Review: “Dying Laughing”

“We’re the last philosophers. Everybody now that talks is reading from a pre-approved script. Even our alleged smart people are corporately controlled. So there’s only one group of people that can kinda say what they want to say: Stand-ups.”

So says Chris Rock, in the opening moments of the new documentary Dying Laughingwhich premiered in theaters last month and is available On Demand.

Jerry Seinfeld goes even further before the opening credits have rolled, describing comedy as:  “It’s beyond art. It’s a magic trick. Real magic.”

If you think you’ve seen plenty of documentaries about the art of stand-up comedy, then you most likely have. Dying Laughing doesn’t break new ground there, but in both the breadth and depth of its collected talent pool, and in the simplicity of cutting between black-and-white interview segments and color B-roll shot in the comedy clubs and theaters across North America, this doc offers a peek behind the curtain to see — if stand-up comedy really is a magic trick, as Seinfeld claims — the reality behind the illusion.

While we see and hear big-name comedians talk about the trade, montages of stand-ups you might not know show the acts hard at work.

Seinfeld describes the reality of a live comedy show isn’t what you think it is: “What’s really happening is nothing. Absolutely nothing. It is dead solid quiet room of unhappy people, and you have to start from that!”

Among the many comedians offering up insight: Dave Attell, Bobby Lee, Jim Jefferies, Steve Coogan, Tom Dreesen, Kirk Fox, Cocoa Brown, Stephen K. Amos, Frankie Boyle, Amy Schumer, Bonnie Mcfarlane, Keenen Ivory Wayans, David A. Arnold, Grant Cotter, Russell Peters, Emo Philips, Dom Irrera, Sam Tripoli, Garry Shandling, Eddie Izzard, Tommy Davidson, Kym Whitley, Suli McCullough, Kira Soltanovich, Kevin Christy, Jason Manford, Theo Von, Gilbert Gottfried, Jeffrey Joseph, Stephen Kramer Glickman, Neal Brennan, Cedric the Entertainer, Jo Brand, Stewart Lee, Tiffany Haddish, Lee Mack, Frank Skinner, Mike Epps, Jay Phillips, Omid Djalili, Royale Watkins, Paul Provenza, George Wallace, Allan Havey, Felipe Esparza, John Thomson, Victoria Wood, Faizon Love, Bob Saget, Sandra Bernhard and Billy Connolly.

That’s a ton of comedians to wedge into just 90 or so minutes.

It all just naturally flows, though, without chapter headings or explanations as they talk us through the process of joke-writing and joke-telling, from your first time onstage, to finding your own voice (POV), the power of honesty, how to build an hour, the repetition inherent in doing so and working the road, controlling the audience, battling loneliness and hostile environments and hecklers, hell gigs and bombing, depression, and coming out the other side of it, to how love of comedy often trumps actual love for family, saying the thing nobody else says, and eventually killing.

Dying Laughing, title aside, is truly a more sober take if not also equally educational on the subject than, say, I Am Comic.

Tripoli compares the art of stand-up comedy to hypnosis (which probably explains the continued bookings for comedy hypnotists, too?!?), in how a comedian’s jokes when working put the audience into a trance or collective hivemind of laughing, and then messing up a joke jolts them out of the trance much like a record scratching. Provenza notes that the solitary nature of stand-up means you have nothing to hide behind because you are the art and the artist, so a bad set means “not just having a rough day at work. It’s an existential crisis.”

What connects all of these comedians and their stories is how they’re all survivors, bonded by paying their dues, climbing the career ladder and working in the trenches of one-nighters and comedy club weekends. Together they form a tight-knit community who revere the art and each other.

So stand-up comedy isn’t for everyone. No matter what social media and this current comedy boom may be telling you.

“It’s really got to be a calling,” said the late great Garry Shandling. “It’s really not worth it if it isn’t a calling. It’s too painful and too difficult if it’s not a calling.”

Dying Laughing is playing in select cities nationwide, and available On Demand or via iTunes/Amazon:

Sean L. McCarthy

Editor and publisher since 2007, when he was named New York's Funniest Reporter. Former newspaper reporter at the New York Daily News, Boston Herald and smaller dailies and community papers across America. Loves comedy so much he founded this site.

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