- - Thursday, June 23, 2011

The tumult that surrounded Conan O’Brien’s departure from the “Tonight Show” host slot at NBC comes off as a bit silly in the re-telling, such is the velocity with which our popular culture is fragmenting.

In 2011, with media trending toward the on-demand, time-shifted and self-programmed, it’s hard to imagine people caring much about who is heir to Johnny Carson’s TV throne. But in 2010, fans got genuinely worked up over Mr. O’Brien’s ouster from the show, and the restoration of the genial, inoffensive Jay Leno.

Mr. O’Brien took a huge buyout (including money for his staff) and agreed not to appear on TV until September 2010. When a bearded Mr. O’Brien tweeted out news of an upcoming road show dubbed the “The Legally Prohibited from Being Funny on Television Tour,” fans responded, selling out arenas and auditoriums from coast to coast. The documentary “Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop” charts the tour, from its conception through its two-month duration.

Rodman Flender (a Harvard classmate of Mr. O’Brien’s and a TV director whose most notable movie credit is “Leprechaun 2”) followed Mr. O’Brien and his troupe of writers and musicians. While Mr. O’Brien openly acknowledges his anger toward NBC in the film, former network head Jeff Zucker is never mentioned by name, though there are a few allusions to balding TV executives. Mr. Leno comes in for a brief and very funny mention, but Mr. O’Brien appears careful to deal with the NBC situation only in general terms.

Mr. O’Brien appears to be that rare celebrity who is open about loving fame and craving applause - and can discuss his “addiction” extemporaneously in concise, well-formed paragraphs. In his role as a creative leader he’s commanding, uncompromising, earthy, self-deprecating and committed to his craft. He’s also a much better musician and dancer than his comic flights on “Late Night” would have suggested.

Although he had final cut authority over the film, Mr. O’Brien allows viewers a glimpse of a darker aspect of his personality. Mr. O’Brien is not a gentle kidder. He routinely bullies subordinates with hilarious and self-aggrandizing rants - occasionally punctuated with playful punches. The targets of these outbursts never crack and appear to be in on the gag - but there are a few lingering looks that hint at deeper resentments.

“Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop” includes snippets from the stage show, but most of the footage is from behind the scenes - in the writers’ room, on airplanes and tour buses, and especially before and after shows. Few backstage portraits of celebrities are as candid and revealing. Although he is unfailingly polite and cooperative when it comes to meeting fans, in private he complains bitterly about how these superficial interactions eat into his personal time.

Mr. O’Brien craves an audience in aggregate, telling crowds how much he had missed the sound of applause. But many fans appear to feel entitled to a little piece of Conan - a form of reciprocity that Mr. O’Brien clearly finds wearying.

TITLE: “Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop”

CREDITS: Directed by Rodman Flender

RATING: R, for language

RUNNING TIME: 89 minutes


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