Is Jimmy Fallon miserable?
It’s different from other performance genres. The format tends not to change much. One artist, one microphone, words. When it’s not working, it can be especially hard to watch. But when it works, there’s no entertainment experience quite as rewarding as standup comedy. It’s the only one that, in live settings, renders me helpless, makes me double over and laugh uncontrollably until I am weeping. This is a gift. That kind of laughter is cleansing.
It’s also mysterious, and the documentary Misery Loves Comedy is useful as an attempt to unravel the mystery, to understand what makes standup work and why comedians do what they do. This is the feature directorial debut of actor-comedian Kevin Pollak, who interviews dozens of people, several of them prominent comics, like Larry David, Whoopi Goldberg and Jimmy Fallon. There are several comedians in the film whose fame doesn’t quite approach that level: Amy Schumer, Marc Maron, Jim Gaffigan, Mike Birbiglia. And Pollak talks to lots of famous people not best known for standup: Tom Hanks, Lisa Kudrow, Matthew Perry, Judd Apatow, Sam Rockwell, Jason Reitman, Kevin Smith — and William H. Macy, who says, “I wouldn’t do standup if you put a gun to my head.”
The result is intriguing, but it is a hodgepodge. Pollak organizes this material into chapters on topics such as comedic influences and what it’s like to bomb. So we mainly hear people talking in snippets, which slows down the film’s momentum. True, there are many funny moments, like Jason Alexander’s description of an especially mortifying moment at an awards show. There also is a lot of poignancy, especially when actor Freddie Prinze Jr. discusses his father, who was a rising comedian and sitcom star before he took his own life in 1977, at age 22.
Pollak dedicates Misery Loves Comedy to Robin Williams, whose suicide is still so painful to contemplate, and the film partly is about testing the hypothesis that comedians are disproportionately unhappy. Pollak gets at the theme here and there, as when Maria Bamford discusses being in a psychiatric ward, and he addresses it systematically at the end, when comics appear to be responding to the proposition that people have to be miserable to get into comedy. The sequence feels choppy and awkwardly structured, and it reveals the limitations of Pollak’s approach. I think he interviewed too many people in not enough detail, and the effect resembles one of those breezy VH1 specials about pop culture.
The film made me think of an unheralded documentary I reviewed and enjoyed many years ago: American Storytellers, which examined the process of filmmaking in interviews with just four directors (John McNaughton, Harold Ramis, John Sayles and Forest Whitaker). That’s a good number. Documentarian Kevin Mukherji was able to explore a lot of compelling material about craftsmanship and the filmmakers’ lives and personalities — which are all tied up with their craft. Misery Loves Comedy would have benefited from that kind of depth.