I think everyone, at some point in his or her lives, has considered being a stand-up comedian. Perhaps not for long, maybe no more than five minutes at a stretch – but at some point or another, I would wager that you’ve sat in front of a mirror and told a joke to yourself. Or to your friend. Or to your sibling. Or to the family cat. Regardless of who you told a humorous anecdote to, I imagine that you’ve read a funny joke somewhere and tried to pass it off as your own. But then you’ve stumbled half way through, forgotten an important piece of the monologue and cut straight to the punch line. I imagine that your cat then stared at you with a mixture of disdain and contemptuous nonchalance before it turned it attention away and started licking its puckered arsehole with fervent diligence.
Look at your DVD collection there, gathering dust against the shelf. In all likelihood, you’ve got a Michael McIntyre show that your mum bought you for your birthday, don’t you? Didn’t Uncle Bob send a Billy Connolly Christmas Special last year? However, we won’t talk about the other uncle who sent you Jim Davidson’s BEST OF collection. We’ll just sweep that one under the mattress so no one can see it shall we?
‘Dying Laughing,’ is a British produced documentary directed by Lloyd Stanton and Paul Toogood, a 90-minute candid observation at some of the unseen, miserable and downright torturous experiences of being a stand-up comedian. We see Cedric the Entertainer likening the stage to that of the Roman Colosseum, riding a chariot at full pelt, a Ben-Hur style warrior, whipping the reigns of the audience as to not have their attention diverted away from what is happening onstage. We have Billy Connelly explaining a time when a heckler jumped up on stage to head-butt him onto his arse. Most of the comedians talking (shot in back and white, alternating with colour footage of nightclubs, long highways and grotty holiday inns) have been in the game for a while – an eclectic collection consisting of Amy Schumar, Kevin Hart, Steve Coogan, Jamie Foxx, Garry Shandling, Sarah Silverman, Tiffany Haddish and Omid Djalilil to name but a few; there’s some of the old guard too, with Jerry Lewis appearing sporadically to describe some of his sage wisdom for the younger generation.
For anyone interested in the culture of comedy, the prospect of watching this documentary will be far too seductive to resist. We follow a rhythmic sequence as the comedians share their experiences with their first uncertain gigs, through to the worst hecklers they’ve encountered and the loneliness they’ve endured whilst gigging. They explain the dedication and persistence that it takes to become a comedian; that it’s more of a calling than anything else and they ruminate on the sadomasochistic nature of essentially standing in a room full of strangers and trying to make them laugh for approval. As a comedy documentary, there are laughs-a-plenty as some of the comedians tell of their experiences of hecklers in a clearly anecdotal way. There’s hair-raising instances of redneck hostility and uncomfortable truths to be told, but this documentary is really a showcase to illustrate the vulnerability that accompanies each performer as they go through the perilous and sometimes underappreciated task of making us laugh.
In one segment, Ryale Watkins is reduced to tears as he recalls his worst bombing experience, where he ruefully places the microphone back on its stand and walks offstage dejected, all while his hero; Michael Jordan watches from the side. Tiffany Haddish emotionally describes how a comedy course saved her from a potential life of crime or being someone’s baby mamma. Another comedian describes the terrifying sensation of constantly falling and never landing. At times, ‘Dying Laughing,’ seems to tip dangerously into self-pitying territory and although there may be a lot of negative emphasis scattered throughout the documentary, the overall weight of the film resides in the fact that comedy can be a unifier of the human spirit, that people from all races, all creeds and all backgrounds can come together in a single room and enjoy the laughter.
It may not offer a huge comprehensive look at the psychoanalysis of comedy, but it looks into a fascinating subject matter – and the charisma of all the performers involved will make it inevitable entertainment.
Review by Anthony Self
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