When I was younger, I loved the idea of becoming a stand-up comedian. I remember when I was around 10 or 11, I would watch clips of Ricky Gervais and Robin Williams online, noting down their jokes, most of which I did not understand, and, quite frankly, ripping them off at any opportunity I could find. There was just something about the comedian – albeit the successful comedians I encountered on my numerous ‘late-night’ operations to watch Live At The Apollo or Mock The Week – that was so mesmerising. Their ability to make hundreds of people laugh seemingly without struggle; their capacity to look so many people in the eyes and know exactly what to say and when to say it.
In Dying Laughing, however, this idea of a god-like figure, who is impenetrable to criticism and unwaveringly in control of every second of a routine is exposed as fantasy: more than 50 comedians from Britain and America are interviewed, uncovering the true vulnerability, fear and rewards that spawn from this artform.
Throughout these candid interviews filmed in black and white, the camera often lingers on medium close ups of the interviewee as they discuss their experiences, spanning from topics such as motel-vending-machine cuisine to bombing on stage or, conversely, killing it. Interspersed between these pared down and personal segments, there are bursts of colourful shots, be it a long American highway or a London comedy club. Yet, still the voices can be heard, feeding the notion that beyond the glitzy appeal of the stage there is something more sombre, more harrowing underneath. By combing the two, the documentary emphasises the dichotomy between the expectations surrounding comedy – the light and jovial show front – and the human fragility of the comedian.
Paul Toogood and Lloyd Stanton do not shy away from embracing an unexpected dower mood. Although there are many good laughs, they are often self-deprecating and encourages the audience to realise that humour is as much a tool of defence as it is a force for perpetuating happiness. While Jamie Foxx quips that he can cope with criticism now because he has ‘money’, there is one comedian who remarks that getting booed off stage provokes a crisis of faith in his ability to support his family financially. What Dying Laughing does so well is make the viewer realise that doing stand-up is akin to walking a tightrope between two skyscrapers with no harness – if you fall, yes, your skills are undoubtedly going to be criticised, but also the slip-ups will lead to tremendous, even tragic consequences, both physically and psychologically.
There are of course lighter moments: Jerry Seinfeld and Billy Connelly both remark how stand-up comedy seemingly transcends art, burning brightly in its independent section of culture. And, as expected, each comedian talks about the sacred high that is obtained when everything goes to plan alongside some side-splitting stories regarding life on the road.
The honesty of this documentary is truly commendable and it is fantastic to see so many tremendously talented individuals talk openly about their struggles on the way to success. This, however, is simultaneously the film’s major flaw. The extensive number of horror shows and misadventures that are described, dilute the individual significance of each comedian’s tale – although innately personal, the documentary’s repetitiveness at times means that it can feel a bit self-pitying. Yet, I am aware that without this range of people you would simultaneously only have a limited view into what is a tremendously diverse field.
Heartfelt and engaging, Dying Laughing poignantly uncovers the Sisyphus-like struggle of some of today’s greatest comedians, shedding light on the contrast between the human being and the performer. It teaches us that a joke is not just simply a whimsical setup and punchline, it is tainted with past experiences of stuffy bars and rank motels; it is a product of sacrifice, graft and resilience.
Dir: Lloyd Stanton, Paul Toogood
Featuring: Chris Rock, Jamie Foxx, Sarah Silverman, Stewart Lee, Lee Mack, Sean Lock, Amy Schumer, Kevin Hart, David Attell, Cedric the Entertainer, Jerry Seinfeld & many more
Prd: Suli McCoullough, Lloyd Stanton, Paul Toogood, Samantha Phillips and Daphne Wayans
DOP: Auston Call, John Halliday, Adam Singodia
Music: Ed Shearmur
Run time: 89 mins
Dying Laughing is released in UK cinemas on the 16th June.