Dying Laughing: Just a Bit, by David Bax

23 Feb

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Lloyd Stanton and Paul Toogood’s Dying Laughing gets off to a dubious start, with its panoply of stand-up comedian interviewees gushing in awestruck, hushed tones about their art and its craft. It sets up an expectation of a bald hagiography of the form without analysis or criticism. Eventually, it settles into some more fertile grounds and ultimately satisfies. Still, it leaves you wondering what its worth is, exactly, in a time when we have so many good and in-depth podcasts on the subject.

Dying Laughing‘s main draw is the impressive roll call of comedians participating. From stalwarts like Jerry Seinfeld and Gilbert Gottfried to alt-comedy heroes like Sarah Silverman and Dave Attell to relative newcomers like Grant Cotter to road dogs and crossover successes and more, the list is staggering. Stay for the credits to see the full list, including many big names whose footage wasn’t even used. Stanton and Toogood present the interviews in black and white while the footage in between–of comedy clubs and cityscapes and rural highways–is in color. The footage assembled covers topics in chunks detailing the career of a stand-up, though non-chronologically, with open mics being discussed next to television specials next to working the road.

Commendably, Stanton and Toogood have assembled a diverse group of comedians. White, black, Latino, male, female, straight, gay; all are represented and relate tales specific to their identities. More than one black comic, for instance (including Cedric the Entertainer) tells stories of being heckled by racists.

One of the film’s more fascinating insights is its exploration of the relationship between comedian and audience. Its a cliche (and not without truth) that people who enter this line of work can be desperate attention seekers. Yet many of them describe their approach to the audience as being defined by a baseline antagonism that goes both ways. Seinfeld perhaps says it best by proclaiming that he is not seeking the audience’s approval but their sublimation.

A surprisingly large amount of the runtime is given over to tales of bombing (or, as the title has it, dying) onstage. In the end, though, that’s not truly so shocking. We see how these memories are painful but absolutely essential, even to those who are now wildly successful. Being a good comedian, it would seem, is as much about the ability to fail as it is the ability to succeed. Dying Laughing, in its occasional superficiality, does both. But for fans of the art form, it’s worthwhile viewing.

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