“I’m the least entitled guy in the world,” Conan O’Brien sincerely asserts in an entirely unnecessary documentary highlighting a relatively brief period when he wasn’t legally allowed on television. A feature-length paean to the comic genius of its subject/star, Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop is so nakedly ego-driven that it has the bizarre and undesired effect of making a likeable guy who can actually rock amusing tweets look like an overbearing need-monster.
As you well know, following his shitcanning by NBC twits, O’Brien smartly exploited his martyrdom by quickly erecting a very popular tour in his honor. For those of us who have jobs and don’t stay up till 1:30am on weeknights, suddenly the elusive O’Brien was everywhere, all the remarkable since, thanks to a contractual hiccup, he never physically appeared on TV.
A traditional concert film would make sense; a shapeless doc gracelessly shot on the tour and edited down to O’Brien’s endless ad-libbed quips and virtually nothing else, is mere onanism. For 90 minutes, O’Brien is either cracking jokes to his enraptured staff or wallowing in self-pity. No one else is allowed to be funny, though Andy Richter is allotted a token three or four yuks that are funnier than anything his boss dreams up.
Thing is, Can’t Stop hints at a quite dark characterization. Note the title, which could be read as a sly comment on its star’s compulsion to entertain at all times, even if that leaves him an exhaustive wreck. O’Brien can’t stop, can’t turn off the switch; when fellow performers swing by to hang backstage, he goes right into bits, even if that yields an awkward sequence wherein he relentlessly upbraids an uncomfortable-looking Jack McBrayer.
But Can’t Stop isn’t a covert character assassination or a mea culpa on O’Brien’s part of some psychic ailment. It’s not even clear whether anyone involved realizes he comes off so oppressive. It’s a for-the-fans self-valentine with a never-explored undercurrent of pain running through. Worst of all, it threatens to ruin the good will he amassed during the brouhaha that cost him his Tonight Show gig, although nothing could tarnish his rep as writer of several of the most brilliant Simpsons episodes.