Dying Laughing

Back in 2002 the Weinstein Company released the documentary Comedian, which recorded Jerry Seinfeld’s return to New York comedy clubs after the ninth and final season of his cherished NBC sitcom. Over the course of a year, director Christian Charles trailed Seinfeld as he tried out new material at the Comedy Cellar in Greenwich Village, the Gotham Comedy Club in Chelsea, and other venues, gradually working up a brand-new one-hour set he could take to the concert stage. Comedian‘s narrow focus on the craft of stand-up was relatively novel at the time: Seinfeld, submitting once again to the merciless judgment of club audiences, labors over his material, commiserating with his fellow comics in the bar after each set and endlessly revising every gag to get the biggest response. One leaves the movie with a fresh appreciation of how much skill, judgment, and hard work go into a performance that seems effortless onstage.

Fifteen years later, you can take your pick of nonfiction projects exploring the inside baseball of comedy performance. Penn Jillette and Paul Provenza interviewed dozens of comedians for their film The Aristocrats (2005), which uses a legendary dirty joke to ponder what makes people laugh, and nearly 100 performers discuss the stand-up life in Jordan Brady’s film I Am Comic (2010). Veteran club comedian Marc Maron found his true calling in 2009 as host of the cult podcast WTF With Marc Maron, inviting fellow stand-ups to talk shop and spill their guts, and two years later Seinfeld himself, inspired by a DVD extra he’d recorded for Comedian, launched the self-explanatory web series Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. The sitcom legend also turns up in the new UK documentary Dying Laughing, which screens this week at Facets Cinematheque. Gathering commentary from more than 60 comedians, directors Lloyd Stanton and Paul Toogood focus on the emotional challenges of doing stand-up, a rich topic but one that often collides with the calling’s inflated mystique.

The movie kicks off poorly, with a battery of familiar conceits from big stars. “We’re the last philosophers,” Chris Rock brags. “Everybody now that talks is reading from a preapproved script. Even our alleged ‘smart people’ are corporately controlled. So there’s only one group of people that kinda say what they want to say.” Seinfeld bypasses philosophy altogether and heads straight for sorcery: “It’s beyond art,” he says. “It’s a magic trick. Real magic!” Asked to explain what drives people to perform, Sarah Silverman falls back on the notion of “some fucked-up need inside of you to have approval from strangers.” Most of those interviewed make a concerted effort to keep it real, but as the commentary accumulates, so do the old, vain cliches surrounding the trade: the stand-up as truth teller, the stand-up as healer, the stand-up as damaged soul working out his personal issues in public.

Stanton and Toogood bring more to the discussion when they quiz comedians about the mental process of creating comedy. As Keenen Ivory Wayans points out in the film, some people write their routines in advance, whereas others prefer to take a concept onstage and let it develop as the audience responds. Amy Schumer explains how a personal anecdote told to girlfriends or family members might turn into a routine as she goes about “finding the punch lines.” Kevin Hart, holding up his cell phone for the camera, scrolls endlessly through the notes he records all day, every day, and digests into new material. Jamie Foxx explains how, doing club gigs across the U.S., he’ll test black-oriented material with white audiences and political material with black audiences, looking for gags with crossover appeal that he can incorporate into a set for broad consumption. Again and again the performers cite the dedication required to revise a joke dozens of times until it hits; Emo Phillips likens every joke to a piece of blackboard chalk containing the calcified remains of millions of sea creatures.

Even more than the mental process, Dying Laughing dwells on the emotional demands of performing stand-up, most powerfully in the 20 solid minutes devoted to bombing onstage. Because a stand-up offers the audience nothing but his own thoughts, the rejection can be excruciating. “It’s about as personal as it gets,” Provenza explains. “It’s an existential crisis.” Bobby Lee says he can never remember bombing because the humiliation causes his mind to shut off, as if he were being raped in prison. Felipe Esparza reaches even further inside for the proper simile: “Bombing feels like your dad slapping you in front of everybody at a barbecue. And then you gotta go sit down with your face burning and your eyes tearing up for no reason and pretend like nobody saw shit.”

Bombing may represent the emotional nadir of stand-up, but the comedians interviewed for Dying Laughing also rave about the power they wield over their audiences. “I’ll never forget that feeling of making a crowd of people laugh,” says Steve Coogan, recalling his first success in college. “When I went offstage, I just remember thinking, ‘That was so exciting, that felt so good, I have to do that again, I want to do that again.’ ” As Provenza points out, comedians are trying to provoke an involuntary physical response (this may be the reason so many of them compare it to sex). Partly this involves keeping the audience under one’s command, a topic discussed at length in the movie. Seinfeld opens his act by razzing select audience members; asked by the filmmakers if he’s seeking the audience’s approval, he replies, “I’m seeking their sublimation. Like: ‘This guy’s a little scary.’ ”

Not as scary as some. One of the more memorable moments in Comedian occurs when Rock, hanging out with Seinfeld in a restaurant, urges him to check out Bill Cosby in concert. “Best comedy show I ever saw in my life,” Rock enthuses, reporting that the 63-year-old veteran performed two and a half hours of new material without an intermission. “Two and a half hours of killer shit. Killer! And it’s so much more edgy now, and mean. Ooh, you gotta see it.” At the time the footage was shot, Seinfeld was in his mid-40s and Rock his mid-30s; to hear these two young stars deferring to an old master was heartwarming, and near the end of the movie Seinfeld drops in on Cosby in his dressing room to collect a few pearls of showbiz wisdom. Obviously the film doesn’t play the same way anymore now that Cosby’s alleged need to keep people spellbound has become a matter of public concern. Every comedian wants to render people helpless with laughter; some crave the laughter, others the helplessness.  v