Thursday, 15 June 2017

Chuckle brothers: "Dying Laughing"

For their documentary Dying Laughing, the British filmmakers Lloyd Stanton and Paul Toogood invited a bunch of stand-up comedians to sit before their cameras and talk, at length, about themselves. Guess what? The comics came through - and in their multitudes, too. As the publicity material will almost certainly press upon you, the directors wound up interviewing pretty much the who's-who of contemporary comedy, extending from elder statespersons (Billy Connolly, Garry Shandling, Jerry Seinfeld, Victoria Wood, George Wallace) to jobbing chicken-in-a-basket circuit regulars, via modern megastars (Chris Rock, Amy Schumer, Jamie Foxx), locally sourced talent (Stewart Lee, Steve Coogan, Jo Brand, Eddie Izzard) and other recognisable faces and voices (Bobby Lee, Emo Philips, Gilbert Gottfried). The budget can't have been much, but Dying Laughing will likely stand as the best connected film of the year: it effortlessly ticks the diversity box, in as much as this scene has traditionally sustained anything like diversity, and even gets that notorious curmudgeon Jerry Lewis to seem more engaged than he has done of late waiting for the nurse to bring him his pudding.

Partly, this is a triumph of intelligent questioning: Stanton and Toogood (who, with that billing, might themselves have carved out a career as a music hall double-act) are interested in that backroom business of craft and methodology - how you put a routine together, and thus a career, from first, invariably faltering gigs to whatever level their interviewees are at now. There are, apparently, different means of doing it, and different means of talking about it. Frankie Boyle talks about an old-school "Seinfeld method" (unconfirmed by Seinfeld himself) of sitting at a desk and writing three usable gags every day; Kevin Hart scrolls down a long list of primo material annotated on his iPhone. (We must presume said phone was lost or stolen in the months leading up to 2015's The Wedding Ringer.) Yet as Shandling (in one of his final screen appearances) insists, "there is no shortcut" - just a constant process of writing, refining, travelling and performing, and then, once that material has been exhausted, putting yourself through the process all over again.

The emphasis, then, isn't on the fun, groupies or other rewards of this profession, but the mental and emotional labour involved, and here's where that mix of star names, journeymen and neophytes pays off: each contributor has an appreciably fresh perspective on this business, although the consensus seems to be that subjecting stand-up to any serious analysis results in it starting to look very much like a fool's errand. As the actor and performer Kevin Christy says: "You're sending someone with depression out to a town where they literally don't know anyone in the hope they might be able to distract a handful of people long enough to make them laugh." (The D-word there invokes the spirit of Robin Williams, which hovers over the production entire.) That's before you factor in the low pay and shitty digs and the hecklers. The hecklers, especially: everybody has a story or two on this front, though no-one threatens to top Frank Skinner's tale of the blind audience member who interrupted his set with a cry of "Get off!", before being heard to mutter "Has he gone yet?"

It's clear that Stanton and Toogood make a receptive audience from their frequent off-camera chuckles, yet while several interviewees display what Judd Apatow's Funny People euphemistically described as "a lot of energy", lapsing into pre-rehearsed bits, the filmmakers know how to nudge their subjects past their usual schtick and into more revealing territory. Boyle is in particularly reflective, affable mode, which may surprise British viewers; Royale Watkins breaks down in tears while discussing bombing in front of his hero Michael Jordan. Where other stage performers have the luxury of pinning any off-night on somebody else's lacklustre material or direction, the life-in-a-suitcase comic has only themselves to blame: an audience's silence, in this context, constitutes a rejection of everything one stands for. Some of the film's wilder claims ("Comedians are like Jedis!") will be set in sharp relief in this week of (admittedly less amusing) documentaries about Holocaust survivors and social housing policy, and the monochrome talking-heads format threatens to become monotonous, no matter that Stanton and Toogood keep ushering on new faces. Still, Dying Laughing may be as close as the majority of us will ever get to the experience of hanging backstage in a comedy club after hours - if that notion holds any appeal for you - and its subjects' testimony does eventually come to make a case for stand-up being yet another ill-funded public service, of a kind we may need now more than ever.

Dying Laughing opens in selected cinemas, and will be available on iTunes, from tomorrow.    

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