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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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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.

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Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…

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IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.

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IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).

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IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.

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IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.

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IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.

Jenn: I LOVE ISSA RAE!

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IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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