In the opening scene of Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop, the documentary out Friday that chronicles the comedian’s 2010 Legally Prohibited From Being Funny on Television Tour, O’Brien is caught stuck driving behind a snail-paced bus full of tourists on a Hollywood tour. He’s mildly annoyed by the inconvenience—wouldn’t you be?—then pulls up alongside the bus, rolls down his window, and introduces himself.
Turns out, it’s a classic O’Brien move: complain about a set of circumstances, then relish the extra personal attention those circumstances provide.
O’Brien insists to his scene-stealing assistant, Sona, that he needs to rest on days off from the tour, then spends his next one giving a volunteer performance. Backstage at Bonnaroo, he expresses outrage that the music festival’s organizers expect him to stick around late into the night to introduce multiple bands. But he goes out onstage anyway, loves every minute of the experience, and then riffs about it for days.
Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop was filmed at a critical point in O’Brien’s life and career, the months immediately following his publicly bitter split from longtime employer NBC over the network’s decision to push The Tonight Show to midnight to make way for Jay Leno’s show at 11. He was angry, hurt, and—perhaps most disabling of all—suddenly without an audience for the first time in 22 years. Conan says the day he walked from NBC is the day he came up with the idea for a traveling comedy tour. He wanted to stay busy, and he needed to get out in front of fans who could remind him that they really, really like him.
If you didn’t catch it live, the material that he and his staff came up with for The Legally Prohibited From Being Funny on Television Tour is entertaining enough to make Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop worth seeing. But it’s the bits in between filmmaker Rodman Flender’s footage of the show that makes his movie something more than a comedy. In addition to revealing O’Brien’s particular psychology—that of an artist addicted to attention, the seeking of which leaves him depleted—the film offers a look into the life of comedy show writers and the power of laughter and friendship to make trauma slightly easier to swallow.
O’Brien comes off as self-critical, frustrated, and obsessive in the film. But he also comes off as talented, generous, and kind-hearted. It’s for that reason we’re glad he seems to be happy at his new gig on TBS, and why we’re so thankful he green lit this film.