Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop is a documentary that follows the former host of the Tonight Show during his summer live-act tour as he tries to make sense of his rejection by NBC. Throughout the film, we mostly see a self-conscious Conan, who knows the cameras are rolling, and who seems to need the presence of some kind of audience in order to survive, almost as if entertaining, for him, is like breathing. He never denies (on principal, it would seem) a stranger who wants to see him, and talk to him, and, in one instance, even pray for him.
Conan sometimes plays into the role of martyr with a sharp-edged humor and at other times, he revels in the role, working out his anger and fear of rejection as if it were a live act. driving himself harder and harder to entertain at all times and at all costs. The filmmakers work to capture Conan’s relentless performance on camera, and with careful edits, to make the same point again and again: that Conan can’t stop.
Here he is not stopping when lots of people are around.
Here he is not stopping when he expects an audience and the audience hasn’t arrived yet.
Here he is not stopping at home in his kitchen, while his wife is busily working on some dishes.
Here he is exhausted and taking it out on his writers and assistants, and then not stopping again by trying to spin it all carefully into satisfying playful humor.
The filmmakers are direct and purposeful about what Conan is doing. but they seem hesitant to use the tools of the documentary trade to ask why. As a viewer, you are left to come to your own conclusions given what is stated in scene after scene, and by what is not stated. What is motivating this famous person to seek out one audience after another? The rush of adrenaline? Burying shame and doubt by keeping busy? The solace of turning anything, however humiliating, into affirming laughter?
Conan has been rejected: rejected and betrayed by a network, rejected by the Tonight Show audience, and possibly even rejected by some of his former fans. He seems candid about it all, but you also can’t help but see some of his vulnerability as he runs into the arms of whomever will shower him with love and laughter, whether one or two people backstage, or thousands frontstage.
Why can’t he stop? Why can’t anyone stop? What would any of us have to face in the stillness that comes if we were to stop going and going and then going some more?