By Matt Singer
It is very hard to care about something and then laugh about it. This is why so few movies or TV specials featuring stand-up comedians even attempt to explore the world beyond the stage, the spotlight and the microphone. If you’re lucky, you get an opening sketch, maybe a few shots of the comedian arriving at the venue, and then right into the material. So much of the stand-up’s persona is their casual, conversational tone; we know it’s rehearsed, but we like to pretend it’s not. Showing us that it’s a job and a hard one at that can easily shatter that illusion.
And so it is something of a minor triumph (a very minor triumph) that “Vince Vaughn’s Wild West Comedy Show” pulls off the dual feat of giving you an honest this-is-what-it-takes portrait of the tough life of a stand-up alongside the actual material. The film takes us on the road with Vaughn and four of his comedian buddies, and while it showcases plenty of jokes from their acts, the film actually spends more time with the guys in between sets. It lets them discuss their backgrounds, express their frustrations and failures, and even introduces us to their sometimes disapproving parents.
The film, directed by Ari Sandel, doesn’t shy away from the tough side of the business. All the talent and the timing in the world doesn’t guarantee success in stand-up. Luck and some fortunate breaks are crucial, and Vaughn, who largely takes a backseat to the four comics in the film, much as he does onstage during the tour, clearly enjoys the fact that he can play benefactor to some needy up-and-comers. Ironically, the funniest guy in the movie is the least successful when the documentary was shot back in the summer of 2005, Sebastian Maniscalco, who has the strongest on stage persona and clearest comedic perspective, was still waiting tables to pay his rent, and had to take an extended vacation from his day job just to accept Vaughn’s invitation. Happily, his fortunes have improved a bit since then, but it took offers like Vaughn’s to get him there (after the tour’s final performance, a visibly moved Maniscalco thanks Vaughn while apologizing for “acting like a pussy”).
The other three comedians and their frat house humor are largely interchangeable, a bit of the reason why “VVWWCS” (which, as if the title wasn’t already long enough, has an interminable subtitle: “30 Days & 30 Nights Hollywood to the Heartland”) consistently gives off a pleasant vibe, but rarely a memorable or hilarious one. There’s not much conflict beyond Maniscalco’s struggles either; even when Hurricane Katrina lumbers onto the scene, it does little more than change the tour’s itinerary and give the group a chance to do some goodhearted charity work. By Vaughn’s own admission, rough as things got, the guys never had a bad night, nor did they ever really fight. Which is great for the audiences who are enjoying the live show in theaters across the heartland, but pose kind of a problem for the audiences watching the audiences on the screen, since so much of the movie we see is based on the comedians’ hassle-free travails on the road. That’s a totally different reason not to look behind the curtain. Forget sentimentality sometimes, banality can be just as dangerous to a comedian.
[Photo: “Vince Vaughn’s Wild West Comedy Show,” Picturehouse Entertainment, 2008]