Jim Eaton-Terry looks at Dying Laughing, a new documentary on the life of the stand-up comic
There’s always something odd about an extended conversation with a really great stand up. Inevitably there’s the tension of waiting for a gag that never comes, which often distracts from the conversation. Comics are clearly aware of this, and the weaker ones will defuse the tension with a crowd-pleasing riff or two, but the best conversations strip away the humour and show how the world looks from the stage.
Over the past few years there’s clearly – especially in the US – been a rise in interest in the art of stand-up, with both Jerry Seinfeld and Marc Maron presenting detailed – sometimes to the point of exhaustion in Maron’s case – conversations with comedians.
Dying Laughing, a new documentary, takes things a step further with 90 minutes of almost uninterrupted black and white footage of comics talking about their work and how it comes about. Like any performers talking about their art, there’s a fair amount of cliché and pomposity (in one 30 second sequence telling a joke is compared with a) sex, b) driving 150 miles an hour, c) a date, d) a symphony, e) actual magic and d) surfing) but the obvious delight virtually every interviewee shows in the work is infectious.
And the list of interviewees is just absolutely preposterous, to the point that it’s hard to think of a major figure they don’t speak to (Louis CK, come to think of it, is conspicuously absent). Other than Louis, the entire canon of American humour, from Seinfeld to Schumer, is here along with British comics from Billy Connolly and (touchingly) the late Victoria Wood through to Stewart Lee and a predictably subdued Coogan.
There’s very little new here – most of the insights are of the order that you tell jokes to fill the void and, while it’s awful when they don’t laugh it’s wonderful when they do – but the sheer range and quality of the interviewees makes the film unmissable for anyone with more than a passing interest in comedy.