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Five Funny Documentaries About Stand-Up Comedians

Five Funny Documentaries About Stand-Up Comedians (photo)

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With a new documentary about the life of Bill Hicks opening in New York City this weekend, it seemed like a good time to dig deeper into the world of documentaries about stand-up comedians. And, pending an thorough examination, this is what we found: there aren’t a lot of good ones. Obviously there are plenty of concert films of stand-ups, just not a ton of docs about stand-ups, and most of the ones that do exist aren’t very good. “American,” which is smartly edited and constructed, is a fine exception. Here are five more:


“The Comedians of Comedy” (2005)
Directed by Michael Blieden

As “The Comedians of Comedy” opens, Patton Oswalt talks about one of the worst gigs of his life: Yuk-A-Buck Night, six comedians, six bucks, one comedy club. Places like that Yuk-A-Buck joint, with their lowest common denominator expectations and two drink minimums, are the reason Oswalt gathered together Brian Posehn, Maria Bamford, and Zach Galifianakis for a tour of indie rock clubs in the Pacific Northwest. The crowd at these clubs is younger, smarter, and a whole lot more receptive to weirdness and experimentation. Appropriately enough, weirdness and experimentation also happen to be the key ingredients of Michael Blieden’s “Comedians of Comedy” documentary. Sprinkled between the performances and slice of life on the road scenes are all sorts of quirky digressions, like the sequence where Galifianakis and Posehn entertain themselves in a hotel by creating a softcore porn parody. It’s exactly the sort of film you’d want to see about these off-kilter comics: loose, personal, and unconventional. In one of the funniest bits (that I can put on an all-ages website without fear of getting a concerned email from my boss), Galifianakis expounds on his theory of comedy.


“Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work” (2010)
Directed by Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg

You look at Joan Rivers’ crazy face, which at this point resembles an over-stuffed beanbag chair, and you wonder “What makes a person do that to themselves?” “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work” provides the answer. The film shows just how tough the entertainment business can be for an aging star, even a famous and successful one. For Rivers, the scariest sight in the world is an empty calendar, and at the start of this documentary, her calendar is looking mighty empty. With her career at a low ebb, Rivers hustles for gigs, and you really come to appreciate how much work ethic matters in the stand-up comedy game. Someone without Rivers’ drive to succeed would have quit long ago. But she’s still working, still playing two or three shows a night, still pulling that face ever tighter so she can keep competing in this screwy, youth-obsessed world.

“I Am Comic” (2010)

Directed by Jordan Brady

It’s generous to call “I Am Comic” a “documentary” — it’s basically a plotless collection of interviews with stand-up comedians. But man, what a plotless collection of interviews with stand-up comedians. The topics are fascinating, the anecdotes are candid, and the cast, from Louis C.K. to Larry Miller to Tim Allen is impressive (and not as middle-aged and white, as that sample makes it seem). Amongst the details of a stand-up’s life revealed herein: that many comedy clubs buy condos to put up visiting comics rather than paying for their hotel rooms (and that some comedians have a reputation for contaminating these condos with their filth). No overarching message or theme here, just an awesome assortment of stories. Did you know that Sarah Silverman’s most famous joke (“I was licking jelly off of my boyfriend’s penis and all of a sudden I’m thinking, ‘Oh My God, I’m turning into my mother!'”) was written by another woman who thought it’d be better suited to Silverman’s act? Well now you do.


“Comedian” (2002)
Directed by Christian Charles

There’s only 2 things that could drive a man as successful as Jerry Seinfeld back into a comedy club: a love of comedy or a total addiction to it. “Comedian” explores how both passion and obsession fuel Seinfeld’s return to stand-up after he retired the 20-year-old act that had helped inspire his classic sitcom. Seinfeld’s attempt to regain his chops as a working comic is like watching a great athlete try to come back from retirement — the instincts are still there but the muscles are out of shape. “Comedian”‘s counterpoint to Seinfeld is a young stand-up named Orny Adams, who’s got all the tools but a different sort of hunger. Adams is a smart guy with good material and a terrible attitude. He’s got no love, except for himself, and not much of an addiction either — if Adams got his own sitcom tomorrow, he probably wouldn’t set foot in a comedy club again. Part of what I love about “Comedian” is the way it illustrates the fundamental meritocracy of comedy through the contrast between Seinfeld and Adams. Jerry’s doing it for the thrill and the pleasure; Orny’s doing it for the chance at celebrity and money. And when they get onstage, that’s all totally irrelevant. The only thing matters is their material. For Adams, stand-up comedy is a means to an end. For Seinfeld, it’s a way of life and will be for as long as he can do it, either because he loves it or because he doesn’t know how to stop.


“Vince Vaughn’s Wild West Comedy Show” (2006)
Direced by Ari Sandel

The stand-up comedy in “Vince Vaughn’s Wild West Comedy Show” isn’t always that great, which, counterintuitively, is exactly why this stand-up documentary is worth watching. All the other films on this list celebrate the titans of the industry. “Vince Vaughn’s…” is one of the few to pay homage to the working comedian, the regular stiff who spends 200 nights a year on the road struggling with cranky crowds and lukewarm material. In 2005, Vaughn decided to pack four comedians into a bus and tour the country for thirty shows in thirty days. The comics he chose aren’t fantastic — the best of the bunch is John Caparulo, who now appears regularly on “Chelsea Lately” — but it’s fascinating to watch them struggle and self-doubt (the interviews are surprisingly candid). They make for a great comparison with Vaughn, the established movie star who coasts along on his charm and stage presence. Some nights the guys kill, and other nights they don’t. Either way, they keep plugging along. In a comedy club, a comic who doesn’t get laughs is a failure, end of story. In a documentary, a comic who doesn’t get laughs is an opportunity to consider why some people feel a need to essentially martyr themselves for our pleasure.


For Further Viewing: “The Aristocrats,” about jokes and joketelling, “Super High Me,” about the role of drugs in stand-up, “Why We Laugh,” about the history of African-American comedy, “Goodnight, We Love You,” about the life of comedienne Phyllis Diller, and “Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project” about the famous insult comic.

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SO EXCITED!!!

Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”

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IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?


Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!


Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.


Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 

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IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.

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New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…

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IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon.

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number!

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time.

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by.

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IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo.

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim.

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t?

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?”

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud.

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

The-Craft

The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”

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Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).

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Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.

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And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.