I don’t know why I was so insistent on the fact that there was a colon in the title of this film. It makes way more sense without it. Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop is a very true declarative sentence. Why muck it up with punctuation, my own brain?
What a fascinating little documentary. On the one hand, O’Brien is a complete toolbag. On the other hand, he let himself be portrayed as the toolbag he is, which means he can’t actually be that much of a toolbag. I’ve recently re-re-revived my long-standing fascination with him–and finally started to delve into episodes of The Simpsons, but that is another tale for another time, someday, maybe–and seeing what he was like outside of the NBC/TBS product that he’s become really informed and complicated my opinion of him. The underlying feeling I have for him is respect, of course, because he took his “unemployment” and turned it into something for other people to enjoy: a live show. And even though he’s a performer, he wasn’t necessarily much of a stage guy prior to hitting the road like this. He took a big risk, and it paid off for him in strides. That deserves respect. But let’s break down my complicated emotions, because this is my blog and I can do that.
It goes without saying that this man is a genius. He’s so fucking smart and quick and self-deprecating, it truly is astonishing that he wasn’t deemed worthy enough to host The Tonight Show for more than a paltry few months. He’s got this weird confidence, weird not in the sense that he doesn’t deserve it but weird that a guy who looks and moves and thinks and speaks like him is typically not dancing around onstage in a skintight Elvis costume or playing his guitar like a real axe. Guys like him don’t become guys like him, ordinarily. They stay pasty and greasy and work behind the scenes. Conan is an anomaly. He’s made himself into a symbol for the comedically talented but mostly ignored; his swoosh of hair and slick suits and beard prove that any Harvard nerd can find himself successful and appealing.
He’s also an attention whore. He’s constantly interrupting his writers, his fellow performers, Andy Richter (maybe even more of a genius than Conan, but I don’t want to get into it here), badgering them for ideas, placing him at the butt of his jokes and then kicking that butt really hard, questioning them for answers they don’t have, demanding that he not be demanded too much of. And yet he’s a nice guy, too. He trusts his fellow performers. He likes the people he works with, even though his joke-mocking of Jack MacBrayer backstage at the New York show was borderline not funny. He rarely apologizes, except to himself or to Sona, his beloved assistant. Their relationship seems like it should be complicated, because she’s a beautiful twentysomething and he is a world-famous fortysomething TV host, but maybe it’s not complicated, and I’ve seen too many movies. He truly listens to what she has to say, and values her opinion, and asks for her advice, even though he’s had more experience than her at everything, and he always will.
I wonder how Sona got to that level of comfort and trust with someone like Conan. In fact, I wonder how Conan has true friends at all anymore. Occasionally the rigors of the road would get to him and he’d open up without cracking a joke, and he’d explain how lonely he was or how difficult it was or how hard it is for people to understand what he was experiencing. And even though he’s that famous and that arrogant and that privileged and truly talented, I found myself wanting to give him a bit of sympathy. He went on to describe how draining meet-and-greets are, how it just ends up being this factory where you sign autographs and waste time having pointless conversations. Why people want to meet their favorite celebrities for several seconds is beyond me, but it’s what keeps a lot of these people on top and earning money. Those disillusioned fans who think Conan or whoever else will remember them after they’ve stepped out of the huge queue.
All of this ran through my head on Saturday, when I went to a concert at Golden Gate Park to see Mayer Hawthorne (and The Walkmen!) and got the opportunity to meet him afterward. I wasn’t expecting it; a friend of a friend had a backstage pass, and somehow I was given a wristband, no questions asked. I love Mayer Hawthorne’s music, and find him incredibly adorable, but I never thought I’d meet him, nor did I feel particularly compelled to do so. And yet there I was, in line, waiting to meet him. My two friends and I exchanged brief pleasantries with him; my friend mentioned something about how he should have more panties thrown at him, and I said simply, “Go Tigers!” And then it was over, and there was no point to it. I even showed some of my other friends the picture that was taken of the four of us, but it really doesn’t matter. He won’t remember us, I’ll only remember that day because of the concert and the fact that he pointed at me during a song, and I felt like I was the only girl in the crowd (gross but true!). Plenty of others stood in line before us, and plenty more followed. Most all of them took the moment seriously, and I suspect those same folks will treasure that artificial moment for the rest of their lives.
Conan, Mayer, all of these guys. How do that do it? I suppose they just have to ride the wave, knowing how much they’re valued by the masses without getting too overwhelmed by it. And I suppose they try to attract only cool fans, only people they’d want to hang out with and perform for. But that’s easier said than done.
If I ever meet Conan O’Brien, I think I’m just going to ask him if he needs help with anything. He may not remember me, but he’ll certainly remember being happy about the encounter. I hope.