Review: Funny Pains is a Comedian’s Journey to New Material and Processing Trauma

In recent years, the lines that previously separated stand-up comedy, improv, performance art, and more traditional one-person showcases have blurred to the point where they seem meaningless (and perhaps even pointless). When you watch recent events such as Hannah Gadsby’s “Nanette” special or Mike Birgilia’s recent run on Broadway (two vastly different performances, to be sure), it’s clear that the division between relaying personal stories and making people laugh is almost non-existent. In many ways, it’s more like life, in that someone you know who might be a fabulously funny storyteller might be miserable at relaying more traditional setups and punchlines. But what if someone could take their personal traumas or demons and turn them into comedy or art or both?

Funny Pains Image courtesy of Passion River Films

From director Jorgy Cruz comes the documentary Funny Pains, which follows about four years (beginning in 2015) in the life and career of stand-up comedian Wendi Starling. She seems constantly in the process of working through many years of mental illness (bipolar disorder, to be specific) and substance abuse, as well a sexual assault that not only had an emotional impact on her but also altered her outlook on the world around her to such a degree that it seems to have changed her at a cellular level. As part of the process of reclaiming and making sense of her life again, she began discussing these issues and incidents in her live show—working out how much detail to give and still have people laugh and not get overwhelmed by the pain of it all. Watch Starling navigate the minefield of her routine, pushing through excruciating details while also smiling and finding humor in small moments is a high-wire act that is both difficult and a pleasure to experience with her.

Funny Pains also explores Starling’s day-to-day life, being broke in New York City, going from gig to gig, working on a separate performance piece with creative partners that is more sketch comedy than stand-up, and talking through whichever one of her issues has decided to rise to the surface on any given day. But it’s watching her perform that is the heart of this movie, as she moves between strongly feminist themes to moments that resemble the naked honesty of her reading a journal entry on stage. The film explores the seemingly idealistic life in which she grew up and how such an upbringing almost seemed destined to mess her up as an adult.

Outside of Starling’s story, Funny Pains also features other comics in different groupings with Starling, discussing subjects ranging from what it’s like for women in stand-up comedy to how personal is too personal on stage. Very funny folks, including Nikki Glaser, Yamaneika Saunders, Krystyna Hutchinson, Bonnie McFarlane, Rich Vos, Andrew Shcultz, and Jim Norton swap both serious and hilarious stories about succeeding and bombing under a variety of circumstances. And even when the conversation turns away from the themes that are relevant to Starling’s life, it’s still engaging because they give us a window into the spectrum of experiences that go into the life of a working stand-up comic. Not all of the stories land, and some of them even feel like bragging when the conversation turns to “How did you know you were funny?” or “How did you know you’d made it?”, but I rarely get tired of listening to folks in this profession chat with one another—the stories are endless and usually brutally funny.

Funny Pains also broaches the current hot topic of audiences getting too easily offended by certain subjects, and everyone seems to agree that Los Angeles audiences are far more sensitive (or pretend to be) than New York crowds, but that’s a subject for another documentary (and it has been, in films like The Last Laugh). When the movie focuses on Starling’s work, I was enraptured. I will never cease to find it deeply inspirational to watch someone rise out of a situation that could just as easily have destroyed them and turn it into something useful, creative, and positive in their life, and this film certainly features that. Now all I want to do is find clips of Starling’s work online and watch them endlessly.

The film is available now On Demand.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.