On Misery and Comedy: The Sundance Docs About Funny People

By  · Published on January 30th, 2015

Sundance Institute

It was American humorist Erma Bombeck who is credited is saying that “there is a thin line that separates laughter and pain, comedy and tragedy, humor and hurt.” In the documentary program of the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, this is a topic oft explored. From the quite literal exploration in Kevin Pollak’s Misery Loves Comedy to the less overt themes in Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon, there were many instances of both pain and laughter, especially in the creation of great comedy.

It is through these docs that Sundance explored the minds and eccentricities behind what makes us laugh. Let’s explore.

Sundance Institute

Misery Loves Comedy

In what began as a Kickstarter project for Kevin Pollak, the actor, comedian, filmmaker, podcaster and everyman of entertainment struggles to keep himself unheard as he interviews many of his most revered contemporaries about their lives in comedy. Though we don’t mind, as an audience, as the subjects and subject matter are completely engaging. George Carlin’s daughter tells stories about speaking gibberish with her father in the produce section of the grocery store. Mitch Hedberg’s widow talks about the depths of his drug abuse and his ultimate demise. These are among the stories explored as Pollak’s film begins to take shape. At first, it’s a movie about how these people – the likes of Jim Jeffries, Steve Coogan, Jim Norton and even Tom Hanks – got into comedy. Influences, inspirational moments, support from family, etc.

But as the film moves along, Pollak’s main thesis comes into focus: does one have to be miserable in order to be funny? Just as the question is filled with complexity in the spaces between letters, the answer is equally as difficult. That doesn’t seem to be the ultimate point in Pollak’s film. It meanders its way through a vast array of interesting conversations and topics. For a talking heads documentary, it’s quite populated. But the stories and the people are fascinating, especially for anyone who loves the craft of comedy. To see the likes of Lewis Black and Jimmy Fallon musing similarly about the failures of their careers – or as Black says, “you have to be willing to watch yourself die” – is illuminating. There’s no denying that any life lived “on the road,” be it music, comedy or traveling circus, is difficult. But in comedy, there’s something else. A deeper sense of misery that takes over when one walks off stage. That’s where misery and comedy meet for many of Pollak’s subjects. To be in control of an audience is the height of their happiness, to lose that is to plunge instantly back into the darkness.

In the end, Pollak’s film seems less about answering the question and more about the journey. It’s great to spend time with these comedians as they tell stories about the good times and the bad.

National Lampoon

Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead

By contrast, Douglas Tirola’s documentary about the history of National Lampoon is a far more upbeat affair, though it doesn’t ever steer away from the darkness. Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead serves as a loving oral history of The National Lampoon magazine and its various spin-offs into radio, stage and the big screen. It deals with the formation of National Lampoon by Harvard Lampoon alums Doug Kenney, Henry Beard and Robert Hoffman in 1969. It follows the story of the magazine through to their days of putting on stage shows with Second City alumni like Bill Murray, Harold Ramis and John Belushi. There are the dark days when Saturday Night Live came along and prompted a mass exodus of writers and talent. And of course, the period when National Lampoon began making big screen comedies with Animal House and Vacation.

One thing that cuts through all of the storytelling about the who, what, where and when for National Lampoon is the story of co-founder Doug Kenney. In interviews with those around him, including some very intimate moments with his close friend Chevy Chase, we see Kenney’s story unfold. He was a brilliant writer and satirist whose life was in a constant state of chaos. In the early days of the magazine in New York, Kenney was the life of the party and the one who kept the magazine on its skyward trajectory. There were disappearances, outbursts and eventually a deal that Lampoon chairman Matty Simmons made to keep Kenney at the magazine by producing a movie. That movie would become Animal House, which Kenney co-wrote and produced.

The movie continues on from here, introducing us to the others who would inherit the magazine when Kenney left to make movies in California. But it all comes back to Kenney, who after writing and producing Caddyshack, began to show signs that things weren’t right. The doc slows down a bit to explore Kenney’s death, mostly through the stories told by Chevy Chase, who had taken Kenney to Hawaii in an attempt to help him get his life together. But drugs and his maniacal pursuit of the next success high proved too much. It was never ruled a suicide, as Kenney fell off of a cliff on a hike, but watching the faces in the documentary recall the story, it’s clear that many of those who knew and loved Kenney had suspected worse. As one of Lampoon’s writers explains, Harold Ramis famously quipped that Kenney “probably fell while he was looking for a place to jump”.

Tirola’s movie is an overwhelmingly celebratory affair. There’s a clear affection for National Lampoon’s work and its influence on so much that came after. The movie is stitched together with great care and creativity (including bringing some of National Lampoon’s great artwork to life with animation). But there’s no escaping the inherent sadness present in Doug Kenney’s fall from grace. At times, his misery (and that of others around him) produced great comedy. And his lifestyle, born of his success, may have ultimately engulfed him. The movie is a fun ride, but it never shies from somber reflection.

Shane Seibel/Type 55 Films

Call Me Lucky

There’s a third entry into this painful, beautiful, tragic and funny world of Sundance documentaries. One that I did not see, directed by one of my favorite filmmakers, Bobcat Goldthwait. Call Me Lucky is the story of lesser known comic Barry Crimmins.

As Drew McWeeny explains on HitFix, “There’s a term that gets thrown around sometimes, when someone is described as a “comic’s comic.” What it typically means is someone who makes other comedians laugh, but who may not connect with the general public. As Goldthwait’s film illustrates, Crimmins is spoken of in hushed terms by many comics, and he holds a key place in the history of modern stand-up, especially when it comes to the explosion of talent that came out of Boston.”

It also sounds like the story of a comic who speaks openly about surviving sexual abuse. Someone who dedicated his life to helping others who need help. Put simply, after reading Drew’s review and a few others that echo the sentiment that Call Me Lucky is a deeply felt story, I am anxious to see upon its eventual release. Normally I wouldn’t include a film I haven’t seen in such a piece, but this feels right. Because after all, in the exploration of comedy and misery, it’s honesty that matters most. And all three of these movies are that above anything else.

Read More Coverage From Sundance 2015

Neil Miller is the persistently-bearded Publisher of Film School Rejects, Nonfics, and One Perfect Shot. He's also the Executive Producer of the One Perfect Shot TV show (currently streaming on HBO Max) and the co-host of Trial By Content on The Ringer Podcast Network. He can be found on Twitter here: @rejects (He/Him)