Providing a genuinely unique, sometimes terrifying, usually hilarious vantage point of the life of a stand-up comic, Dying Laughing features dozens of interviews from top American and British comics, walking us through the best and worst moments of their careers on stage and giving us a true sense of how tied to their emotions each set is. From British directors Lloyd Stanton and Paul Toogood, the film navigates through the thought process of what makes a person want to stand in front of group of strangers and attempt to make them laugh. As one comic points out, they aren’t just an audience; they’re a pissed-off audience daring you to snap them out of their mood. The subject discuss that moment in their lives when they first realized they had the ability to tell jokes and get the desired result, as well as those moments in their careers when the audience responded so poorly, they considered dropping out of the game entirely. The impact of a dozen great sets in a row can be utterly erased by one boo or poisonous heckler, and these men and women remember every detail of a bad set like they suffer from PTSD because of it.
The list of interviewees is long and impressive: Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, Kevin Hart, the late Garry Shandling, Billy Connolly, Eddie Izzard, Steve Coogan, Jerry Lewis, Amy Schumer, Sarah Silverman, Jamie Foxx, Dave Attell, Bobby Lee, Gilbert Gottfried, Mike Epps (who has some of the best stories about bombing), and Jim Jefferies. There are a few standouts in terms of who offers the greatest insight, but everyone has vivid and mortifying tales of failure. What’s interesting is that the filmmakers forgo showing us footage of any of the comedians on stage—doing good or bad work. So our impressions of each of their performances comes directly from their abilities as storytellers.
Shot in an eerie black-and-white that only adds to the emotional component of the stories being told, Dying Laughing also gives us a wonderfully clear sense of how each of these performers crafts their routine over the course of weeks and months, tests it in from of increasingly larger numbers of people, discards what isn’t working, but occasionally holds onto old jokes that never quite land in the hopes that tweaking it over time (sometimes years) will help it finally land. The process is sometimes agonizing, but the desire to get that wave of laughter sweep across an audience drives these artists like the worst kind of drug addiction.
This is a filmgoing experience that pulls you in and forces you to see comedy in an entirely different light. It certainly reinforces the idea that not everyone is built to be a comedian, even people we know who seem to be naturally funny. There’s a process, a patience, and an outer shell that is both thick and scarred. Dying Laughing strikes that delicate balance between being very funny and extraordinarily moving at times.