People see a stand-up comedian on stage holding a microphone and naturalistically spouting out hilarious jokes and think to themselves, “I can do that.” Except few realize that they, in fact, cannot do what stand-up comedians make look so easy. As the saying goes, “Dying is easy; comedy is hard.” It’s a craft that is honed over years of unresponsive audiences, drunken hecklers in dingy dive bars, and an unforgiving life on the road with an endless succession of seedy motels. The life and motivations of the stand-up comedian are explored in the new documentary from the directing duo of Lloyd Stanton and Paul Toogood, Dying Laughing. The film features an impressive collection of interviews with stand-up comedians of all levels of stature, from the most famous comedians who sell out massive arenas to the working comics struggling on the road. With an array of wildly talented comedians sharing anecdotes, Dying Laughing is thoroughly entertaining even if the insights it provides aren’t going to be too deep for devoted comedy fans.
Dying Laughing opens with various comedians, including Chris Rock and Jerry Seinfeld, musing on the nature of the comedian as the last truth-teller in the world. Other voices join in the chorus and explain how the instant gratification of an audience laughing at their jokes is addictive. It’s an interesting way to open the movie as it seems that the film will be nothing more than a circle jerk of comedians talking about the importance of their craft and the attention that they each crave, but it doesn’t take too long for Dying Laughing to show that it’s not just saying “Funny people are good people.”
The film then shares anecdotes about how comedians found their distinct voice through trial, error, and even more error. One thing that becomes increasingly clear through these stories is that there is no such thing as an overnight success in stand-up comedy. It’s tireless work in low-paying gigs of questionable repute accentuated with constant failure before reaching that next level of being a road comic. Then the comedians assembled recall their various stories of life on the road, performing for a different crowd of surly drunks before being escorted off to their entirely unglamorous hotel room, sometimes bunking with fellow comedians that they’ve never made before. Each and every story drives home the point that comedians spend a lot of time at the bottom before, maybe, they reach the point where they could be considered successful.
There’s even an emotional element to Dying Laughing with comedians such as Jim Jeffries opening up about their struggles with depression, which seems to be quite prevalent among comedians. Some provide their own theories as to why depression pervades among the ranks of comedians, and everyone makes it perfectly clear that depression isn’t a prerequisite for comedy. There are other stories that move the heart, such as comedian Royale Watkins discussing an evening where he bombed so badly that the audience was calling for his head. The comedian walked off the stage in disgrace before the late great Bernie Mac walked on stage and pleaded with the audience to give Watkins another chance. Royale Watkins tears up recalling the scene and the remnants of those tears are present on his cheeks in later segments. Then there’s story that Tiffany Haddish tells of a moment in her life where she was adrift and facing a decision between a life in various social programs or a comedy class. It’s impossible not to be moved as she explains how she found herself through comedy, and her mounting success only warms your heart. Whereas it’s easy to see comedians as a select few in a privileged occupation, which a select few are, there’s also that aspect of these are people that are dealing with the same problems as the rest of us, and their art is their means for exercising their demons.
Unless you’re an inhuman monster or the current President of the United States of America (same difference), we all love to laugh. It’s easy to overlook the painful aspects of honing the craft into material that kills, and that there are genuine human struggles behind each punchline. Dying Laughing cuts through the stage persona and finds the humanity behind the jokes. The film is certainly helped that it features some of the funniest people on the planet telling their stories on the craft, many of whom I didn’t even mention because it would have just been a lot of padding to the review. Beyond funny people talking about their comedy, Dying Laughing is a deftly edited and briskly paced work of documentary filmmaking that captures your attention and never lets go. Dying is easy; comedy is hard, and being a comedian sometimes make dying the more preferable option. That is until you hear the laughter.
An entertaining look at the life of stand-up comedy, Dying Laughing is an entertaining documentary that features an impressive roster of comedic talent explaining their craft, but is also a movie willing to go into the deeper emotional terrain of its subjects.