Watching Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop made me realize something I’ve suspected for a long time: I don’t ever want to be famous.
There’s a scene in this documentary about the “Legally Prohibited From Being Funny On Television” stage tour Conan created immediately after his inauspicious exit from The Tonight Show in 2010 where Conan does a meet-and-greet after one of the New York City shows outside of the venue. Before this moment we’ve seen Conan, despite his insatiable need to perform, get slowly and painfully worn down by the unending demands of life on the road as a folk-hero celebrity, the meet-and-greets being an especially draining post-show ritual the erstwhile talk-show host openly bemoaned to his staff. And yet, out he goes into the alley packed with euphoric fans cordoned off behind a barrier that Conan nearly straddles in his earnest attempt to sign anything and everything his acolytes present to him.
He does his duty as the accommodating star, making chit-chat and signing posters, t-shirts, beer cans, and even someone’s back (“so I can get a tattoo of it,” she says). But after awhile he’s had enough, bids farewell to the fawning phalanx, and retreats to a waiting car. He hops in, clearly agitated, and waits for someone to close the door. “Someone close the f***ing door,” he says to no one in particular. The attention he had just received, willingly or otherwise, was his life-blood, and the reason he did the tour in the first place, but he still can’t help being completely obliterated by it night after night, only to jump on stage and fulfill the “buffoon” role he readily affixes to himself.
That whole sequence to me illustrated the paradox of celebrity, and why I hope never to experience it. To be so in need of something, like Conan is of the act of performing for an audience, yet to be rendered nearly incapacitated by it after a certain point is a tough way to live life. To be sure, we all have this something in our lives we feel we need yet drags us down – the approval of our peers, alcohol, crappy reality shows, you name it – but seeing it play out on camera in the life of a public figure like Conan (one whom I greatly admire and enjoy as a performer) shows me specifically the perils of doing what you want even when it’s killing you.
Kevin Costner said in his tribute to the late Whitney Houston that the singer’s immense talents were at once “the burden that made her great and the part that caused her to stumble.” While Conan does not (hopefully) struggle with the same drug problems that led to Houston’s sad death, the principles between them are the same: it doesn’t have to be drugs that kill you. Whatever our own That Thing is, it may prop us up for a time, but it can also kill us if we let it. Conan probably won’t be killed by his fame, but if for example he continues, as he says caustically in the film, to “give away part of [his] soul” through the meet-and-greets for the sake of That Thing, he’ll soon discover than physical death and pneumatic death aren’t all that dissimilar.
I don’t mean to portray Coco or this documentary as quite so sullen – in fact, they are the opposite. Sure, we bear witness to Conan’s biting, often vindictive jabs at NBC for their treatment of him during the late-night debacle and to his sardonic teasing of his assistants and staff. But Conan is a funny guy and gives a damn about others, if in his own way, and the film shows this dichotomy well.
But Conan’s “luck” – and this brings me back to my initial thought – is that the moments he’s most unlikeable and fallible (read: human) are recorded by a camera and spliced together into a wide-release documentary. While that was the point of this project, I’m sure glad I get to make my mistakes when only the people around me I know and love know about them. And that’s why I never have nor ever will desire the fame Conan and so many other public figures receive, willingly or otherwise.
So this is me giving thanks for the ability to go grocery shopping, read in a bookstore uninterrupted, take an evening walk alone, make dumb mistakes, and be human without flashing cameras and obsessive eyes finding me, or even wanting to. I’m sure Conan would like that too once in a while, but something keeps pulling him back into the fray that only he and God can understand.
All that said, watch the movie. It’s a gripping portrait of a curious man in transition. Also, I miss his beard.