The Queue: Comics talk shop in Kevin Pollak's Misery Loves Comedy | Arts
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Friday, April 24, 2015

The Queue: Comics talk shop in Kevin Pollak's Misery Loves Comedy

Posted by on Fri, Apr 24, 2015 at 2:30 PM

What is it that's so compelling about listening to comedians talk about comedy? 

I'm not sure I know, but I'm hooked. I've been listening to Marc Maron's WTF podcast religiously for years, and have recently been working my way though the archives of Jerry Seinfeld's high-rent riff on the premise, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.

Now comes Misery Loves Comedy, the indie documentary from veteran comic, actor and impressionist extraordinaire Kevin Pollak. You may remember Pollak from his turn as Hockney in The Usual Suspects, and if you haven't sampled his impressionist act, you really should.


For his documentary, Pollak grabbed a camera crew, called up his famous friends, and then got them to sit in front of a camera and think out loud about why comics do what they do. He's got a lot of friends. Among the performers featured in the doc (deep breath):

Tom Hanks, Martin Short, Whoopi Goldberg, James Brooks, Lewis Black, Steve Coogan, Kathleen Madigan, Andy Richter, Stephen Merchant, Bobby Cannavale, Jemaine Clement, Amy Schumer, Jon Favreau, Dana Gould, Judd Apatow, Robert Smigel, Jimmy Fallon, Christopher Guest, Jim Norton, Nick Swardson, Kevin Nealon, Jim Jeffries, Jim Gaffigan, Lynn Shawcroft, Paul F. Tompkins, Greg Proops, Lisa Kudrow, Matthew Perry, Janeane Garafalo, Penn Jilette, Richard Lewis, Mike Birbiglia, Jake Johannsen, Larry David, Maria Bamford, David Koechner, Jason Alexander, Rob Brydon, David Wain, Chris Hardwick, Andy Kindler, Kevin Smith and Bob Saget. 

Also on hand are some, yes, unusual subjects. Actor Sam Rockwell muses on the weird, borderline-mystical experience of connecting with an audience onstage: "It's a feeling of enlightenment and freedom and liberty," he says. On the other hand, William H. Macy—one of our most fearless actors—concedes he's terrified by the idea of performing stand-up comedy.

The old road dog stand-ups have the best war stories. Kevin Nealon talks about a heckler who threw his prosthetic leg onstage. There's lots of discussion about influences, and the hand-me-down legacy of comedy. It's interesting to hear Penn Jillette talk about George Carlin, or Tom Hanks talk about Richard Pryor, or Janeane Garafalo about Dick Van Dyke. Several of the comics conjecture on the addictive nature of performing stand-up. "It's like crystal meth," Hanks says. Wait, how does Tom Hanks know what crystal meth feels like?

But as is the case on Maron's podcast, the most interesting bits are the passages when the comics get raw and honest. Martin Short tells a revealing story about dealing with envy and insecurity. Maria Bamford discusses how empowering it is to talk onstage about being in a psych ward.

I wish there were more of this material—and more diversity in general—but Pollak's film skews toward an old-school, shoot-the-shit vibe, and the boy's club atmosphere is dominated by white male comics. 

There's a famous notion that comedy can't be dissected. Not without killing the patient, anyway. But that never seems to stop industry professionals from trying, and Misery presents dozens of interesting insider perspectives. "There are two kinds of laughs," says U.K. comic Steve Coogan. "There's the laugh you get when a gag lands, and then there's a different laugh when you say something that reveals a truth—and that's a laugh of recognition."

Misery Loves Comedy toured the festival circuit earlier this year and opens today in a limited theatrical run. (It will play semi-locally at Geeksboro in Greensboro starting May 15.) Meanwhile, you can track it down via cable VOD or on iTunes.

Other recommended releases this week, now available on digital and/or disc:

The acclaimed Australian horror film The Babadook digs into some unexpected psychological territory.

Tim Burton's latest, Big Eyes, stars Christoph Waltz and Amy Adams in an enormously strange true story of con artistry and 1960s kitsch art. 

Director David Cronenberg returns with the visceral Hollywood satire Maps to the Stars

And speaking of funny business, Comedy Central has released seasons one and two of the fabulous Inside Amy Schumer, with outtakes and deleted scenes. I also recommend checking out Schumer's latest (NSFW) viral video, with Tina Fey, Patricia Arquette and Julia Louis-Dreyfus. 


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