So many stand-up specials dot the digital landscape, you could have spent your entire Labor Day weekend marathoning them and not completed the catalogue on any one channel, let alone completing a tour through what Amazon Prime, Comedy Central, HBO, Hulu, Netflix and Showtime have to offer.
Besides, watch enough of them, and you’ll eventually wonder what’s so special about having a stand-up special in 2015.
That’s why, for my digital subscription money, I’d much rather spend an hour or 90 minutes following a stand-up comedian or two or three on tour. Go offstage and on the road and you’ll dig deeper into what makes each of these comedians special. When done right, the documentary also can change your mind about those comedians, make you laugh harder at their future jokes and even turn you into a lifelong fan of them.
In the 2000s, we saw about one of these road documentaries per year: 2002, Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedian; 2003, David Cross: Let America Laugh; 2004, 95 Miles to Go with Ray Romano; 2005, The Comedians of Comedy: The Movie (starring Patton Oswalt, Zach Galifianakis, Maria Bamford and Brian Posehn). 2006, Wild West Comedy Show: 30 Days & 30 Nights – Hollywood to the Heartland (Vince Vaughn with Ahmed Ahmed, Sebastian Maniscalco, John Caparulo and Bret Ernst). A few years later, Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop provided our first real look at O’Brien’s offstage character and persona as he launched his first tour in the wake of The Tonight Show and the rise of Team Coco, while Tell Your Friends! The Concert Film tells how NYC’s bar basements and beer halls provided valuable alternatives for comedians to try out new material.
In more recent years, documentaries of living legends Don Rickles (2007’s Mr. Warmth) and Joan Rivers (2010’s A Piece of Work) let us into their green rooms and their living rooms while they could still share their stories in their own words.
This past year, though, has seen a bounty of hybrids that combine the laughter of a stand-up special and the piercing truth of a documentary. Each film in its own way illustrates how much stand-up comedy remains a labor of love for those who know other way to work.
So let us know praise and celebrate them, in order from hardly working to working hard for their funny money.
Adventures in Comedy (Hulu): Blend of documentary footage interviewing comedians such as Janeane Garofalo, Margaret Cho, Jim Gaffigan, Aisha Tyler, Kurt Metzger and more, interspersed with mockumentary footage of Tom McCaffrey trying to record his comeback comedy album.
Todd Barry: The Crowd Work Tour (Netflix): Director Lance Bangs, who followed David Cross on a tour of alternative venues a dozen years earlier, this time tracks Todd Barry along the West Coast as Barry ditches all of his prepared jokes and material to talk with and about his audience members.
I Am Road Comic (Hulu): Jordan Brady made an amusing and illuminating documentary about stand-up comedy in 2010, I Am Comic. One segment in it followed Nikki Glaser into a comedy condo for a gritty slice of life on the road. It begged for more. Now we have it. Brady’s follow-up documentary, I Am Road Comic, not only talks to more than a dozen touring stand-up comedians, but also finds Brady himself on a weekend road gig. So we follow him, too, with headliner Wayne Federman and a “local” opener (Seth Milstein) who busses himself into the gig at a bar in the Tri-Cities of Washington State. Every insane and ridiculous aspect of a road gig gets covered either in real-time by Brady, Federman and Milstein — or via interviews with T.J. Miller, Pete Holmes, Marc Maron, Doug Benson, Jim Norton, Judah Friedlander, Alonzo Bodden, Maria Bamford, Jen Kirkman, Auggie Smith, W. Kamau Bell, Nikki Glaser, Wayne Federman, Seth Milstein, Oni Perez, Alysia Wood, Kris Tinkle, Traci Skene, Brian McKim, Tim O’Rourke, Tom Rhodes, and Kyle Kinane.
Jeff Ross Roasts Criminals, Live at Brazos County Jail (Comedy Central): from my June 2015 review, “A true pro knows how to adapt to any audience, and Ross fulfills his mission with flying orange colors…This one hopefully changes hearts and minds. If not yours, then at least those of the men on the inside.”
Pauly Shore Stands Alone (Showtime): From my December 2014 review, “A quarter-century after “The Weasel” popped on MTV and more than a decade after he stopped becoming a reliable box-office star, Shore spent much of his personal and professional capital making light of his status through multiple mockumentary TV series, specials and movies. He finally drops the facade in his latest documentary, Pauly Shore Stands Alone…it truly and sincerely peels back the curtains to reveal his true self and his relationship with his fans and his family. It’s also a powerful reminder as well as a testament to the power stars and fans have on each other.”
Knock Knock, It’s Tig Notaro (Showtime): Tig Notaro with Jon Dore, on the road playing to odd venues as requested via YouTube submissions. From my April 2015 review, “She’s at ease with all of them, and always seemingly in control of the situation — whether it’s a cramped room inside a home, a grandmother who’s hard of hearing, or small kids heckling and threatening to upstage her opening act.”
Tig (Netflix) premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, and has Notaro talking to the camera about what she went through in 2012, starting a year later and moving forward through 2013 and into 2014. An even more intense look at Notaro’s health, her family and her attempt to build her own family.
Call Me Lucky (currently in movie theaters and VOD, iTunes), the hauntingly beautiful and powerful documentary about Barry Crimmins, by longtime friend and protege Bobcat Goldthwait. As I wrote last month, Goldthwait captures how fiercely funny and active Crimmins has been, first as “the founder of comedy at The Ding Ho in Cambridge and Stitches in Boston. A wicked satirist, Crimmins turned his attention on the page, on the stage and in life toward social causes — whether it was going to Nicaragua to support the Sandinistas when President Ronald Reagan was funneling cash and weapons to Iran and the Contras, standing with Cindy Sheehan in Crawford, Texas, when President George W. Bush was across the street waging war in Iraq, and most personally for Crimmins, testifying before Congress to stop pedophiles on the Internet.”