“I am angry,” Conan O’Brien admits in Rodman Flender’s tour doc. “I’m trying not to be … but sometimes I’m so mad I can’t even breathe.” Prohibited from appearing on television for six months after his early 2010 break with NBC, Conan hit the road, capitalizing on his newfound social network currency to attract an audience for his intentionally vaudeville-reminiscent live shows, which blend self-deprecating stand-up with self-indulgent musical performances aided by his celebrity friends. Sometimes painted in the press as the excessively petulant jilted wife in the NBC divorce, here the comedy-writer-turned-late-night-host comes off as less an entitled whiner than a perfectionist: NBC’s crime was not taking away his toy, but taking away his control. (O’Brien’s mid-life crisis has been examined from every angle, though the psychological impact of his evolution from behind-the-scenes nerd to camera-ready personality seems like it could use further analysis.)
As fly-on-the-wall as it gets—meaning the camerawork is often sloppy—Flender’s film presents O’Brien in full-on Tortured Star mode, alternately overexerting himself and complaining that he’s being overworked, courting attention and sulking alone. The portrayal is at times startlingly negative, to the point where you wonder if O’Brien is consciously playing up the diva act for the camera. “Anyone who knows me who watches [the live show] says, ‘Now that’s just raw you,’ ” O’Brien says. As protective of his persona as he’s proven to be, any time he goes out of his way to insist that he’s “keeping it real” scans as suspicious.