Applying the lax, conversational pace of his chat show to a tidy 95-minute survey on stand-up, with comics by the score, is an admirable feat on Kevin Pollak’s part. That’s not to say it’s a well-executed one. Misery Loves Comedy is a labor of love from a comic with nearly fifty years in the biz, a fat Roledex (they still use those, right?), and an affinity for in-depth discussion. Pollak (The Usual Suspects, Casino) points the camera at writers (Judd Apatow, James L. Brooks), television personalities (Chris Hardwick, Jimmy Fallon), rising stars (Amy Schumer), podcasters (Marc Maron) and other lifers about what has structured their lives in front of the mic. Chapters are marked by talking points: what were your earliest comic influences? What was your first time on stage like? And, of course, what has made you absolutely miserable in your career? If you’re a comic, or a comedy junkie, it’s like spending time with old friends (and perhaps some strangers). Closure is clearly the end-point here, as stand-up is the most celebrated method of working shit out publicly.
As somebody who loves comedy, listens to podcasts, digs deep for the best stand-up specials, and is a veteran of two open-mics, I’m part of the target audience. Those who know comedy understand the insecurity, the anxiety, the depression involved in being funny. It’s not a well-kept secret — plenty of the best comedy has emerged from those struggles — but it became even more of a mainstream talking point when Robin Williams died. For many, it was (and continues to be) difficult to comprehend why the world’s appointed jester would succumb to the darkest act a human could commit, leading many to discover that it’s not incredibly abnormal after all. That shared realization should make the film open for a wider audience than Pollak allows.
Possibly through budgetary circumstances, Pollak includes no stand-up footage, providing no context for the curious onlookers who may be wondering who the hell Jim Jefferies is, or why Tom Hanks (who played a stand-up in Punchline) would appear. There’s something compellingly artful about a documentary that barely shows any footage of its subject, but stand-up doesn’t lend itself to such a liberty. If the stand-up material works out the darkness, it’s better to let the art speak for itself. Otherwise, it’s just a mess of people congratulating themselves for being brave enough to openly address their flaws. There’s no doubt that these people have book-loads of pain, but very little time allows each comic to have their say. In fact, it’s barely mentioned until eighty minutes in.
Pollak has good rapport with the subjects interviewed, but his treatment of their footage feels impersonal. Those who have been hospitalized for depression, like Maria Bamford, barely get a word in, and the widow Hedberg’s tale following the late Mitch’s overdose feels like a footnote. And that’s before mentioning the extensive list of those tragic comics who didn’t appear at all. Tig Notaro opened an album by announcing her diagnosis of breast cancer, followed by the ordeal of her mother’s death. Doug Stanhope chronicled his own experience of assisting his mother’s overdose of pills. Whether they weren’t contacted or just unavailable, their absence leaves Misery Loves Comedy incomplete, and, like Pollak’s own comedy, too vanilla for the heavy subject.