'Misery Loves Comedy': Film Review

An engaging and often hilarious look behind the clown's mask.

Kevin Pollak's documentary dissects stand-up with many of comedy's biggest names.

After 30 years in comedy, Kevin Pollak turns a camera on the hand that fed him along with 46 of his nearest and dearest, including Tom Hanks, Jimmy Fallon and Amy Schumer, in the new documentary, Misery Loves Comedy. What might have turned out to be a movie about comedy only for comedians is instead a funny and engaging look at the most twisted and naked branch of the entertainment world.

"I wouldn't do stand-up with a gun to my head," says William H. Macy about performing amid a crowd of rowdy drunks with no character or costume but only wit to hide behind. When comedy goes wrong, it can get ugly, like when one heckler asks Lewis Black, "Why don't you go home and gargle with razor blades?" Richard Lewis recalls when he was starting out, his mother arrived two hours early and introduced herself to audience members as they entered the theater, then gave a running commentary throughout his act.

So why do they do it? Why travel from city to city for little pay and the chance to be ridiculed by drunk strangers? That's what Pollak aims to find out through chapters such as "Hey, Look at Me!" in which comedians tell anecdotes about being desperate for attention, and "No Drug Like the High Wire" in which they talk about the rush they experience from making an audience laugh. Nick Swardson was coming out of rehab when he got into comedy, where he discovered he could get high without using drugs. Tom Hanks compares it to rock cocaine.

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The main challenge with an interview-format documentary like Misery Loves Comedy, where almost the entire movie is talking heads, is to not bore the audience. With over 60 interviews, no doubt Pollak shot enough footage to lasso Mars, and he seems to have culled it to the most compelling and hilarious moments. Yet it drags a bit around the 80-minute mark, and a lot of well-trodden ground is retrodden — the dark side of the profession, drug overdoses, depression and suicide. But no matter how accustomed we've become, it's still a little shocking to see funny people talking tragedy.

While by all accounts there appears to be a preponderance of marginal personality types in the profession, the last chapter, entitled "Do You Have to Be Miserable to Be Funny?" sheds some unexpected light on the subject. The consensus is you don't have to be miserable, but it sure helps. In other words, there are plenty of happy people who are funny as hell; however, the best comedians are miserable.

Penn Jillette disagrees. "It's called 'show' business," he argues, claiming regular people are just as messed up as comedians, only they just don't show it. As a result of the areas explored in the movie — the funny dads, the need for attention, the adrenaline rush of laughter — comedians wind up in a profession that compels them to act out in a public way, where the rest of us don't. He may or may not be right. While suicides make up 3 percent of deaths among entertainers overall, it constitutes only 1.5 percent of deaths among the general public.

If, as Marc Maron says, it takes a strong case of delusion to get into show business, it probably takes an oddball to want to stay in. Or as Jim Gaffigan likes to tell his kid, "There's nothing wrong with being weird, nothing at all."

Production companies: Heretic Films, NewAley Pictures

Cast: Tom Hanks, Larry David, Jimmy Fallon, Christopher Guest, Jon Favreau, Judd Apatow, Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon, Sam Rockwell, William H. Macy

Director-screenwriter: Kevin Pollak

Producers: Becky Newhall, Burton Ritchie, Barry Katz

Director of photography: Adam McDaid

Editors: Rob Legato, Kevin Pollak, Dylan King

No rating, 94 minutes