Friday, November 11, 2011

Conan O'Brien Can't Stop/Punching the Clown

Henry Phillips and Conan Obrien have quite a bit in common. They are both guitar strumming gingers, who’s desire to perform seems in direct opposition to the cerebral nature of their humor. But, whereas O’Brien was plucked from the obscurity of a writers room to become an unlikely icon, Henry Phillips wont likely enjoy that break through. His fiend and comedian, Doug Stanhope, described him to Marc Maron as one of the most interesting talented people who’s lack of confidence makes him immune to success. Perhaps “enjoy” is the wrong word to use in relation to success, since the documentary Conan Obrien Cant Stopreveals one of the late night greats to be so addicted to the limelight that one seriously worries what will happen to him if the current incarnation of his show doesn’t work out. Phillips documentary, Punching the Clown, could be spliced with Cant Stop as a Citizen Kane style epic, the story of a soft spoken decent man, who eventually finds himself consumed by his own ambition. Who could forget 2010, when Obrien’s loss of the The Tonight Show led to an out pouring of public support and the subsequent tour that Cant Stop documents. I caught the tour in Phoenix, and would have been hard pressed to believe that so much of the spectacle was coming from a place of anger. Sure, the guy lost his job, but he was never well suited for the corporate oversight The Tonight Show entailed. I assumed Obrien must have been secretly relived to be released back into the fringe. Apparently, he was really pissed. Can’t Stop shows the comic punching his staff, being a dick to his assistant ( but still being funny), and deeply resenting the amount of energy he was forced to split between his passion to perform and perfunctory meet and greets. Its obvious that Obrien would be happier if he’d stayed behind the scenes these past two decades, but gosh, then we wouldn’t have this. Phillips, on the other hand, can barely muster the effort to go onstage, joking that if people knew how little work he put in, he’d be seen as a genius. He’s soft spoken in a way Obrien probably was pre-Latenight. Punching the clown is a send up of LA’s inherent insincerity, and how ill fitted a comic like Phillips proves to be in a town where perception is everything. Phillips crashes with his brother in LA after a soul crushing road gig. His career begins to advance through a series of miscommunications but ultimately crashes when his buzz shifts from ‘rising comic’ to ‘blatant anti-Semite.” The joke is that every time something does go well for Phillips, it causes several more people’s lives to suck, like when a comment to an agent about bagels fucks up the morning of every underling in the office. Like Cant Stop, show biz is painted as a toxic environment in which no one has any control, and the best an artist can do is to keep moving. Unlike Wont Stop, I did not worry for Phillips well being after viewing Punching the Clown. Ultimately, his triumph is that he gets to keep playing dive bars in obscure locations. The message to take from these films seems to be that a comedian can’t win because, at the end of the day, he still has the brain of a comedian.

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