Sundance 2015: 'Misery Loves Comedy' Fascinating & Full of Laughs
by Ethan Anderton
January 24, 2015
Comedy is one of those magical things that can bring complete strangers together, all laughing as an instinctual response to a stand-up comedian, an online sketch, a motion picture, or a television series. And while we all know what we find funny, it's seemingly impossible to truly pinpoint just where the comedy comes from. These comedians, writers, actors, etc. all know how to make us laugh, but how do they know? Actor and first-time filmmaker Kevin Pollak sets out to answer the question of whether or not comedians have to be miserable in order to be funny, based on the frequency of talents with tragedy early in their lives.
Misery Loves Comedy is a simple and straightforward comedy that lets the parade of incredible comedic talent take the spotlight. Stand-up comedians like Jim Gaffigan, Maria Bamford, Jimmy Fallon and Mike Birbiglia, actors like Tom Hanks and Sam Rockwell, directors like Jason Reitman, and people who have done it all like Christopher Guest, do their best to offer insight into the madness that is creating comedy. They touch upon the concept of "Hey, look at me" that all comedians have, the drive that makes someone think that they deserve your attention because they're confident, maybe overly so, that they are the funniest person in the room.
As a directorial debut, Pollak's film isn't overly stylish, and opts to use the talking head format for 95% of the film, cutting away only to show nostalgic photos of the comedians, actors, directors and even other subjects like the daughter of George Carlin and wife of Mitch Hedburg. That may seem lazy or boring to some for the roughly 90-minute runtime, but it's the storytelling, anecdotes and glimpse inside the minds of these comedic masters that makes the documentary fascinating and hilarious, even if it only grazes the surface of all that this topic has to offer.
Along with the funny comes some touching and personal revelations as well. Maria Bamford speaks of the therapeutic nature of comedy, when you come to share something as personal and traumatic as time spent at a mental hospital with the audience, or the guilt she feels about being responsible for the death of her dog due to an unfortunate accident involving a backyard ramp. Her sharing of misery in her life actually brings joy to others, who don't end up feeling alone. This makes one wonder though, how hard it must be to come to the stage and be brave enough to share those personal moments, when there's no one who brings that kind of inspiration relief for you.
Director and writer Kevin Smith shares an anecdote about his friend Bryan Johnson (now on "Comic Book Men") had his "foot on the stool," ready to kill himself at any minute. But Smith's suggestion to put himself out there in the form of a podcast, sharing his funny, skewed view of the world with fans who may be in the same boat that he is ended up saving his life. The adoration of fans and though of bringing humor to others just like him, who care about what he has to say, was the ticket to keeping him around. And other comedians also talk about just how addicting that can be, like a drug.
Sadly, the documentary doesn't dive into that addiction of a more fatal kind that has been known to go hand in hand with fame in the comedy world. But this is only an hour and a half documentary. That brings me to the only shortcoming that I see with the film, and that's the topic seems a little too broad, with seemingly too many subjects offering insight, to adequately answer all the questions posed in the short window of time. With 70 total hours of footage shot, there's plenty here to make an entire series about the art of comedy, and Pollak has indicated that's not out of the question with the film picked up by Tribeca.
In the end, Pollak has delivered a fine first feature, full of passion and all of the right questions about comedy, even if the answers aren't always on point. But the way the film meanders is also a testament as to how complex comedy is to explain, especially when you try to pinpoint its origins. Misery Loves Comedy may not have the ultimate answer of the question as to whether or not you have to be miserable to be funny, but it does offer captivating insight into the mind of those who make us laugh, and maybe even a reflective look into our own minds as to why we find them funny, which could be a little scary.