Kevin Pollak's documentary “Misery Loves Comedy” has a cute pun of a title that also draws attention to the film's primary flaw.
Had Pollak just called his first directing foray “My Friends Talk About Comedy” or “White Comedians Love Misery,” I probably could have just felt that this was one person polling a bunch of chums on a subject of mutual interest and accepted its limitations.
But “Misery Loves Comedy” spends its entire runtime on a series of talking-head interviews with various comedians and on grand pronouncement after another, different variably famous stand-ups keep saying what “comedians” are like and what “comedy” is about. And given the composition of Pollak's panel of experts, I'm afraid that's ludicrous.
With dozens of comics participating, the total number of African-American comics featured in the entire documentary? ONE. Whoopi Goldberg is brought in to summarize one Richard Pryor routine. She does that and nothing more. It's almost like Pollak's thought process was “I can't do this documentary without mentioning Richard Pryor. And I can't have only white comics talking about Richard Pryor.” And Goldberg doesn't add anything, she's just a token appreciator of Richard Pryor. If race were never mentioned at any other point in the documentary, I could pretend that erasing a not-insignificant portion of the comedy marketplace was kinda OK, but in a conversation about hecklers, a white comic talks about standing up for harassed black comics, which doesn't feel like as good a way of discussing that issue as having an African-American comic describing their own experience with racist heckling, but what do I know?
And if Pollak were merely eliding African-American comics from his documentary, but honoring stand-ups from other diverse backgrounds, maybe that could be excused, but the leading Latino figure in the documentary is Freddie Prinze Jr. who is, as you might know, not actually a comedian. It's true that Prinze is one of the most engaging of the documentary's talking heads, but he's only there to discuss his late father.
Finally, you have Kumail Najiani, who gets several funny moments in the introductory phase of the documentary. But Najiani vanishes as “Misery Loves Comedy” moves to the more important second half, because the “Silicon Valley” veteran isn't the slightest bit angst-y and therefore has nothing to say on what is the thesis point for the entire documentary.
I don't mean to harp on a diversity issue here. Kevin Pollak, who I love as both an actor and a comedian, is entitled to build his movie around his friends and to be friends with whoever he wants, but I wish the documentary didn't set itself up as being about big picture issues in humor, when it's really a myopic documentary about grumpy and dyspeptic angry white men and a few women, because leaving out the women entirely would be even more offensive.
But actually, Pollak comes close to leaving out the women, too. Kathleen Madigan and Amy Schumer are well-featured (and Lisa Kudrow and a couple other women have a statement or two), but at least some portion of the other featured women are there are vestigial attachments to deceased men, specifically Mitch Hedberg's Widow and George Carlin's Daughter.
Is the problem that Pollak doesn't know enough minority and female comedians? That seems unlikely. So then is the problem that if you look at many of the highest profile Latino, African-American and Asian comics, their styles are tonally different enough to invalidate most of the catch-all declarations Pollak's subjects are making? That feels closer to right.
This stood out for me because I closed my 2015 Sundance Film Festival with “Misery Loves Comedy” and “Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead,” two documentaries that could give you the impression that only white people do comedy. “Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead” is telling a specific true story, so I'm not going to ask why the documentary wasn't more diverse. [I could ask why National Lampoon wasn't more diverse, but that wouldn't be a valuable question at this point.] But at no point does “Misery Loves Company” specify that it's taking a one-dimensional look at stand-up comedy. Maybe it should?
But how about reviewing “Misery Loves Comedy” on the basis of what's here and what's not?
Well, I think the “what's not” is important. Very important.
But what's here is fine. Showtime and HBO have both had regular or semi-regular comedians-on-comedians introspective looks at the profession in recent years, so you can't say that what we're getting here is all that revelatory, but that doesn't mean it can't be interesting.
