‘Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop,’ Is a Pretty Great Look at a Comedian At Work

'Conan O'Brien Can't Stop' is a good look at the darker side of comedic experimentation.

There are two ways to look at Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop, which opens today in limited release. The first is as the story of a guy, who upon receiving a $33 million severance package when he left his old job ($12 million was shared among his staff), and went on tour with friends as diverse as Andy Richter, Jack White, and Jim Carrey to make himself feel better. The second is as a close look at the compulsion to perform, and the uncomfortable ways comedians work out their material not just by saying occasionally horrifying things in public that fall flat as jokes, but by needling the people in their private lives. Because it’s fairly hard to enjoy the movie, which is often quite good, if you take the former approach, so in watching it, I mostly tried to stick to the latter.

The movie starts a bit unevenly. In a nice zeitgeist-tapping device, it outlines the basic conflict that led to Conan’s departure from NBC in Taiwanese animation, only to bog down in a bunch of questions that get at things the rest of the movie will articulate in much more spontaneous and funny ways. But fortunately that interlude is brief, and once it gets going, Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop really zips. Once the idea for a tour is conceived, tickets sell out, and Conan gets to work trying out jokes, casting a couple of very attractive women as backup dancers, rewriting songs to be about his battle with NBC. In retrospect, the agita about whether the show will succeed is a little forced, but these sequences show a guy putting himself together again in a way that’s interesting to watch, especially because it’s on a much grander scale that carries with it much larger consequences, than anything most ordinary people do to get over something really terribly traumatic.

That scale is, to a certain extent, at the heart of the movie. Conan isn’t a regular guy, what happened to him wasn’t a regular problem, and so there are moments when the ways he behaves seem decidedly off, particularly when he’s riffing in ways that don’t seem like appropriate normal-person behavior. Watching O’Brien berate his assistant Sona Movsesian when the fish she ordered for him arrives in butter sauce rather than simply grilled isn’t particularly charming, especially when he threatens to fire her. Ditto when he declares at one point on the tour “When I burn out and nobody has a job anymore, no one’s thinking of that.” It’s certainly true that O’Brien’s tour created jobs for a bunch of people, but it’s easier to joke about being jobless when you can float home on $33 million and the proceeds of that tour, when you’re the lord of your own showbiz manor. The moment when he jokes of his children “They know their old man is in vaudeville,” and then asks whether his wife has told his kids he’s going away for months, something he easily could have done himself, is an odd moment of old-school distant fatherhood. And the fairly relentless ribbing he gives Jack McBreyer, making him dance, asking if he has cocaine on him, and singing a weirdly nasty song about him, when McBreyer comes to visit his dressing room along with Jon Hamm and Jim Carrey crosses the line from an older comedian hazing a younger one into genuine discomfort.

But all this angst, all this complaining when he’s thrown a birthday party that “What an awkward situation. This is the exact opposite of what I wanted,” all the whining when his backup dancers bring people by to visit, clearly works to produce some pretty good comedy. When he’s being fitted for a bald wig to play an evil NBC executive, he quips “This represents no one person,” before pausing and declaring, “It represents two people,” an effective, modest little subversion of expectations. As much as his nagging Sona can be uncomfortable to watch, when he describes her as a mad Armenian coming after him with a cutlass, or convulsing her with laughter until she can’t breathe, or sitting next to her on a private plane singing a parody version of “On the Road Again,” Conan clearly feels comfortable trying things out on her, or around her. The family in a minivan in a highway rest area who ask Conan if they can pray for him, the fans who crowd around the bus and drive 10 hours to see him play at a desolate Canadian casino, are the ones who really benefit from other people taking punishment from Conan in private in service of helping him hone his jokes, and hoard the energy that lets him go out there and gratify the wishes of people who want everything from silly pictures to a signature on their bodies they plan to turn into their first tattoos. There’s a sort of equal ridiculousness here: Conan may be an insecure nut, but the people who see him as some sort of idol are pretty over the top too.

And the movie makes clear that Conan sees that, and sees the consequences of his behavior towards other people. At one point, he acknowledges “I am extremely hard on myself. Sometimes, that spills out to other people.” At another, he notes that his perfectionism robs him of a lot of joy: “That’s me. Whenever someone says ‘that’s amazing,’ I always wonder, what was wrong with the other ones?” During a montage of him roughhousing with his coworkers, he notes “What am I always hitting people for? It’s not acceptable.” In his act, he performs a song about down-and-dirty Southerners adapted to be about his suburban Boston upbringing as the son of two upwardly mobile parents, joking, “We were upper-middle class. It was hell,” a joke on the idea that any part of his life is particularly difficult. And as the tour draws to a close, Conan acknowledges that the constant affirmation of the tour maybe it’s the best thing for him, sighing “I absolutely love this, and I also understand that this needs to stop pretty soon.”

Of course he does, and of course he lands a job at TBS (a network where, interestingly, earlier in the movie he declared he’d never go). The movie can’t help but be viewed with the benefit of hindsight, which saps it of some of its dramatic tension. But fortunately, with comedians, the best stuff is often in the details.