Dying Laughing, 2016.
Directed by Lloyd Stanton and Paul Toogood.
A documentary film looking in detail at the highs and lows of being a stand-up comedian.
Being a stand-up is bloody hard work. That’s the message that comes through loud and clear in this insightful documentary from British directors Lloyd Stanton and Paul Toogood. Dying Laughing presents over 50 top comedians including Chris Rock, Steve Coogan, Amy Schumer, Stewart Lee, Sarah Silverman and Jerry Seinfeld to name just a few offer their musings and memories of life on the comedy circuit and getting paid to make people laugh.
Going in to extreme detail on the processes that make up what many would view as the last thing on Earth they’d want to do, these professionals talk about the highs and lows of life on the road and the strangeness and uncertainty that it can bring. Sometimes, stand-up seems something like a drug, its addictive qualities staving off any attempts to formulate a more reliable career path. Tales of dying on stage and learning the craft through bad gigs are told with passion and more than hint of a rueful smile. Tears are even shed in the case of Royale Watkins, who wells up on camera while recounting a painful gig which led to him bailing out of the venue and missing out on a chance to meet his hero Michael Jordan.
This is a film looking at how comedy works for the comedians themselves. The health benefits of stand-up are documented by Tiffany Haddish, who talks movingly about comedy helping her with problems brought on by caring for her mother’s schizophrenia as well as school bullying. After constantly getting into trouble at school her counsellor gave her a stark ultimatum – therapy or comedy camp. She chose the camp and found the ideal outlet for her creativity and expression.
Dying Laughing is more about the philosophy of stand-up rather than a film purely looking for laughs. There are jokes of course – the principal players are comics after all, but the tone of the doc is informative and straight down the line. This is a sensible approach to take, methodically presenting every area of a comic’s working life in great detail and clarity. There is sometimes a danger that in attempting to ‘explain’ comedy you end up taking it apart and making it no fun at all – as E.B. White once opined, “humour can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind”. Thankfully, this valuable doc disproves White’s view, and shows that while we can’t fully analyse why we laugh at the things we do, we can analyse why comedians try to make us.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★★★★/ Movie: ★★★★
Robert W Monk is a freelance journalist and film writer.