‘Dying Laughing’: LAFF Review

Dying Laughing Publicity Still 1 H 2016
Courtesy of 4045 Films
A vivid group portrait of the agony and the ecstasy of standup comedy.

Chris Rock, Amy Schumer and the late Garry Shandling are among the dozens of comedians discussing the highs and lows of their profession in a documentary by two British filmmakers.

More than 50 professional jokesters sit down for serious chats about their work in Dying Laughing, an illuminating and memorable collection of firsthand observations. Though the engaging documentary treads through unavoidably familiar territory — the loneliness of the road, the anguish of bombing — its chorus of testifiers often find sharp new angles of approach. Like the jokes they hone, many of their insights arrive with the impact of well-crafted punchlines. The presence of comic superstars in the lineup’s diverse mix should ensure further bookings for the film, which would be a natural on high-profile cable schedules.

Directors Paul Toogood and Lloyd Stanton, who interviewed almost twice as many comics as made the final cut, take a smart approach that strips away milieu to focus fully on the performers. No matter where the conversation takes place, the filmmakers position each interviewee before a blank canvas backdrop. The team of cinematographers capture them in unblinking close-up, the rich black-and-white of these sequences lending a patina of formal portraiture that reinforces the film’s thesis: Standup comedy is an undervalued art form.

The discussion is organized around topics that collectively define standup: the horror of that first time on stage, the road, bombing, dealing with hecklers and what it feels like to click with an audience. Re the last matter, “It's hallelujah” is how Jerry Lewis sums it up.

At the film’s weakest, the echo effect of overlapping sound bites is merely repetition, not helped by the score’s intrusive jabs. But obvious psychologizing about the need for approval gives way to a nuanced look at a singular form of entertainment. With no music, choreography or scripted role to hide behind, standups can’t help but take it personally when a crowd doesn’t like their routine. The lack of a protective shield can extend from the emotional to the physical: Steve Coogan recalls dodging thrown chairs in his early days; Billy Connelly was once punched in the midst of his set.

The conversations about hecklers touch on fascinating philosophical questions in the form of vivid anecdotes. Ranging from the harrowing to the hilarious, the incidents are clearly indelible moments in the comics’ experience, whether it’s the brutal editorializing of an audience-supplied sound effect that Sarah Silverman reenacts or the N-word-spouting haters who taunted Cedric the Entertainer on more than one occasion.

The directors punctuate the B&W talking-head sections with color footage of the monotonous cross-country highways, dispiriting motel rooms and crappy food of the showbiz life, standup style. As Garry Shandling, to whom the film is dedicated, puts it, the job is “too painful and difficult if it isn’t a calling.” Amy Schumer seconds that emotion, noting that “it’s definitely not a great way to invest in your romantic life.”

But nobody’s kvetching. There’s a strong sense of professional pride running through the soul searching, beginning with a comment by Jerry Seinfeld, whose 2002 Comedian remains an exceptionally insightful documentary about standup as a calling. It’s not audience approval that he seeks, Seinfeld says decisively in Dying Laughing, but audience sublimation.

By film’s end, Toogood and Stanton have presented a strong case for why the non-hecklers among us are eager to sublimate ourselves to a comedian at a mic. Chris Rock convincingly points to sadness and a sense of disenfranchisement as key elements of the comic persona. Beyond their tenacity and their talents as entertainers and wordsmiths, standups are, Rock says, “the last philosophers.” 

Production company: 4045 Films
With: Billy Connolly, Steve Coogan, Cedric the Entertainer, Mike Epps, Jamie Foxx, Kevin Hart, Eddie Izzard, Jerry Lewis, Rick Overton, Paul Provenza, Chris Rock, Amy Schumer, Jerry Seinfeld, Garry Shandling, Sarah Silverman, Royale Watkins, Keenen Ivory Wayans
Directors: Paul Toogood, Lloyd Stanton
Producers: Paul Toogood, Lloyd Stanton, Suli McCullough
Executive producers: Keith Haviland, Adam Longworth, John Thomson
Cinematographers: Auston Call, John Halliday, Adam Singodia
Editors: Chris Dickens, Peter Norrey, Pawel Stec
Composer: Edward Shearmur

Not rated, 87 minutes