by director Rodman Flender
It was less than 48 hours after his final “Tonight Show” and Conan O’Brien and I were eating a plate of fried clams in a seafood shack that, according to him, looked like it was “art-directed by SpongeBob SquarePants.” He told me how much he enjoyed the final moments of the show, playing “Free Bird” with Will Ferrell and an all-star group of guest musicians. “I want to do that again,” he said, “play some live shows with the band, maybe take it out on the road.” This had occurred to him during the actual taping, before the end credits rolled and the last studio audience had left the soundstage. Didn’t he want to take some time off? He’d worked like crazy getting the “Tonight Show” together. Now he was contractually forbidden from performing on TV for a few months—a perfect excuse to take some time away from the limelight and be free of the pressure of coming up with new shows. But Conan wanted to keep going.
The last weeks of Conan’s “Tonight Show” saw a huge outpouring of fan support on the internet. Conan felt that a live show would be a way to reach out and thank his fans. I saw this little music-jam concept quickly expand from a loose series of club dates to something much bigger. Entire pieces of the “Legally Prohibited Tour” were already forming in Conan’s mind: “I’ll start with the song ‘Polk Salad Annie,’ but I’ll change the lyrics from growing up in the South to growing up in Brookline. And I’ll bring out some back-up singers.” Just as quickly as Conan thought about constructing the show, I wanted to make a movie about it. A decade earlier I’d made the documentary Let Them Eat Rock, about a popular Boston band on the verge of breaking out with their first national TV appearance on Conan’s “Late Night” show. Now, here was TV star Conan O’Brien without a show, going out on the road to connect with his fans and get back to a purer kind of show business. It seemed like a natural bookend and weird inversion of my previous documentary. It was obvious what motivated the group in my earlier film; every band wants to break out. But what exactly was driving Conan to work so hard, so fast, on what evolved into a massive 32-city tour? He said he wanted to give back to the fans and, true to his word, he worked relentlessly on a generous show and kept ticket prices lower than the norm. But as I followed him on the tour and filmed the performances, the autograph signings, the “meet & greets,” it became clear that Conan needed that feedback from his fans. I started with the intent to make a film about how an artist uses his art to process his feelings. But I wound up with a film about a kind of addiction: the love and need a performer has of his audience, and, at the same time, the resentment of its constant demands. As to why Conan worked like mad during a time he was supposed to take off—I think he says it best early on in the film: “I’m like Tinkerbell. Without applause I die.”