: Coolidge Corner Theater, Brookline, MA, Sunday, June 26th, 2:40 pm. Price: 9.75. Viewed with Liz! Snack: RJ's Raspberry Licorice Log, Diet Coke with Lime.
Coolidge Corner Theater
Coming Attraction:

The Arbor. It's a documentary. But there is no indication of the story. It looks kind of scary. But who knows?

Short Films:

Charlie Coal. Film by a Emerson film student Olivia Briley, about a guy named Charlie who has no trouble falling in love, but no sooner is he with a girl than he finds out she's not for him. Either she's too fast and runs away, too jealous, too depressed, or too sick. Will Charlie find color-coordinated true love?


Liz's Mom said...

This was interesting, very well written, with your usual surprising insights, enjoyable to read.

The scene at the end was quite touching, the ladies praying, heads bowed.

Dell Smith said...

Thanks Liz's mom. Yes, it was a good way to wrap things up (prayer circle in van). Thanks for reading!

Cynthia Sherrick said...

Diet coke with lime? That's a change for you, isn't it? :)

Dell Smith said...

Sometimes diet coke with lime tastes pretty damn good.