Misery Loves Comedy
by Hope Madden
Is every clown really a sad clown? In his debut as a documentarian, actor Kevin Pollak seeks to find the answer to that question by asking it (or variations of it) to 50 or so of the brightest comic minds of the day.
Who? Tom Hanks, Amy Schumer, Martin Short, Jimmy Fallon, Janeane Garofalo, Judd Apatow and dozens of other stand-up comics and comedic writers and performers. What Pollak wants in return is a glimpse into the shared psyche of the funnyman.
Who were their influences? When did they realize they were funny? What’s it like to bomb onstage? To kill? They’re interesting enough questions and sometimes the answers are fun to watch, but the sheer volume of responses almost requires that the film remain superficial.
His doc would have benefitted had Pollak narrowed down the interviewees, perhaps focusing solely on stand-up comics. We also hear from film directors, sit-com actors and one radio morning show. The breadth only draws attention to the lack of depth.
And yet, there are ways in which the cast feels very narrow. The group is – whether inadvertently or not – pretty white and male. Pollak may simply have raided his own personal phone book, calling in favors from friends for the film, but the result is breathtakingly one sided. He talks with 5 or 6 women, one of whom (Whoopi Goldberg) is not white. He also talks to one male (Kumail Nanjani) who isn’t white.
So, 40+ white guys tell us about the context of being funny. Presumably this is not because of some deeply held belief of Pollak’s, but that doesn’t excuse it. Forget that whatever thesis he may be trying to put forward is irredeemably skewed by this, the fact that anyone could direct a documentary about stand-up comedy without including the point of view of one African American male – no Chris Rock, Eddie Murphy, Kevin Hart, Dave Chappelle, Tracy Morgan – is astonishing.
Plus, honestly, the film itself is almost never actually funny. He talks to fifty funny people about being funny yet catches almost no comedy on film. What?
In the end the film is dedicated to the memory of Robin Williams, and I’m sure Pollak’s heart was in the right place. It’s just that nothing else was.