Last year’s debacle over “The Tonight Show” didn’t quite reach Shakespearean proportions, but you sure couldn’t tell it at the time. When Jay Leno left the hallowed television franchise for a stab at prime time, NBC gave the coveted late-night slot to Conan O’Brien, who had been patiently waiting in the latelate-night wings.
Things did not go according to plan. Ratings tanked for both Leno and O’Brien. After less than eight months. NBC returned Leno to the time slot, effectively giving O’Brien the boot. The brouhaha sparked a jaw-dropping level of outrage as TV viewers across the country took sides. If only wars prompted as much public engagement.
“Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop” chronicles what followed. Under the terms of O’Brien’s departure from NBC, he was unable to appear on TV for several months. That caveat led to “The Legally Prohibited from Being Funny on Television Tour,” in which the lanky comedian took his act to 30 cities for 42 shows.
The documentary, which runs Thursday through Sunday at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art, is admirably unvarnished. It’s no surprise that O’Brien is funny, but the largely behind-the-scenes film also reveals a performer subject to some unflattering traits. He can be vain and self-absorbed, petulant and insensitive, and very pissed. “Sometimes I’m so mad, I can’t even breathe,” he admits.
That anger is woven into some of his stand-up comedy, but also manifests itself in less charming ways. O’Brien occasionally browbeats his staff for minor infractions, and bristles when he must schmooze at a reception before giving a physically draining concert. He complains when his backup singers bring friends and relatives backstage for a post-show session of photos and autographs. He compares himself (albeit jokingly) to Anne Frank.
Still, “Can’t Stop” is hardly a poke in the eye of Team Coco. O’Brien occasionally chafes at all the demands on his time, but he also can be enormously generous to his fans. He gratefully accepts the prayers of a family he meets at a gas station — a scene that many comedians would have ridiculed — and nicely, but firmly, rebukes a fan who makes an anti-Semitic crack.
What finally emerges in this doc by director Rodman Flender (“Idle Hands”) is a fleshed-out portrait of a guy working through some anger issues. “It’s like a gallstone,” O’Brien quips. “It just has to work its way through my urethra.”
Some of that rage presumably has dissipated now that O’Brien is back on the air at TBS. In retrospect, it’s a bit bizarre to work up a great deal of sympathy for him. Yes, NBC treated him shabbily. Yes, Leno is a cretin. But it’s odd to hear Coco muse on “the utter despair” of what transpired over “Tonight.” There are far worse fates than going from rich and famous to a little less rich and a little less famous.