Some of stand-up comedy’s most famous faces from both sides of the Atlantic sit down to talk about their profession in Paul Toogood and Lloyd Stanton’s newest documentary feature Dying Laughing. Household names such as Chris Rock, Amy Schumer and even the late great Garry Shandling talk honestly about what makes comedians tick, and offers firsthand anecdotes about “bombing”, being heckled by drunks and “killing” it on stage.
Toogood and Stanton use a talking-heads formate to entice their contributors to tell some of the most harrowing experiences of their careers. Made technically on a shoestring and with more than 50 comics taking part, the film manages to be compelling as well as raise some laughs, but fails to completely convince due to its overcrowded nature.
With whole sections devoted to the relationship between a comic and his or her audience, there are some laugh-out-loud as well as more serious moments. Shot mostly is black and white, the film takes a fresh look into the psyche of a comic and asks some pertinent questions about what compels him or her to keep going despite the setbacks. As legendary comedian Jerry Seinfeld describes comedy as “beyond art”, we get the impression that most comics feel a visceral need to make people laugh, even those they hate.
Recounting the misery of touring in places that “just don’t get you”, Sarah Silverman manages to say in a few words what others struggle to covey in whole sections of the film. With female comics few and far between, the directors should be commended for at least trying to offset the balance by giving them as much to say as their male counterparts. As Shandling rightly advises those thinking of taking up the profession by saying “comedy is not for everyone”, you get the impression that years of touring and putting up with ungrateful audiences has taught him that there are no shortcuts, if you want the cheers you have to also put up with the boos.
Dying Laughing does a great job in highlighting the highs and the lows of the profession, but where the film doesn’t get it 100% right is by offering very little background on each of their interviewees. With a lack of stage clips, Toogood and Stanton rely way too much on the assumption that the film’s audience will be made up primarily of comedy aficionados. That may well be the case, but why risks alienating those who know very little about the stand-up world.
All in all, this introspective look at stand-up comedy does a good job of making fun of its own self-centredness. When British comedian Sean Lock says “this is the danger of talking about it, you sound like a wanker”, you can’t help but agree with this statement, but at no pint do you find yourself wanting the interviewees to stop talking about their own experiences, however self-indulgent they may be. A great film, which could have done with less participants.
Dying Laughing is released on June 16th