Friday, June 24, 2011
Conan O'Brien Can't Stop
I should start my review by admitting that I am currently and have always been a late night talk show junkie. And while I am a devoted David Letterman and Craig Ferguson fan right now, I watched Conan O'Brien for many years beginning with his debut show as host of Late Night in September of 1993. So I was particularly interested in seeing this documentary that was filmed while Conan went on tour after he left the Tonight Show during the period when he was 'legally prohibited from being funny on television'.
For those of you unfamiliar with the history of the late night wars, I will enroll you in Late Night 101 since it is necessary to understand the back story to fully appreciate this movie. When Johnny Carson quit the Tonight Show on NBC in 1992 after a 30 year run, many clamored to be heirs to the throne. The two most likely candidates were David Letterman, who had hosted Late Night immediately following the Tonight Show at 12:35 AM for 10 years, and Jay Leno who was the regular guest host of The Tonight Show whenever Carson was on vacation. Well, as you undoubtedly know, Leno got the job, Letterman got upset and quit and moved to CBS, and somehow a virtually unknown, 30 year old, very tall, very skinny guy with crazy red hair got one of the most coveted jobs in the world of talk shows, replacing David Letterman on NBC. It was astounding. To be fair, he was a Harvard graduate, who served as President of the Harvard Lampoon, and wrote for 'Saturday Night Live' and 'The Simpsons', but this was a high profile gig and no one thought he would last. But college kids loved him and he went on to have a very long and successful run. Then, in 2004 NBC made a startling announcement, stating that in five years they would be replacing Jay Leno with Conan O'Brien as host of the Tonight Show. And sure enough, after 17 seasons as host of Late Night, Conan began as host of The Tonight Show in 2009. And NBC decided to let Leno have an unprecedented 10:00 PM late night talk show, leading into the news, leading into Conan. This plan backfired as ratings plummeted, and a mere seven months into Conan's new position, NBC told him they were changing the arrangement, and putting Leno back on for a 30 minute show at 11:35 and pushing Conan back to after midnight. Well, Conan wasn't agreeable to that to say the least, so he quit, and yet still got NBC to pay him a whopping $30 Million payoff as well as around $12 Million for his staff. Not a bad severance package! But part of the terms of his departure was that he was not allowed to appear on TV for a period of nine months. So he decided to do a variety show tour of the country, appropriately entitled 'The Legally Prohibited from Being Funny on Television Tour'. And that is where this documentary begins. (Whew!) Sorry for the long story, but it was truly a saga and understanding the history is necessary to appreciate this very entertaining and insightful film.
After years of watching Conan I thought I knew him well. I didn't. This doc is a look behind the curtain. He's actually quite different from his persona on TV. Frankly, he seems to be an ego maniacal attention whore, and at times even kind of a bully. From the looks of this film, it's all about Conan all the time. And he surrounds himself with a staff of 'yes men' (and one 'yes woman'), who believe themselves to be writers, producers, managers, and assistants but really they seem to be there to stroke Conan's ego and cater to his every whim. In the film he states that he doesn't have a sense of entitlement, but it really comes across quite the contrary. It's hard to have sympathy for someone whose only injustice was that his talk show was pushed back 30 minutes, and ended up getting a settlement of over $30 Million to not work. Well, that's my opinion anyway. Nevertheless this movie is extremely entertaining and eye opening. I get the feeling we're finally seeing the real Conan for the first time in 18 years and it's fascinating. I only wish we could see a similar doc of him when he was in his 20's to see how much the money, fame, and power went to his head. I'm guessing a lot. Although I must admit I'm kind of jealous. (OK, I'm really jealous.)