Frequently heard either asking questions or interjecting with his own punchlines, Pollak takes his subjects through the normal paces. Who was the first person you knew was funny? Nearly everybody says their dad, though Richard Lewis has a good bit about his mother fact-checking his routine from the audience. When did people know they were funny? Mostly they've always know, though Jemaine Clement kids, “I was a late joker. My first joke was at 21.” What's the rush of doing a stand-up set like? Everybody agrees it's like a drug, with Tom Hanks directly referencing crack cocaine. What's it like to bomb? Though a couple mention the perverse pleasure of either watching a friend bomb or watching a friend watch you bomb, the general sense is that it's a necessity as Lewis Black puts it, “In order to become a comic, you have to love watching yourself die.” They also talk about the communal nature of comedy — The absence of minorities here may disprove that entire section — and the importance of putting in the time and effort to hone your craft.
And then finally, the comics all answer the question of the day: Do you have to be miserable to be funny? [The better of “Do you have to be white?” is only implied from the outside.] And the answer to that question? Well, no. “I'm not personally miserable. I make those around me miserable,” Andy Kindler says. “Not misery, but maybe annoyance,” says Jim Gaffigan of his motivations. “I think that struggle is necessary, but I don't think misery is necessary,” Marc Maron observes.
Again, none of these things should have precluded Pollak from including a SINGLE African-American male comic. Because this isn't like one of those, “Maybe Lorne Michaels couldn't find a single funny African-American woman because there aren't any,” apologies. There are successful African-American comedians. Lots. It's possible they have different experiences of the comedy industry. But I wouldn't know.
“Misery Loves Comedy” conspicuously isn't going for humor, which is a surprise, but it's also perhaps a function of Pollak's desired format. These are most — Jim Norton sits with Opie and Anthony for a while — one-on-one interviews with Pollak and many of the funniest moments are exchanges between the two. But by separating the comics, Pollak at least gives them the opportunity to be serious and reflective, while any time you put a gaggle of stand-ups in the same room, the desire for one-upmanship is unavoidable.
And in addition to keeping the comics separate, Pollak chooses not to include a single second of stand-up footage. So comedians may reference a bit that bombed or a favorite run of theirs, but Pollak prefers to keep things analytical. I've got not objections to this approach. It results in some clear-headed and occasionally emotional thoughtfulness, rather than just schtick-slinging.
A few highlights from “Misery Loves Comedy”:
*** Jim Jeffries may be the biggest surprise for people who missed “Legit.” His discussion of wanting to make sure his kids didn't grow up pampered, while refusing to take them on the sort of lame vacations he went on as a child is a excellent. “So how do I stop him from becoming a f***wit?” he ponders.
*** Chris Hardwick's story about masturbating in church is… random.
*** It's brief, but Martin Short's deconstruction of why Harpo is the most underrated Marx Brother is terrific.
*** Christopher Guest recalling his earliest funniness includes an inhuman noise that I wouldn't want to spoil for you.
*** Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon and Stephen Merchant are all charming. They also allow the film's synopsis to refer to its “international” scope, once again suggesting the intent at a breadth of representation that “Misery Loves Comedy” doesn't come close to achieving.
*** Did I mention that Freddie Prinz Jr. is really good?
I think there's ample pleasure to be found in “Misery Loves Comedy” and the documentary, playing at Sundance as a “project,” but eying distribution through Tribeca later this year, does give an OK look at a mindset for one medium-sized pocket of comics. It's not even like Pollak has caught most of the big white male comics, since it seems like Patton Oswald and Louis C.K. are both always available for interviews and practically the current post-boys for the sub-genre Pollak is ultimately looking it. But as always with representation, you say to yourself, “Are the voices of white males still being heard? Yes. Are there other voices that aren't being heard at all? Yes.”
I think it's such a major and fundamental flaw in the storytelling here that I couldn't get past it. Well, I could get past it. I'm not giving “Misery Loves Comedy” a failing grade or anything. But now you know the thing that distracted me in my viewership. If you aren't going to be distracted, you'll probably be happier than I was.
Other Sundance 2015 Reviews:
“People, Places, Things”
“Digging For Fire”
“Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief”
“Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck”
“The Amina Profile”
“The Hunting Ground”
“The End of the Tour”
“A Walk in the Woods”
“How To Change The World”
“What Happened, Miss Simone?”