Star rating: ***
Starring: Amy Schumer, James L Brooks, Judd Apatow, Greg Proops, Rob Brydon, Stephen Merchant, Steve Coogan, Tom Hanks and Whoopi Goldberg
Director & Writer: Kevin Pollak
Length: 94 minutes
Film reviewed: Wednesday 2nd September 2015
Jimmy Carr famously quoted a friend who alluded to there being something markedly different about the make up of a comedian compared to ‘normal people’. “In a room of 2,000 people you are the one person facing the wrong way.” In a way this documentary strives to analyse that comment and figure out what makes someone want to become that guy or woman facing the wrong way.
The documentary is helpfully divided into around 5 different sections all building to the big question, signposted by the documentary’s title, namely, ‘Do you have to be miserable to be funny?’
It features in-depth candid interviews with over fifty comedians or comedy actors. These included Judd Apatow, Rob Brydon, Jimmy Fallon, Jim Gaffigan, Tom Hanks, Lisa Kudrow, Stephen Merchant, Greg Proops and Amy Schumer and many more who provided insights into their professional stories and their lifelong urge to make strangers laugh.
It was interesting to note that most interviewee’s said their father’s inspired them into becoming comedians as they were the first people that made them laugh and they simply enjoyed being made to laugh. I might also add underpinning that was the love of the response, power and authority that comes with being the joker.
In addition to this, other common themes that seemed to unite comedians was the drug like buzz the get from being on stage. It’s an urge they all crave. From personal experience I can well believe that. When you hang around upcoming comedians, as I have done a lot over the years and especially during last month’s Edinburgh Fringe festival, you see up close just how many are desperately keen to get on stage, even if only for 5 minutes just to try out material and witness the reaction of an audience.
Up coming comedians know there’s a journey to be travelled from that initial curiosity to go on stage, getting your first laugh and then wanting more and more of that. This is followed by what they hope will be open mic spots, then paid slots, progressing to more and more bookings and so on as they strive to rise up the comedy ladder. This journey could eventually lead to doing solo shows and tours and much else besides as the commercial opportunities open up the higher up you go.
Many in the documentary also admitted that there was something of the “love me, love me, aren’t I wonderful” desire that they want satisfied. This sense of wanting to be loved by the masses. I guess it’s that which drives a comedian on to succeed, to be the stand out, stand up comedian.
In addition to this there were some great insights into the craft of being a professional comedian, which would be instructive for comedians developing their craft. Rob Brydon was especially amusing in recalling how he attempts to win back an audience if he gauges that they are not with him. That had the cinema audience roaring with laughter. I doubt very much though that in his early days he would have had the confidence to do what he suggested.
Sadly, moments of pure laughter from the likes of Rob Brydon, Stephen Merchant and others were too few and far between, which was a shame considering all the comedy talent on show. The documentary suffered for lack of name recognition. For all I know, many may well have been household names in America, but for me there were far, far too many unfamiliar names on camera, many of whom weren’t especially amusing or interesting to listen to. Which was seriously exacerbated by the irritating overly loud sound projection. Not a good combination at all. More interviews with British comedians would have given it greater appeal to an audience here in England.
For all that, it made me think that, in Britain at least, it might have worked better as a radio documentary than a visual one.
I noticed at the end that the film was financed through crowd sourcing, so I guess having a limited budget restricted film maker’s Kevin Pollak’s ability to get more famous names involved. It would have been nice to hear from people of the calibre of Jim Carrey and Roseanne Barr for instance. Or maybe it was just his choice. After all, if he had the clout to book the likes of Tom Hanks, Whoopi Goldberg, Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan, he presumably has the pulling power to get just about anyone.
Also, where were the Black comedians? Doesn’t their back story matter? Aside from Whoopi Goldberg there weren’t any. No Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle or Kevin Hart. No-one else. Considering the huge success of Def Jam Comedy and those Black comedians who’ve gone on to become top movie stars such as Eddie Murphy and Chris Tucker that’s a glaring omission from the producers.
Contributions from well known names such as Greg Proops, Stephen Merchant, Tom Hanks (did you know he started out as a stand up comedian?), Penn Jillette of Penn & Teller fame, plus Whoopi Goldberg were good. Merchant’s tale of his first meeting with Steve Coogan was hilarious. The host was very funny too and made some good wisecracks at times that even got the comedian’s laughing away.
There could have been more from comediennes too or at least an exploration of the lack of them compared to male comedians. The film could have explore why far less women want to get into stand up comedy, not to mention the barriers put up to them due to their gender.
In closing the film seemed to be saying, as one person put it, “you don’t have to be miserable to be a comedian, but you do have to be miserable to be very funny.” If the comedian is not famous, the general public can only form a view of that based on the material put out. Aside from that, you’d really have to be a comedian, or really know comedian’s well to be able to say if that’s true or not. The jury’s still out on that one, but I don’t think it’s exactly earth shattering news to say that some of the best comedy stems from misery, be it someone’s personal misery or that of another person.
Look at Jack Dee. The king of miserable, deadpan comedy. Is that an act or is he really a miserable person in real life. Who knows? For the purposes of his on stage persona all that matters is that coming across as a miserable moaner works brilliantly, makes people laugh and has earned him a good living as a Comedian.
There is something to be said for people enjoying a laugh at another’s misery, from the basic slapstick of slipping on a banana skin to the misery of being depressed or alcoholic and the amusing situations one can find yourself in as life spiral’s out of control.
Misery loves comedy will appeal to comedians and connoisseurs of comedy more than the general public.
I found that all contributors were very giving, open and generous in sharing their stories and experiences about being a stand up comedian, which made for an insightful and interesting viewing experience.
Review © Tiemo Talk of the Town
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- Edinburgh Fringe Reviews 2015
- Are Black Women Beyond a Joke? Tiemo article – 5th March 2014