You’d expect someone with the name Rodman Flender to know something about funny. In fact, this veteran TV director (Ugly Betty, Party of Five) was a humour writer for the storied Harvard Lampoon, three decades ago, alongside one Conan O’Brien. They stayed in touch, as pals and as comedy professionals, and this put Flender in a privileged position when the opportunity arose to document the lamented late-show host’s year away from Tubeville.
The result, called Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop, opens here Friday (July 8), and it details an ass-crushing nine months in 2010. The cinematic fun began shortly after the comic had a messy public divorce from NBC, the network that had employed him for 16 years. Not many of us end up with our own high-profile chat shows, especially when we didn’t set out to do that. So it’s not hard to imagine O’Brien’s anguish at having that dream job suddenly yanked away.
“Unlike the other guys [Jay Leno, David Letterman, etcetera], Conan had never done standup,” Flender says, calling from Los Angeles. “He didn’t have his 20-minute bits and all that, so it was a different path that led him to that desk. But he always had a drive to perform. Once, long before he was on TV, we were at a karaoke bar—one that actually had a live band—and they asked if anybody wanted to start the night. Man, he was up there like a shot, singing a Smokey Robinson song or something. At the time, I thought: ”˜This guy’s DNA is a little different.’ ”
In fact, O’Brien had been doing improv with the Groundlings and other L.A. outfits when NBC plucked him out of the writing room for The Simpsons and made him host of Late Night in 1993, before briefly replacing Jay Leno on The Tonight Show and getting canned. In response, he put together a touring package that took him to 32 cities last year (before he went back on the air with the late-night Conan, this time on U.S. cable station TBS). The filmmaker figures the rehearsal kibitzing, which in the movie borders on outright cruelty at times, is the same no matter who’s in the room.
“Keep in mind that Conan and these guys are used to having cameras around; it’s not like I’m doing some ethnographic study of a tribe in the Amazon jungle. Some of it may seem mean-spirited, but, conversely, I think Conan comes across as being very genuine. That’s why his fans are so passionate about him and as loyal as they are. The other talk-show hosts may be even better at telling jokes than he is, but they have a kind of wall up. It’s like Conan is letting you in on the jokes, his way of sharing something with you, so it’s a more personal connection.”
Flender feels that O’Brien’s analysis of comedy and how it works is “almost an Escher painting” in its self-referencing. And some of this, he says, is downright Canadian.
“We were both huge disciples of SCTV, and can still quote whole skits from their heyday. We thought that show was made specifically for us, and I believe that’s what Conan’s fans think about what he does.”
Watch the trailer for Conan O'Brien Can't Stop.