Fans see a darker side of funnyman Conan O'Brien in new documentary
TORONTO -- Conan O'Brien is known for his self-deprecating humour, so it's no surprise that the late night funnyman makes jokes at his own expense in a new documentary that chronicles his acrimonious ouster from "The Tonight Show."
But what may shock fans is how biting his humour is when directed at others, including his staff and close confidants. O'Brien gave the film his final stamp of approval but it's hardly a flattering depiction of his offscreen personality.
"I'm extremely hard on myself and sometimes that spills into other people," O'Brien admits in "Conan O'Brien Can't Stop," which follows the embattled comedian on the road for his "Legally Prohibited From Being Funny on Television" tour.
At the outset, O'Brien is seen seething in the aftermath of the "Tonight Show" fiasco, in which NBC chose Jay Leno over him for the coveted hosting role and essentially paid him to go away.
"I am angry, I'm really angry at times," O'Brien says. "Sometimes I'm so mad I can't even breathe."
Although his mood lightens as the tour is launched and tickets are immediately snapped up by eager fans, the film documents how that long string of shows wears on the comedian, which means some discomfort for those around him.
He's short tempered with staff, particularly his personal assistant, who suffers through a number of is-he-or-isn't-he-joking outbursts over minor mistakes. He has a habit of punching staff members in the arm, hard, which is laughed off by victims but seems unwelcome.
As the tour drags on, he becomes less and less eager to engage in backstage meet-and-greets with adoring fans, and loses his cool with autograph hounds. And in one ugly scene, he belittles a flight attendant as she tries to recite safety procedures before takeoff.
Director Rodman Flender, who went to college with O'Brien, warned the comedian that he would pull no punches in the documentary and wanted to capture the reality of the tough chapter in his career.
"I thought it'd just be a great opportunity for a documentary to really capture this process, to see how a show is mounted and put together, and to witness a comedian using his comedy and his art to work through some sort of high and low emotions that were going on at that time," Flender said.
"Right from the get go I made it very clear that I wasn't going to do a live concert movie and I didn't want to do a promotional piece for him, nor conversely did I want to do a hatchet job.
"I just wanted to capture what happened."
There are plenty of light moments in which O'Brien is genuinely happy and getting along with those around him but it's the unsettling scenes that stick with the viewer most.
Still, Flender insists O'Brien's antics were brushed off by his staff, even if his jokes and putdowns sometimes hit a little too close to home.
"I've known his biting wit for a long time and the speed of his wit -- you can't clock it, it's too fast," Flender said.
"Hanging out with him I have experienced that wit and that kind of very sometimes sarcastic wit and the thing I don't think a lot of people understand -- or I hope it's clear, and maybe it's a specific kind of humour -- but when Conan is being a (jerk) he's playing a role.
"He's making fun of himself by making fun of prima donnas and saying, 'I'm going to be the most ridiculous prima donna on the planet."'
"Conan O'Brien Can't Stop" will screen in select Cineplex theatres on July 7. It can then be seen on July 8 in Calgary, Toronto and Vancouver, July 9 in Waterloo, Ont., on Aug. 12 in Edmonton, and a string of screenings over several days are scheduled in Ottawa and Charlottetown.