Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
The compelling new documentary DYING LAUGHING takes a look at the brave souls who put themselves in the harsh stage spotlight night after night in the attempt to make us chuckle. The life of a stand-up comic is one that’s filled with hecklers, heartbreak, but also hope for society’s betterment as the key to success can be found in laughter. Directors Lloyd Stanton and Paul Toogood have examined the craft of rocking a rhyme in THE ART OF RAP, and they utilize a similar technique to get to the heart of what makes stand-up comedians tick.
I spoke with the affable directors by phone recently about everything from showing different aspects of the fine art of stand-up comedy, to the insights they learned about the craft, to continuing on the conversation as a television series.
There are a lot of movies about the art of standup and the people who do it. What made you think you could explore this in a different way?
Paul Toogood: One of the things that became clear from all the interviews we had done was to not look at other’s documentaries before making a film because it’s easy to copy things or be influenced by things.
We made a lot of programming about the creative process – primarily through music about the world’s famous songwriters and our epic film about the art of rap. We were looking for a subject whereby there were parallels in terms of a strong sense of there are certain art forms that are not afforded the praise they deserve. We felt that rap music was one of them and stand-up comedy is another. Typically the great practitioners make it look so easy that the actual act of standing up in front of an audience and speaking is terrifying to most of us mere mortals. To have a compelling narrative and credible material which you’re constantly having to refresh seems to be the most noble and incredible thing. We felt they deserved a closer look. So that was our motivation.
Certainly right from the get-go, through our interviews, from people like Jerry Seinfeld, that this is something that looks easy, but even people like Jerry Seinfeld find it impossibly difficult the first time they try to do it. In many respects it’s an incredibly inspirational story which speaks to lots of things people try in their lives – things that are initially difficult that you never thing you’ll be able to do it and you keep learning and finally you get there.
Lloyd Stanton: Even though we were massive fans of comedians, [we realized] how important what they do is. How they can talk about things that really get under the skin of all our lives. That’s something because it’s masked in laughter, there’s some great truth in there. They are some of the last philosophers.
There’s that line about how this is poetry – I had never thought of this as that before, but it’s completely true.
Paul Toogood: One of the great things that happens when you’re doing something as insane as what we tried to bite off – which is essentially conduct a census from a moment in time. It’s a huge amount of people – 150 practitioners. What emerges is a series of patterns and themes and people hit similar marks. Very often these people have never met each other. That’s how we were able to hit this narrative style where it was in conversation somebody says something and their point is backed up and progressed by the next person. After awhile, we got the sense that people talk about their truths. Generally speaking, it’s only when you really start talking the truth on stage, it’s when you start getting somewhere. It takes about ten years to get to this point. That’s an extraordinary amount of time to devote to something before you really get anywhere. That’s why we see a level of devotion in stand-up comedy fans. They really feel this guy understands something really big and important, which even scratched at the meaning of life – dare I say it.
As you mentioned, you reached out to many comics. I assume one person started the ball rolling. Or was this a group effort to get your interviewees?
Paul Toogood:We started off talking to our dear old friend John Thomson in the UK, who has a background in stand-up, but is really more famous as an actor. He kept talking to us how some of the funniest stories he’s ever heard were from doing stand-up nights and people discussing the worst things that have ever happened to them. We looked at the idea of doing a piece about bombing, but we felt that was a bit linear and singular. It wouldn’t really do the story justice, although those parts are very funny and compelling. The way we work having made lots of films about brilliant creatives, we put together a show reel and say, “These are the kind of things we do.” The artist sees these things – that they always come out looking good – that this is in praise of the art and in praise of the individual. We would then get together a number of our friends who were stand-up comedians who would come on board and help us bring four or five key cast.
After awhile, there’s a tipping point and also some people who ignored you the first time round get back to you because so-and-so is doing in. Once you get an Amy Schumer or a Jerry Seinfeld, everyone who ignored you figures it’s a good idea to be in the film. So you just keep going. The lovely thing about it is somebody who is completely unknown could pounce in the same way a big A-list star. There are a number of people who really stand out, who perhaps aren’t known to a big audience. Tiffany Haddish, who’s about to be a big star as an actress, is honest and truthful and compelling in what she tells us that you can’t help leaving the theater and thinking about her. Royale Watkins is stunningly open and honest in our interview, which brings me a level of interest to him. One guy ran up to us and said, ‘I can’t believe I’m next to Jerry Lewis in your movie!’ That’s a wonderful surprise.
When did you know you had enough people to carry this? It seems like this could go on and on.
Lloyd Stanton: We were shooting the very last interview on the last day we locked the edit. There was people and information coming in all throughout the process. We filmed for 18 months and edited for several months. During that, we were still picking up people we wanted to get. We could’ve gone on indefinitely until there was a lock on. Now we have this opportunity to make a ten-part television series so the process will go on again.
Paul Toogood: We haven’t stopped, basically.
Lloyd Stanton: We were left with this incredible archives – 120 plus interviews that are a minimum of an hour. You haven’t used everything you’ve shot. It’s a strange thing. So we’re now in production on the spin-off television series which will allow us to open up some of these themes – particularly the life lessons that comedians can teach us. We will be including new stand-up comedy pieces in the series.
Is the TV series airing in the UK only? Or will I be able to see it in the States?
Lloyd Stanton: No. It’s quite US-centric really. But it will be for international distribution. It’ll probably turn up on a premium POD platform. It’s an independent production like all of ours.
Paul Toogood: We consciously chose, while we were working on the film, to not have stand-up performances in it so you’d really concentrate on who the people were and what they were about and the work that went into it. With the series, we now get to pervert that so you get to see those comedians now through the writing process, writing something, going on to stage – whether it’s still a work in development or new material. It’s a slightly different, next stage to the film.
Lloyd Stanton: It’ll be like a day in the life of that person – examining how they choose their material, how they develop, how they write it, and how they try it out. We might see them successfully using that material in front of a large audience.
DYING LAUGHING is in theaters and available via VOD/ iTunes on February 24. For a list of theaters, go here.
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