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.
NEXT: The Water Diviner


Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me

Big Star in happier times...sorta.

Big Star in happier times…sorta.

(2012) Musical Documentary (Magnolia) Jody Stephens, Jim Dickinson, Alex Chilton, Ken Stringfellow, Chris Stamey, Rick Clark, Mike Mills, Alexis Taylor, Tav Falco, David Bell, Sara Stewart, John Fry, Carole Manning, Steve Rhea, Andy Hummel, Richard Rosebrough. Directed by Drew DeNicola and Olivia Mori

 Florida Film Festival 2013

In many ways Big Star was the ultimate cult band. They only released three sparsely-distributed albums from 1972-78 before fracturing apart, but those albums! That music! It’s some of the greatest music written during the rock era, and nearly every musician with any reverence for rock and roll in the 35 years since then has been influenced by their sound – from REM and the jangle pop of the 80s to the Replacements and the punks of the 90s to Hot Chip and the electropop of the 21st Century.

The band came out of Memphis, whose rock and roll legacy has tended to lean towards the blues and Southern boogie so when these guys appeared it must have turned a head or two. At the front was Alex Chilton, the boy wonder who had a number one hit in his teens with the Box Tops, and Chris Bell, a lonely and melancholy genius who worked at Ardent Studios (the band’s home base and source of their record label) as an engineer. Bassist Andy Hummel and drummer Jody Stephens rounded out the line-up.

Their first album, #1 Record, got great critical acclaim but Ardent, whose distribution was handled by the soul label Stax which was looking to make in-roads in the pop and rock markets – or should I say mis-handled – often frustrated consumers who read glowing reviews in the press but would then write the band to ask where they could buy the album which very often wouldn’t be in the bins. The band didn’t have a clue where to find them either.

Bell would wind up quitting over the lack of support for the band from their label. He was also hurt about Chilton getting the lion’s share of the attention, despite his own significant contributions to the Big Star sound. He’d go on to a checkered post-Big Star career, recording I Am the Cosmos – an amazing album that is essentially the lost Big Star album – but perishing in a car accident before it was released.

The band soldiered on as a trio, releasing Radio City in 1974 only to see nearly all of the albums that were pressed left in a warehouse that later burned with the albums in them, although some copies apparently survived and made it overseas. Recording sessions for a third album for the band, now down to Chilton and Stephens (with session musicians augmenting the two) showed Chilton’s frustration. He almost deliberately sabotaged the songs and made them unlistenable although a select few of them – like Stephens’ “For You” – were still full of ragged beauty. The third album, variously titled Third and Sister Lovers never got an official release during the band’s lifetime although bootlegged copies were available pretty in a widespread fashion (it finally was given an official release in the 90s by Rykodisc).

The band never got the due that they deserved while they were alive – Chilton passed away in 2010, Hummel not long after and Bell, as I mentioned, in 1978 (Stephens, the only surviving band member, continues to work for Ardent today) although their cult status followed them around for years. Chilton, somewhat embittered by the experience I think, flat-out ignored requests to play Big Star songs during his solo shows and more or less disowned the band until a surprise reunion concert with Stephens (with Posies Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer filling out the band) in 1993 at the University of Missouri, which led to a tour which led to another album although by then the magic was clearly gone.

Still, their memory lives on in all the music that they recorded (the best-known of which is “In the Street,” the opening title track to That 70s Show and the oft-covered ”September Gurls” which was the closest they got to a hit) and all the music that they inspired.

The documentary is clearly a labor of love; they had very little archival footage to work with and so as a result it has a bit of a talking head feel to it but the interviews are in the main, incredibly interesting and moving – there was a lot of pain associated with the band and when you watch Chris Bell’s sister Sara Stewart break down a little, saying in a soft, hurt voice “I hated the band” to which her brother David Bell said in a comforting voice “I know. You’d rather have him back than have the music out there,” your heart breaks just a little. Still in all, you can listen to the music of Big Star – most of you probably have never heard it – and be dazzled. I hope that a lot of people get to see this documentary mainly because it would be ironic and fitting that this wonderful, inspiring music be exposed to a greater number of people long after the band that recorded it is gone.

REASONS TO GO: Incredible soundtrack. Some heartfelt and heartrending interviews.

REASONS TO STAY: Not a lot of performance or archival video.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some mild bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The name Big Star doesn’t refer to Chilton’s success with the Box Tops nor is it an egotistical prognostication of the band’s future – rather they named themselves after a Memphis-area grocery store chain, one of which was near Ardent Studios.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/25/13: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet; the movie has embarked on the festival circuit after a strong start at SXSW.



NEXT: Off-Shoring Part 1