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

17 Again


17 Again

Zac Efron and Leslie Mann have a future as professional ballroom dancers.

(New Line) Matthew Perry, Zac Effron, Leslie Mann, Michele Trachtenberg, Thomas Lennon, Sterling Knight, Hunter Parrish, Melora Hardin, Brian Doyle-Murray, Jim Gaffigan. Directed by Burr Steers

None of us are born perfect. It is part of the human experience that we at some point regret some of our actions – or inactions – from our youth. There isn’t one of us who has survived high school who don’t at some point think that they would do things differently had they to do it over again. Unfortunately, life grants us few do-overs.

Mike O’Donnell (Perry) had it all going for him in 1989. A high school basketball standout with college scholarships coming in, one of the most popular guys in school, especially with Scarlett (Mann) an adoring and gorgeous girlfriend. it all comes crashing down when he is forced to make a decision – one that has ramifications that will affect his entire future.

Twenty years later, life hasn’t gone exactly to plan for Mike. He and Scarlett (whom he married right out of high school) are in the process of an acrimonious divorce. His teenaged kids Alex (Knight) and Maggie (Trachtenberg) think he’s the world’s biggest loser, which is true for most teenaged kids when considering their dad, but after being passed over for a promotion he thought was in the bag, he wonders if they’re not right.

He is reduced to crashing at the pad of his only friend, Ned (Lennon), an uber-nerd in high school but a software billionaire now. After encountering a janitor (Doyle-Murray) who only Mike seems to see and who has the kind of knowing smile that indicates he has information privy only to him that would be very useful in solving your problems, Mike falls into a convenient vortex and emerges out the other end looking very much like Zac Efron.

In fact this is what Mike used to look like as a teenager in 1989 – Zac Efron, which seems quite a leap of faith for Matthew Perry but there you have it. However, this isn’t 1989 – it’s still 2009 and Mike still has the same problems. There’s no going back and fixing them, not in this body switch movie. Instead what he can do is make a difference in the life of his soon-to-be ex-wife and kids.

Of course, his kids aren’t living the lives he thought they were. Alex, who Mike thought was a basketball star like he was, is the very much picked-upon towel boy. Even though Alex is a talented player in his own right, he doesn’t have the self-confidence to try out. Maggie is dating an utter douchebag (Parrish) who is trying – without any success – to get into her pants, but she is slowly crumbling under the pressure.

In order to fit in, Mike prevails upon Ned to act as his legal guardian so that he might attend school. Ned becomes far more receptive to this idea when he falls head over heels for the comely but frosty principal (Hardin). Also, Mike’s wife has begun to notice this kid who looks exactly like the high school boy she fell in love with and develop feelings for him, feelings she believes to be inappropriate. For his part, Mike begins to see her as a person instead of as his wife; the revelation is a bit of an eye-opener for him.

But despite Mike’s good intentions, things begin to fall apart as they generally do in body switch movies and he becomes dangerously close to losing everything that matters the most to him. Can he make things right or is he destined to live his life over again, this time without the people he loves?

I wasn’t expecting much from this movie. After all, most of the body switch movies I’ve seen of late have been pretty much rehashes in one way or another of Big. Quite frankly, this one is too. However, what I wasn’t prepared for was how much I enjoyed this movie’s offbeat charm.

There are some genuine laughs here, mostly supplied by Lennon. I’ve seen him in a few movies and never really noticed him especially, but he nails this one and comes close to stealing the movie. However, Efron – whose High School Musical movies I’m not a big fan of – was surprisingly good. He has an effortless, winsome appeal that makes me think that he is going to have great longevity as a movie star instead of one of those cast-aside teen idols whose stock plummets the older he gets. I think Efron has the charisma to parlay his teen movie success into a great career. He may even have the acting chops as well.

Mann is, as always, a steady performer who can play bitchy and sweet equally well. She does both here, but it is her tender side that I remember more vividly. Trachtenberg, a refugee from the Buffyverse, is solid as the Goth daughter.

I found myself liking the movie and believing in the romances, which is a credit to the performers more than the script, which doesn’t really stray very far from the body switch formula. This isn’t a genre-definer by any stretch of the imagination, but it is entertaining enough to give it a mild recommendation. Check it out on cable if you haven’t seen it before, and if you have a teenaged daughter, prepare for a loud squeal when Efron takes off his shirt. If you are a teenaged daughter, warn your parents that they might hear one; it’s only polite.

WHY RENT THIS: Surprisingly engaging, Efron, Perry, Mann and Lennon make this very watchable. A few actually funny moments.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: You’ve probably seen this before and probably done better. Not very groundbreaking, not at all.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some swearing and teen sexuality but otherwise suitable for just about everyone.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Zac Efron developed appendicitis during filming which began as a stomach ache. It grew painful enough that he had it checked out the day after filming wrapped and was rushed into surgery that very night. Therefore this marks the final filmed appearance of Zac Efron’s appendix.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Da Queen’s favorite, a way cool tell-all trivia track, can be selected to play during the film. Mostly useless factoids pop up every half a minute or so.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Love in the Time of Cholera