Ah, the information age… Last Tuesday evening I “un-mundane-ed” such chores as chopping vegetables and grading papers by live streaming the following Netflix documentary about a heartfelt, hardworking artist doing his thing: Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop.
In Finishing The Hat, Stephen Sondheim writes that Ethel Merman had “the great reservoir of anger of any great comedian.” Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop is rather like Ethel — very funny, and not by coincidence, a little angry.
Like many folks, I was excited for Conan when he finally inherited the Tonight Show and disheartened for him when NBC snatched it back. I always thought that Conan was a more natural comic than Jay Leno. I thought he handled the debacle with class.
Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop follows Conan during the first five months after his short stint on The Tonight Show, during which he is contractually bound to stay off TV airwaves. As the title suggests, Conan channels his frustration with “any business person who screws over the creative guy” the only way he knows how: by building a cross-country comedy tour. We watch him build a show around job insecurity, disappointment, and “dreams deferred,” which, as you can imagine, involves a lot of self-depracating humor behind the scenes. But the difficult, humble moments also remind you why Conan still deserves The Tonight Show, why comedy is so complex, and why the job of making people laugh requires a fascinating blend of insight, disappointment, vulnerability, and attention-seeking.
At one point, Conan admits to being “like Tinkerbell; without applause, he dies.” After his first gig, he looks into the camera and admits that while it feels good to be onstage, it doesn’t feel as good as he thought it would. The disappointment of having once been “interviewing Barack Obama” and now restarting from scratch understandably lingers. By the end of the movie, he feels a strong need to end the tour and go back to New York, but he has genuinely reinvigorated his sense of himself, his roots as a comedian. At the end of the movie, Conan says that he has always been seeking something “more real” comedy wise. This aspiration led him up the NBC network ladder. As it turns out, the raw “realness” of a successful comeback tour, generated by loss and disappointment, ultimately feels like the next step on that upward climb.
[Photo: JackGouldPhoto via Creative Commons]