Misery Loves Comedy

Hanks talks comedy.

Hanks talks comedy.

(2014) Documentary (Tribeca) Freddie Prinze Jr., Amy Schumer, Tom Hanks, Jim Gaffigan, Christopher Guest, Jon Favreau, Jason Reitman, Steve Coogan, Kathleen Madigan, Martin Short, Judd Apatow, Jimmy Fallon, Andy Richter, Jim Norton, Kelly Carlin, Marc Maron, Lewis Black, Bobby Cannavale, Kevin Smith, Lisa Kudrow, Matthew Perry, Chris Hardwick, Sam Rockwell, Jemaine Clement, Greg Proopst, Kumal Nanjiani, Jimmy Pardo, Maria Bamford. Directed by Kevin Pollak

Comedy is like a drug, both to the audience and the comedian. The audience uses the jokes as a means of escaping their daily lives, a way to find insight into those lives and a way to realize that just about nothing is above laughing at or about. The comedian feeds on their laughter, the laughter a validation of their craft and indirectly of themselves.

This documentary, directed by veteran comic, actor and impressionist Pollak who never appears on-camera but can be heard conducting the interview off-camera, has more than 40 subjects many of whom are on the A-list of stand-ups and several of whom have graduated on to bigger and better things. Some of the interviewees are comic actors, others directors of comedies. There are many more interviewees than we had room for at the top of this review, with Rob Brydon, Janeane Garafalo, Whoopi Goldberg, Jim Jeffries, Robert Smigel, Larry Miller, David Koechner, Stephen Merchant, Nick Swardson, Gregg Hughes, William H. Macy and hordes of others.

The interviews don’t really go into the mechanics of comedy – putting together an act, writing jokes and so on – but more into how people become professional stand-ups. It looks at the influences of the various comics, and at what life events prompted them to become comedians. Many of the people interview have traumas at some point in their lives that prompted them to go into comedy, using standup almost as therapy.

It isn’t required for a comedian to be miserable, muses one of them, but “you have to know misery.” That makes a lot of sense when you think about it; to understand what makes people laugh you also have to understand what makes them cry. A good comedian can do both.

You do get a real sense of the insecurities that haunt a lot of the comics; they talk about what it’s like to bomb, what it’s like to kill and how comics bond together hoping that they all succeed. Nobody likes to follow a comic that bombed; the audience is less primed to laugh. When you follow someone who just killed, it’s not only easier to get the audience to laugh but they also laugh harder. Laughter multiplies exponentially.

One thing that is kind of glaring; there is only one African-American comic and no Latino comics among the forty or so interviewees and quite frankly, there’s too many interviewees to begin with. I would have liked to have seen a little more diversity in the interviews which might have given us some different perspectives. A lot of the stories the comics told about not being accepted in high school and so on were a little bit too similar; getting the perspective of minority comics might have really made for a more three-dimensional take on comedy than what we received.

Yes, there are a lot of laughs here but there are some truly affecting moments, as when Prinze talks about his father’s suicide and how it affected he and his mother. Indirectly, Prinze Junior went into stand-up mainly because his grandfather urged him to “clean up what your father effed up” which for a young kid can be kind of a daunting burden, considering the fame his dad had. Bamford also tells us about the first time she talked about her time in a mental hospital onstage, prompting others in the audience to shout out their own experiences. It must be a very powerful thing, having the ability to help others heal through the gift of laughter. It’s also a nice little grace note that the movie was dedicated to Robin Williams, whose suicide likely had people in the business thinking about the link between misery and comedy.

This isn’t a complete primer on what makes us laugh and how the people who make us laugh do it, but it does give us some insight into the mind of the standup comedian and of the others who make us laugh on the big and small screens. It is said that laughter is the best medicine; this is essentially over-the-counter stuff but it gets the job done.

REASONS TO GO: Lots of laughs as you’d expect hanging out with comedians. Powerful in places. Gives the viewer a sense of what the life of a standup comedian is like and why people do it.
REASONS TO STAY: Too many interviewees and only one African-American one and no Latinos. A little bit too scattershot.
FAMILY VALUES: Some fairly foul language and some adult comedy.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Pollak is best known for his standup routine and celebrity impressions, most notably Peter Falk and William Shatner.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/9/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 29% positive reviews. Metacritic: 50/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Aristocrats
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: The Water Diviner

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