Kevin Pollak is on his phone, negotiating terms of his next film, when I prepared to talk to him Tuesday about his first directorial effort, the new documentary Misery Loves Comedy. Things are looking up. All is not miserable in Pollak’s world right now. Even if his character in the CBS sitcom Mom hasn’t met similarly good fate.
But Misery Loves Comedy already arrived at the Tribeca Film Festival this week with distribution (thanks to Tribeca!), sold after its premiere at Sundance in January.
Pollak says the thesis of his film grew from the linking of misery to comedy to a more probing look at the narcissistic nature of comedians as performers: “Children suffer from ‘Hey! Look at me!’ disease because they’re children. They need attention. Adults, clearly, suffer from that. That’s why Facebook is a multi-billion-dollar business. You have a page, you’re somebody. Who fucking chooses that as a career? As a, to devote your life to a profession that is, ‘Hey look the fuck at me!?’”
And as he told Marc Maron (who’s one of 56 comedians interviewed for the documentary) on Maron’s WTF podcast: “The purpose of the film was, if you’re a comedy junkie in particular, if you’re a comedy nerd, as we love, one of the things written was a master class on what it really means to do this.”
Wondering if comedians need to live or have lived miserably offstage isn’t the most revealing line of questioning, anyhow.
We already buy into the formula — tragedy + time = comedy — along with its corollary, “Too soon?”
Perhaps we should look at it from the other side of the fence/mirror: Can comfortable, happy people be funny? Jim Jefferies goes ahead and already worries about that situation as a parent, wanting to ensure his young son doesn’t grow up to become “a fuckwit.”
Talking to 56 comedians and comedy types over the course of 94 minutes doesn’t allow for much depth. And even among those 56, you’re not getting an accurate cross-section of experiences (save for Whoopi Goldberg and Kumail Nanjiani, it’s an overwhelming white male point of view). Pollak said he had a limited time window and budget with which to shoot his first documentary, so he included whom he could get to sit down within that short notice. A couple of interviews took place, in fact, within his long-running Kevin Pollak’s Chat Show.
So who’d he get on camera?
Christopher Guest, Bob Saget, Andy Kindler, Martin Short, Greg Proops, Kathleen Madigan, Bobby Slayton, Jason Reitman, Lynn Shawcroft, Kumail Nanjiani, Amy Schumer, Jimmy Fallon, Lisa Kudrow, Kevin Nealon, Wayne Federman, Lewis Black, Steve Coogan, Richard Lewis, Andy Richter, Freddie Prinze Jr., Stephen Merchant, Anthony Cumia, Bobby Cannavale, Jemaine Clement, Kelly Carlin, Jon Favreau, Samm Levine, Dana Gould, Judd Apatow, Jim Norton, Nick Swardson, Tom Hanks, Sam Rockwell, Jim Jefferies, Jim Gaffigan, Paul F. Tompkins, Jeremy Hotz, Matthew Perry, Mike Birbiglia, Chris Hardwick, Kevin Smith, David Wain, Penn Jillette, Jimmy Pardo, James L. Brooks, Gregg Hughes (Opie), Janeane Garofalo, Alan Zweibel, Jake Johannsen, Larry David, Scott Aukerman, Maria Bamford, Marc Maron, David Koechner, William H. Macy, Matt Walsh, Jason Alexander, Rob Brydon, Rob Delaney, Robert Smigel.
Some of the more insightful nuggets come from Jefferies, who acknowledges he’s dismissive of rich kids who become comedians, talks about taking anti-depressants and wishes above all else for his children to remember him more than any outside fame. Maron says anyone who dives into stand-up comedy has to “nourish a delusion to keep pushing your way into show business,” because as Lewis Black points out, “You have to love watching yourself die.” Comedians are among the few who can control “This horrendous hurricane of bullshit that comes at us every single day,” Maron maintains.
Even if you’re successful telling jokes, you still remain a bit of an outsider. “We do come from the Misfit Island of toys,” Jim Gaffigan said. “I wish someone had told me that.”
William H. Macy has received kudos for his darkly comedic performances in TV and film, but is quick to confess: “I wouldn’t do stand-up with a gun to my head.”
And Martin Short describes the panic and anxiety that crippled him from meeting Paul Shaffer and Bill Murray at a restaurant in 1977, because he couldn’t pretend in front of them and his then-girlfriend that he was happy for their success, when he had yet to see his own career break.
Pollak takes a literal back seat in the production, choosing to remain off camera. So it’s in the few moments when our director is heard, if not also seen, that prove most revealing to answering the thesis.
When Lisa Kudrow points out that most people cannot be funny on command, Pollak interjects: “But the fact that they can try – that’s, to me, the thing that dilutes it. Because when you’re at a party, nobody dabbles in dentistry. But everybody can, if they want, try to dabble in comedy. They can be horrible! But they can at least do it. It annoys the hell out of me.” Later, while talking to Greg Proops, Pollak takes the foxhole analogy of combat brotherhood and sharpens it to snipers, exchanging tales of hits and misses. “There’s only so many bell towers,” he tells Proops, who laughs.
So, not necessarily misery that’s driving comedians, but at least annoyance. Or having to struggle and overcome said struggle. Comedians have a burning desire to get onstage and talk about what’s on their minds, and have to know how to mine their own struggles and tragedies and fears for laughs.
But comedians don’t have the market cornered on misery. Kathleen Madigan, recalling her previous gig as a bartender, observed: “The general public’s kinda miserable.”
Misery Loves Comedy already is available on iTunes and VOD, and begins public screenings today in New York City.
A staggered rollout continues through May at the following cities and cinemas:
OPENING MAY 1
Los Angeles, CA (Sundance Sunset)
Santa Ana, CA (South Coast Village)
San Francisco, CA (Roxie)
Pittsburgh, PA (Row House Cinema)
Houston, TX (Sundance Cinemas)
Park City, UT (Park City Film Series)
Seattle, WA (Sundance Cinemas)
Madison, WI (Sundance Cinemas)
OPENING MAY 22
Lambertville, NJ (ACME Screening Room)
OPENING MAY 27
Boulder, CO (Boedecker Theatre)