UK Release Date: 16th June 2017
Runtime: 88 minutes
Director: Lloyd Stanton, Paul Toogood
Starring: Chris Rock, Kevin Hart, Amy Schumer, Jerry Seinfeld, Steve Coogan, Jamie Foxx, Jason Manford, Sarah Silverman, Frankie Boyle
Synopsis: The strange world of stand-up comedy is brought to life in a series of interviews with comedians about life on the road, the magic of performing and the horror of dying a death on stage.
Stand-up comedy, as Paul Provenza says in the opening moments of Dying Laughing, is a “fucking weird” art form. It involved a person stepping out on to the stage, usually alone, under the arrogant assertion that they are so funny everybody in the room should not only pay attention to them, but laugh. Dying Laughing is an ambitious and wide-ranging documentary that explores a number of elements of the life of a stand-up comic, utilising an enormous array of A-list interviews with the biggest names in comedy past and present. There are humbling stories, funny anecdotes and more than one account of what it’s like when an entire room simultaneously decides a performer just isn’t funny.
Directors Lloyd Stanton and Paul Toogood present their exploration in an unusual way. All of the interviews with their enviable comedic cast – balancing American icons like Chris Rock and Amy Schumer with British performers like Frankie Boyle and Steve Coogan – are presented in stark monochrome, with footage of neon-lit comedy clubs providing contrast as it links the snippets of chat. It’s certainly a bold, different visual style, but not one that ever serves to enhance the film from a visual standpoint.
The film is, however, compelling in its examination of stand-up as a medium. Every interviewee in the movie seems genuinely enthused by the opportunity to “talk shop” and discuss the ups and downs of life on the road. When one comic describes a hostile audience as akin to fighting off zombie hordes, it’s clear he relishes casting himself as the horror movie hero. The one thing that the vastly different comedians in the film have in common is that they adore their job and, for them, making people laugh is the biggest rush there is.
The biggest appeal of Dying Laughing is its very impressive selection of interview subjects. Right up until the end, the movie seems to have an enviable roster of talent in its back pocket. In fact, it’s almost a disappointment that so many of these names only get to make one or two appearances. The film could perhaps have benefited from focusing in tighter on a smaller selection of characters. Often, the rapid shifts between interview subjects lead the movie to feel rather wild and unfocused, not really allowing the individual struggles and pleasures of each comedian to come through.
Stanton and Toogood do, however, craft a really nice style of interview that is the perfect venue for these performers to tell their stories. The setting is relaxed, informal and freewheeling, which enables the comics to lead the narrative and it always feels as if this was a movie shaped in the edit, driven by the directions in which the interviews organically travelled. Laughter can often be heard from behind the camera and this ensures that the atmosphere never veers into the arena of taking comedy too seriously. It is, after all, about making people laugh.
As someone who has dabbled a little in stand-up comedy myself, many of the tales in Dying Laughing are all too familiar and there’s something about the way these performers talk about being on stage that really brings to life the rush of making a whole room full of people laugh. The film culminates in a nice selection of musings about the link between comedy and depression that proves oddly poignant and tragic – Chris Rock sums it up when he describes himself as “definitely not as happy as the average idiot”. This film is a detailed and entertaining whistlestop tour through the weird world of stand-up comedy and, with its emotional conclusion, it pulls back the curtain just enough to give us a glimpse of the spotlight.
Pop or Poop?
For anyone with an interest in stand-up comedy, Dying Laughing feels like an essential watch. It delves into the psyche of the jobbing comic, whether it’s the bizarre isolation of life on the road or the worst possible scenarios unfolding on stage, and it can be a chaotic viewing experience at times with its menagerie of interview subjects.
However, it’s also unashamedly optimistic and reverent towards the art form, allowing those who practice it to say exactly why they’ve devoted their life to making us laugh.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.