Monday, September 19, 2011

A fallen star of late-night

Late-night television just isn't what it used to be, at least in terms of its relevance. It doesn’t matter like it did when Johnny Carson and Ed McMahon ruled the late-night airwaves. By contrast, the late-night giants of today more resemble PR mouthpieces, serving up stale celebrity interviews and safe topical humor carefully designed not to offend key demographics. The structures remain unchanged, but the content has been neutered.

But for a short time in early 2010, late night television was relevant again. With NBC’s ratings tanking from the disastrous move to insert Jay Leno in its prime-time lineup, the network decided to move Leno back to 11:35 and push the start of the Tonight Show with new host Conan O’Brien to 12:05. O’Brien rejected NBC’s offer, arguing that The Tonight Show has been a staple at 11:35 and should not be pushed to the next day. The move effectively ended his short stint as Tonight Show host and long stead in network late-night programming. Conan’s hosting duties went on for another two weeks or so, resulting in some of the most unhinged and inspired material in the host’s career. His endless departing shots at soon-to-be ex-employer were seemingly spontaneous and passionate, providing a nice contrast with Conan’s normally facetious brand of comedy. Conan even spun the drama into a kind of sympathy cause with his fans, while being careful not to overplay the “poor me” act. The national media was abuzz over the events, following Conan’s show and others each night to see what was said. Even Jimmy Kimmel got in on the act with scathing criticisms of Jay Leno and NBC. And for the first time in years, late-night television had a pulse. However, after Conan’s last show aired and the dust settled, late night TV would return to business as usual and the nation would again stop watching.

This where the documentary Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop picks up, right after O’Brien’s untimely exit (and subsequent huge payoff) from NBC. The film charts the formation of O’Brien’s nationwide comedy tour and follows the comedian from dim hotel rooms to cramped plane cabins, as he kept busy to avoid dwelling on his anger. This is a real “backstage” film — very close to its subject but at enough of a distance for honest observation. But it is also a piercing look at both the activity and loneliness that epitomize the life of the performer. For a work sanctioned by the man under examination, Conan O'Brien Can't Stop is rather frank in its dealings. Director Rodman Flender tries to both study and penetrate O’Brien in an off-the-cuff manner, which lends an initially strained “rock-star rebel” quality to the proceedings. Given Conan’s fierce allegiance to the corporate suits that kept him on a major network for more than a decade, it might at first seem misguided to frame the comedian in an anti-establishment mold. But that is partly what makes this film so worthwhile, because we’re seeing deeper variations of the comedic lunacy that has so long been kept in check within the controlled surroundings of studio audiences and timed commercial breaks. To see how O’Brien spins his frantic energy sometimes in unpleasant ways gives the proceedings an unpredictable and fascinating aura. This coupled with O’Brien’s candid reflections helps Flender foster sharp insights on life on the road and also draw an honest portrait of a fragile comedian.

Immediately O’Brien comes across less guarded than I would have expected, especially given his background in TV, in which nearly every utterance and expression is rehearsed. Early-on Flender interviews Conan one-on-one in his car and home, asking him simply about how he feels and what he is going through. Conan answers directly and honestly. He talks about the good fortune he has had through his life but also acknowledging the intense anger he feels. O’Brien channels this into his interaction with staff, which jibes between mean-spirited and playful. He seemingly cannot resist creating uncomfortable situations at the expense of everyone around him. His reflexivity about the absurdity of his position makes his act even more compelling, particularly when he bosses around members of his staff or shields off crowds when getting off a plane on an empty runway.

As the tour kicks off the film takes us further into the bowels of the show’s production. These scenes of auditions and band prep lend the film a sense of authenticity, especially given that they don’t always cast a positive light on O’Brien and his collaborators. These behind-the-scenes elements aren’t as engaging as the one-on-one’s with O’Brien, but they give a stronger sense of how he harnesses the energy of those around him along with his own. Along the way we are shown bits and pieces of Conan’s family life —playing with his kids, talking with his wife, etc. These moments mostly steer clear of mawkishness, due to O’Brien’s consistent demeanor throughout the proceedings. But there are also moments that are less expected in a film of this nature, such as the tedious processes that accompany road-acts, like pre-show interviews and post-show signings. While O’Brien is appreciative of the fans, he is also tired and frustrated with having to deal with it on a continuous basis. Nothing earth-shattering here, but it’s nice to actually see the a performer's exhaustion and relief once it's over.

For someone who has spent his career in front of a camera, O’Brien does a respectable job of treating the camera like it isn’t in the room. This allows the filmmakers to capture revealing moments in everyday circumstances, which are ultimately what elevate this film from just another tour documentary. Baring the comedian’s flaws plainly, Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop peers into the mind of a vulnerable person in constant conflict between calculating his every move and riding his impulses. It’s the chronicling of a man trying to figure out who he is, which should at least be clear after hearing him say “fuck”—gloriously—that he can do much better than late-night TV.

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