The Comedian’s Guide to Survival, 2016.
Directed by Mark Murphy
Starring James Buckley, MyAnna Buring, Kevin Eldon, Paul Kaye and James Mullinger.
James Mullinger, entertainment journalist by day, failing stand-up comedian by night, embarks on a journey of self-discovery to figure out if he should be making people laugh after all…
Not many people believe me when I tell them I lived with two stand-up comedians for almost a year. In fact, Australian comic Brendon Burns, who appears as himself in The Comedian’s Guide to Survival, once did a packed out gig in my kitchen in the suburbs of Wolverhampton. True story. The life of a comedian, I can confirm by proxy, is a strange one, and many of the experiences James Buckley’s protagonist James Mullinger goes through in this semi autobiographical film by Mark Murphy (based on his and Mullinger’s book), I recognise from my time hearing the stories of terrible gigs in strange pubs, all-nighters in weird towns, cars filled with comedians zipping across the country for naff all money, and everything in between. The oddity of a British comics life is well captured in Murphy’s film, which is just as much of an oddity itself.
For a start, James Mullinger is a real person; indeed he co-hosts Underground Nights, a podcast from the Failed Critics film podcast network who I am affiliated with. I don’t know James personally, but I podcast semi-regularly with guys who do. Mullinger even appears in the film as a fictional, successful British comedian living the high life in Los Angeles, giving Buckley’s fictionalised version of himself advice as he seeks him out for interview. This, coupled with the meta, fourth-wall breaking narrative, filled with voice-over, means The Comedian’s Guide to Survival is not a traditional picture.
It’s operating on several levels, partly as a Rocky-style, little man finds success tale, but equally a deconstruction and quasi-documentarian examination of what stand-up comedy is. Mullinger’s life may have seen him experience plenty of these situations, but there’s as much a heightened reality to events here – be it Mullinger being left half naked by a creepy American trucker (played by the wonderful Mark Heap), or the cartoonish obscenity pouring from the mouth of his journalist magazine boss, played brilliantly as ever by Paul Kaye. It’s about a real man and a real life, but it’s not set in the real world.
Therein lies the contrast, and the paradox about Murphy’s film, and indeed why it probably demands a couple of watches; it’s not always as funny as you suspect it thinks it is, but equally it’s often about a man trying too hard to be funny, or trying to figure out what *funny* is. Oddly enough, Comedian’s Guide often is less funny when it’s visibly attempting to find a gag, and rather it takes off in the character interactions, asides or one-liners. The more you think about it, the cleverer it turns out to be – in particular the funniest sequence is Mullinger being utterly roasted by professional comics he’s interviewing (such as the aforementioned Burns, Gilbert Gottfried, Gina Yashere), who basically suggest he go and die. Murphy’s film is often razor tipped in nastiness, but never with malicious intent – it’s always got one eye on what it’s trying to do, and is frequently very self-aware, perhaps indeed *too* self-aware. It runs the risk in places of being too out of body, too concerned with examining comedy rather than making you laugh or being too dramatic – if ever a film was made for comedians by comedians, this is it.
Yet at its heart, The Comedian’s Guide to Survival just wants to be loved. It has a wholesome message, in which James Mullinger has to keep fighting against adversity to achieve his dreams, and ultimately suggests the best way to be the best, is to stop trying to figure out how to do it. Buckley conveys that well with a likable, earnest performance not desperate to gain laughs, and serves as a little man you can root for as he wades through a hyper-realised world of awful awful people to achieve some semblance of equilibrium and happiness in, ultimately, trying to make people laugh. It’s too knowing and oddly constructed to be a mainstream hit, and is perhaps a shade too long, but with a fascinating subject matter, a host of fine actors popping up, and some committed performances, Murphy’s film is unique and worth a look. You may just see comedy from a different perspective once you’re done.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★