We’ve all heard of “sad clowns”; the idea that comedians, and the people who make us laugh the most, actually conceal a heavy heart full of misery. Dying Laughing, a documentary by Paul Toogood and Lloyd Stanton, is the latest film to investigate the phenomenon. It does so through a collage of interviews with dozens of stand-up artists: legends like Jerry Seinfeld, Eddie Izzard and Jerry Lewis, big names like Sarah Silverman, Amy Schumer, Frankie Boyle, Chris Rock. You’ll also be delighted to see Emo Phillips, Stewart Lee, Billy Connolly, as well as the late Garry Shandling and Victoria Wood. Plus so many others (to varying degrees of fame) that it would take forever to write them all down. They all contribute by describing what it means to dedicate a life to comedy. Dying Laughing is an entertaining experience for both stand-up fans and casual viewers looking to have a good time, with a few caveats: unless you’re completely new to this, you might have seen and heard it all before; and if you’re hoping for an easy laugh, there will not be many. The focus, here, is more the “dying” than the “laughing”.
More specifically, it’s the “dying” of the comedian. What does it take to travel endlessly from state to state, staying in horrid motels, waiting for shows in bars where people might not even care you’re there. Or theatres where you might bomb at any time in front of thousands? For most, it takes a lonely life spent writing and rewriting jokes, trying them live with little success, channeling their fears and struggles (mostly with depression, but also crime, drugs, real and painful conflicts) into a productive and artistically relevant form of wit.
Each comedian has their say on different topics, from the creation of jokes to being on the road and performing on stage. You’ll hear a lot about heckling. Many wrongly assume that heckling, and especially the consequent put-downs, enrich comedy shows. But let artists who have spent months, even years working on their material tell you how dreadful it feels when someone tries to be smarter than them by hijacking the show. Toogood and Stanton seem sympathetic to the issue, and dedicate a fair portion of the film to it, letting the interviewees vent freely. The result is certainly overlong, although it succeeds in further exposing the nuances of comedians’ personalities and their fragility.
Bombing on stage is also given extensive airtime. It’s quite something to hear about the worst experiences of performers you might have never seen before, and then hear elite comedians like Rock or Seinfeld recall their own most deafening defeat immediately afterwards. Their accounts put stand-up into perspective: a vicious world where there are no shortcuts, no time for self-pity, no space for losers, endless obstacles, and a lot of pain. Sure, when you succeed, eternal glory awaits – but does it really matter at that point? “I bomb in life, right now I’m bombing,” Jeff Joseph brutally admits. “When you heckle me, and try to hurt my feelings, just know that I’m already dead on the inside,” says Sam Tripoli. But everyone also tells us, all that matters in the end, is the laugh you get back from the audience. A perfect reward that washes everything away.
All the interviews are finely shot in black and white, with colour only appearing in warm tones when comedy clubs are shown. A smart trick that highlights how reassuring going on stage feels for comedians, against the bleak introspections we're privy to elsewhere. Dying Laughing adds another layer to this: interviews are framed with the subject in front of a plain backdrop, so that only their heads stand out. At times, a second camera comes in, showing the interviewees talking in the middle of the set, with lights, boom, stand-ins for the backdrop, and the whole background visible. This happens when the film delves deeper, fleshing out the true nature of comedy and its off-stage dynamics. As if it was revealing the secret behind a magic trick, it exposes the performers and what surrounds them at the same time.
Very often Dying Laughing feels too anecdotal to be as inspiring as it wants to be. It has a few fascinating moments, albeit its editing favours quantity over quality, making its messages sound somewhat repetitive, even trite. This is despite the numerous, talented personalities involved. For every Tiffany Haddish explaining how comedy saved her from a life of crime, or Stewart Lee demonstrating his brilliant responses to hecklers, there are Russell Peters’ sanctimonious platitudes like “comedians say what normal people are afraid to say”. Still, in the 89 minutes of running time there is space for some actual philosophising, and hearing all those weird, twisted, inimitable minds run wild is certainly a pleasure.
Words by David Prevarin
Dying Laughing will be released in UK cinemas and On Demand from June 16, 2017.