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Conan O’Brien Really “Can’t Stop” Rodman Flender

Conan O’Brien Really “Can’t Stop” Rodman Flender (photo)

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As the line that stretched well around the Paramount Theater in Austin finally filed into to see “Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop,” attendees were asked to pull out a photo ID in addition to their badges, perhaps out of fear former NBC chief Jeff Zucker might want to sneak a glimpse of what very easily could’ve been one last parting shot over the late night fiasco that left “The Tonight Show” tarnished and O’Brien without a desk job. Ultimately, Zucker’s name isn’t mentioned once in the documentary, but O’Brien’s legion of fans is ever present just as the history books will likely reflect, especially since director Rodman Flender was there to capture the 32-city tour that bridged O’Brien’s unceremonious departure from NBC to eventually finding a home at TBS.

One of those rare portraits of an artist that’s as entertaining as it is insightful, “Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop” could hardly have been made by anyone else than Flender, a college pal of O’Brien’s at Harvard who since went on to make darkly-tinged comedies such as “Idle Hands” before finding a steady career in television where the breakneck pace of production surely helped him keep up with the fleet feet of O’Brien once they hit the road on the “Legally Prohibited From Being Funny On Television” tour. However, it was Flender’s friendship with O’Brien that got him in the door for what O’Brien joked at SXSW “a record that patients around the world could use,” detailing the painful days of putting “The Tonight Show” to rest and coming up with a live variety show from scratch within weeks.

03242011_RodmanFlenderConanOBrienCantStop.jpgA stoic O’Brien is able to toss off one-liners like “I didn’t want to be the first to take ‘The Tonight Show’ into the next day,” but it’s quickly apparent Flender’s lens is going to catch some of the very real frustration behind the scenes of creating something while the entire world’s watching, greeting an endless parade of fans and dealing with the fallout of not getting a fair shake. As O’Brien says during a particularly brutal stint at Bonnaroo, “Nobody’s thinking of burning me out,” which while feeling true at the time runs counter to the other fascinating aspect of “Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop” — the real Team Coco that props O’Brien up during this marathon run including his longtime executive producer Jeff Ross and his assistant Sona Movsesian (who steals the film as an able foil for her boss’s quips), among others. Add in special guests such as Eddie Vedder, Jim Carrey, Jack White, and a dressed down Jack McBrayer, not to mention variants on O’Brien’s usual carousel of characters like the self-pleasuring panda, and you’ve got an incredibly good time that just happens to be an remarkable time capsule as well.

While at SXSW, O’Brien stopped by the IFC Crossroads House to talk about the film during the festival and I got a chance to catch up with the film’s director following the film’s debut in Austin.

At what point did you find out about Conan leaving NBC?

I found out like everybody else. There were rumors swirling around and I heard those rumors and it all happened very quickly — for Conan as well. It all happened, as you see in the movie, in a very short space of time.

How quickly did you have to mobilize?

Everything happened very quickly and this wasn’t a documentary where I wanted where I had an agenda or I wanted to depict a terrible political situation and hope for change. This was about an incident and something that was going on right then and there and I had to start shooting. It wasn’t like a scripted film where you could say oh, let’s wait a week or let’s push or wait till we get this financing. I had to pick up a camera and start shooting or I was going to miss it.

You’re friends with Conan as well, so what was it like to capture this person at what was perhaps his lowest professional moment?

I’ve always said a bet against Conan is a sucker’s bet. Don’t bet against Conan. Even when he was at his lowest point, I’ve always said that. Something good will happen. He’s just too talented and too genuine and good a person and that combination leads to good things. He was at a terrible time professionally and emotionally and he wasn’t quite sure what was going to happen. Hopefully, one of the joys of the film is seeing that process of discovery of finding the show and figuring out what that show is. And that seemed like a rare opportunity to capture.

This film was obviously put together very quickly, were you thinking about structure continually as you were filming?

I knew this was a movie about a process and about how an individual works through some very strong feelings and some setbacks using his art and using comedy. So structurally, I never wanted it to be like a road movie and I certainly didn’t want it to be a concert film. It is more or less chronological and I think emotionally, it’s true. As I was editing it, that was always in the back of my mind was always trying to answer those questions I was setting up for myself and not just tell an episodic “here’s what happened in Boston” and “now we’re in Las Vegas and this city…”

You’re really able to tie moments from the live show thematically into the film.

I’m glad you caught that because my editing process was I edited that stuff last. I really cut the bones of the documentary together first and that was the first cut that Conan saw was the movie without any of the performance footage in it. [slight laugh] That was difficult for him because he basically saw 90 minutes of him yelling at people. I said, “just wait, people will see what you’re working towards,” but I needed to show him structurally what I was going towards. Once I had that skeleton down, I could look through the performance footage and find moments that I thought spoke to what was happening thematically.

