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SXSW: Conan Craves Attention

by Stephen Becker 14 Mar 2011 1:02 PM

Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop, a documentary about the talk show host’s cross country tour, made its debut at South by Southwest on Sunday. And as we learn in the film, life on the road was life saving after his ouster from The Tonight Show.


AUSTIN – Early on in the documentary Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop, O’Brien is sitting at the dining room table in his Los Angeles home. The subject is broached about how he feels being just a few months removed from having The Tonight Show taken away from him by NBC.

“Sometimes I’m so angry I can’t breathe,” is how he quantifies it.

Pretty strong stuff from a person we’ve come to know so well over the last 20 years as one of televisions’ goofy funnymen.

For O’Brien, performing was life. And the only way he could get rid of his anger and get back to breathing was to get back to performing. Since the terms of his settlement with NBC forbade him from being on TV for six months, he hit the road on a 44 date cross country tour. (You might have seen the stop at SMU.) That tour is the subject of the film, which made its world premiere on Sunday.

Like all great behind-the-scenes docs, the viewer gets a sense of who O’Brien really is. Some of what we learn isn’t always endearing. He can be tough with his staffers, zinging them with a line that cuts close to the bone and makes sure eveyone knows his place.

“When Mozart’s playing the ol’ 88s, you don’t sit in his lap and play chopsticks,” he tells one writer who’s not keeping up during a creative session.

And we also learn that O’Brien can’t control his own need to interact with people. During the tour, he constantly implores his staffers to cut down on the number of people he’s got to gladhand before and after shows, and yet he’s the one bolting out the back door of the theater to sign autographs and take pictures with fans. He even adds a couple of free shows, including one that is part of his 25th college reunion at Harvard.

“What am I going to do, sit in the hotel and read a [expletive] Kindle?” is how he explains it.

Ultimately, the tour allows O’Brien to work through that pent-up anger by getting back to what he loves. And watching someone do what they love to do can be highly entertaining. He takes the stage to perform with Jack White and Stephen Colbert. And when he’s not onstage, he at least gets to perform for the ever watchful cameras making the movie. It’s like getting to watch his TBS show Conan from backstage.

At a post-screening Q&A, O’Brien talked about how the tour ultimately affect him.

“At the end of the tour, even though I lost 15 pounds and never slept, I was done and I was able to move on,” he said.