DYING LAUGHING B-
Great Britain (89 mi) 2016 d: Lloyd Stanton and Paul Toogood
Comedy is purely a result of your ability to withstand self-torture. That’s where you get great comedy. Your ability to suffer and go, ‘That damn thing still doesn’t work. I’m gonna write it again; I’m gonna try it again.’ And If you’re willing to do that, 85 times for a stupid joke, over the course of many years, great jokes get written.
A British documentary on the art of stand-up comedy, viewed through the lens of current British and American comedians speaking about their craft, interviewing more than 50 comedians overall, though the film refuses to show actual clips of them performing their routines. While it only superficially examines the surface, the basic premise explores a comedian’s first moments onstage, how it’s not at all what one expects, as it’s rarely a laugh riot, instead it’s a brutally harsh environment where judgmental behavior can instantly go awry, leaving you exiting the stage in a cold sweat, swearing you’ll never try that again, as it’s such a personal rebuke of who you are as a human being. Unlike other industries or mediums, there is no filter in this profession, where it’s about as personal as it gets, with nothing to protect you from drunken hecklers or a vehemently disinterested audience that simply refuses to laugh at your material and instead calls for you to get off the stage. The personal nature of the rejection, cries of “you stink” coming from the audience, pierce through a comedian’s armor with often devastating results. These are painful moments in the life of every starting comedian, yet that wall of negativity is what must be overcome if you wish to remain in the profession. According to Jerry Seinfeld, “The first time you go on stage, you don’t realize how harsh of an environment it actually is. When you watch comedians, when you don’t know anything about the context, it seems like the audience is kind of having a good time anyway. That’s not what’s happening at all. What’s happening is nothing. Absolutely nothing. It’s dead, solid quiet from a room of unhappy people…and you have to start from that.” You must experience the silent indifference and epic emptiness of the low moments before you can rise to greater heights, rewriting and reworking your material, being better prepared next time, intentionally targeting that wall of silence. Shot in black and white, with cameras pointed at a series of comedians who each answer one at a time, recalling their worst experience onstage. While most have the ability to keep it light and funny, others are visibly hurt by the extent of the personalized pain, suggesting that is something that never goes away. While there is a long list of mostly recognizable figures including Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, Sarah Silverman, Amy Schumer, Kevin Hart, Jamie Foxx, Cedrick the Entertainer, Steve Coogan, and even Jerry Lewis, among others, including some unfamiliar British faces, the personalized nature of their experiences makes this uniquely interesting and hilariously funny at times, but the material grows thin after a while and loses its cutting edge, continually repeating itself, where you get the feeling it’s drifting, never really going anywhere.
While several of the remarks are profoundly moving, offering a sense of tragedy, the filmmakers never follow up to explore more deeply, content at providing a generalized overall view, while the film may actually be a self-help guide or an instructional kit for what to expect when you embark on your new career as a comedian. We do get a sense that many comics start by copying others, doing imitations, stealing each other’s jokes, but that the best laughs come by telling true stories, something that is authentically your own, as this is something that’s never been heard before. Chris Rock claims “Only poetry comes up to the same level. We’re the last philosophers,” claiming they are the last remaining group that is totally allowed unconditionally to speak freely. “Everybody now that talks is reading from a preapproved script. Even our alleged ‘smart people’ are corporately controlled. So there’s only one group of people that kinda say what they want to say.” Without delving into the art of comedy or what makes something funny, the film is actually more interested in the painful moments, where each is asked to relive the most brutally painful experience they’ve ever had onstage, including when they’ve bombed, where there’s a large segment devoted to hecklers, where some face them head on, refusing to allow others to wrest the power from their microphones, while others recall racially tinged hecklers that simply stopped the show altogether, forcing them off the stage, never to return to that location ever again. There seems to be a difference in American and British comedians, as Americans have a tradition of going “on the road,” indicating a willingness to accept a certain amount of rural desolation, far from anyplace recognizable, where they’re booked into an endless series of nights in small towns along barren highways with bad food and no name motels, where the isolation is crushing, far from your family and everything you’re familiar with, completely alone, not knowing anyone in town, yet you’re supposed to be funny in a room full of strangers, with some reporting the audience is the first conversation they’ve had with anybody else all day. British comedians usually play in large metropolitan towns, where there’s no sense of the utter isolation that Americans are forced to experience. Sometimes you perform in bars, where they turn off the TV when you begin your act, but some patrons are personally invested in whatever sporting event was being shown, screaming for the TV to be turned back on, getting pissed off and angry, but then the comedian is supposed to fill the room with laughs.
The film never revisits history, but traditionally, in the old vaudeville halls, comedians were used to entertain the crowd before the dancing girls came onstage, where they were routinely booed off the stage or stopped in mid act to bring on what the audience came to see. Similarly, Keenan Ivory Wayans remembers playing a set in the remote wilds of Alaska, where the venue was a strip club, with an audience full of men packing guns who’d been working out in the wilderness for the last six months, who had no interest in his jokes, as they hadn’t seen a naked woman in several months. Unfortunately, there is too much unnecessary filler material, comments from people we don’t know or like, who are basically echoing sentiments we’ve already heard earlier in the film by somebody else. While the British comedians probably play well in England, and the Americans in the United States, only a few are popular on both continents, which means audiences from both nations will be expected to hear unfamiliar voices that may affect one’s appreciation for the film. Ultimately what stands out is that the career of comedians is hardly glamorous, and more often grueling and disorientating, especially being in unfamiliar places, where black female comedian Cocoa Brown reveals, “It’s lonely. You know, I can be onstage in front of 5,000 people, get a standing ovation and go to my hotel room to complete silence. And I’m looking at the money on the bed, and the room service I just ordered, but I have no one to call.” According to Amy Schumer, she felt lucky if there was free yogurt and orange juice offered in the lobby in the morning, while Royale Watkins is reduced to tears recalling his worst show happened with Michael Jordan and Bo Jackson in the audience, making it even more excruciatingly painful, as in those moments you don’t get a second chance, so despite hundreds of successful shows, this is the one that sticks with you. While searching for that magic to click onstage, something Jerry Lewis describes as “the hallelujah moment,” the film seems to fixate on the dark underbelly of the profession, recalling heartbreaking moments onstage, where depression also follows you in the utter isolation of being on the road, forced to confront hostile and indifferent crowds, where all it takes is one inebriated heckler to ruin it for everybody else. Following the recent suicide of Robin Williams (two years ago), it reminds us of the unseen psychological toll that follows these comedians throughout their careers, even after considerable success, where a part of their emotional world always feels damaged, leading to increased anxiety, insecurity, and in some cases substance abuse. Dedicated to Gary Shandling, who also died less than a year ago, the film is a testament to what it takes to survive.