When Conan O'Brien was ousted from The Tonight Show early last year, he tapped into a grassroots groundswell of support that would make most Tea Partiers jealous. Overnight, O'Brien went from a funny distraction for insomniac college students to a modern folk hero. For the twentysomethings who make up the teeming nation that is "Team Coco," O'Brien's axing was an instant metaphor for the afflictions of their disaffected generation. The threat of sudden unemployment, generational angst over Baby Boomer privilege, East Coast indie vs. West Coast corporate — it could all be oversimplified into Coco vs. Leno.
It would have been easy for director Rodman Flender to pick up that unconditional wave of support and run with it in his documentary Conan O'Brien Can't Stop. He could have cast O'Brien as some kind of comedy god, beloved by fans and incapable of wrongdoing, while using the movie as a vanity piece to strike back at NBC and Leno and stoke the tabloid fire. All the components are there: sold-out shows, a van of old women praying for O'Brien's future, an affable subject who signs PBR cans and jams with Jack White at Third Man Records. Easy.
But this isn't that movie. Instead, Flender's documentary, which chronicles O'Brien's "Legally Prohibited from Being Funny on Television" tour last year (including stops at Third Man and Bonnaroo), captures the writer-turned-TV-personality at arguably the highest visibility and lowest ebb of his career. With Flender's camera as unblinking observer, O'Brien's frustration over losing his dream job, compounded by the stress of touring with a sold-out rockabilly vaudeville act, bubbles over into his interactions with his fans, crew and family.
Despite that, Conan O'Brien Can't Stop is frequently hilarious: Even under duress, the subject flashes a genuinely quick, sharp, self-deprecating wit. But for every scene with O'Brien jokingly pushing a nonexistent airport crowd back upon an uneventful landing in Eugene, Ore., there's one of him serenading a visibly uncomfortable Jack McBrayer with a sour improvised piano ballad called "You Stupid Hick." But such tellingly squirm-inducing moments make Can't Stop a compelling documentary instead of a Hollywood puff piece. The movie brings O'Brien off his media-victim pedestal and restores him to the ranks of us mere mortals — or if you will, us "People of Earth."
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