Do you think Conan really needed a camera in front of him in some ways to just keep up his routine?

Right, that’s one of the central questions of the film. It’s early on in the film I ask him, “can you have fun without an audience in front of you?” That’s very explicitly point blank asked of him and hopefully the next 90 minutes tries to answer that question. Was he performing specifically for me? I think that’s who he is and I know people talk about comedians, “Are they always on?” He’s a naturally funny person and one of the nicest things I’ve heard about the movie from people who’ve seen it, a guy came up to me and he said, “wow, it felt like I was just hanging out with the funniest people I know and we were all just riffing together. It felt that intimate to me.” That meant a lot to me – that kind of intimacy that came through the screen and the fact that this guy who had never met Conan felt like he was just hanging out with his buddies.

This isn’t just a film about Conan, but the team that helps propel him. Was that something you knew you’d focus on from the beginning or were you simply present for it?

I was just present for that and Conan and I had been friends for a long time, but we’d never worked together. Never worked together before. So I had never been in a comedy writers’ room, so that was all new and very interesting to me and I wanted to see how that worked. And I figured okay, if I want to see how this works, maybe somebody else will too.

Now that the project is done, do you feel this had a different kind of energy than other films you’ve made since it came together so quickly?

I knew I had to get it out quickly. I knew this was a timely issue and even though the movie is not about what happened a year ago with NBC, it’s about what happened after that, so nevertheless, I still wanted to get this out there while it was still fresh in people’s minds. I knew this couldn’t be a documentary where I take five years to edit it, which is what I did with the last documentary [“Let Them Eat Rock”] I did 10 years ago. This was more pressing. So I cut it very quickly. Very long hours.

Were you tired out by the process? Did your experience mirror what was going on onscreen?

It was difficult because [Conan’s] a hard guy to keep up with and I’m trying to keep up with him and also trying to keep things in focus – I was a one-man crew most of the time. I had to make sure I got it all. In terms of the editing process, it was tiring and the tour itself was so whirlwind, I’ve had other people come up to me after seeing the movie and they just sat there for 90 minutes and said, “I’m exhausted.” To me, that’s a compliment. That means I’ve done my job. That means, I think, it adequately captures what a whirlwind the tour was and how hard Conan worked at it and how driven he was.

“Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop” will be released later this year on a variety of platforms through a distribution deal with AT&T U-Verse, Abramorama and Magnolia Pictures.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…

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IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.

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IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).

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IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.

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IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.

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IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.

Jenn: I LOVE ISSA RAE!

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IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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G.I. Jeez

Stomach Bugs and Prom Dates

E.Coli High is in your gut and on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Brothers-in-law Kevin Barker and Ben Miller have just made the mother of all Comedy Crib series, in the sense that their Comedy Crib series is a big deal and features a hot mom. Animated, funny, and full of horrible bacteria, the series juxtaposes timeless teen dilemmas and gut-busting GI infections to create a bite-sized narrative that’s both sketchy and captivating. The two sat down, possibly in the same house, to answer some questions for us about the series. Let’s dig in….

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IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

BEN: Hi ummm uhh hi ok well its like umm (gets really nervous and blows it)…

KB: It’s like the Super Bowl meets the Oscars.

IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

BEN: Oh wow, she’s really cute isn’t she? I’d definitely blow that too.

KB: It’s a cartoon that is happening inside your stomach RIGHT NOW, that’s why you feel like you need to throw up.

IFC: What was the genesis of E.Coli High?

KB: I had the idea for years, and when Ben (my brother-in-law, who is a special needs teacher in Philly) began drawing hilarious comics, I recruited him to design characters, animate the series, and do some writing. I’m glad I did, because Ben rules!

BEN: Kevin told me about it in a park and I was like yeah that’s a pretty good idea, but I was just being nice. I thought it was dumb at the time.

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IFC: What makes going to proms and dating moms such timeless and oddly-relatable subject matter?

BEN: Since the dawn of time everyone has had at least one friend with a hot mom. It is physically impossible to not at least make a comment about that hot mom.

KB: Who among us hasn’t dated their friend’s mom and levitated tables at a prom?

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

BEN: There’s a lot of content now. I don’t think anyone will even notice, but it’d be cool if they did.

KB: A show about talking food poisoning bacteria is basically the same as just watching the news these days TBH.

Watch E.Coli High below and discover more NYTVF selections from years past on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

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