Understanding Comedy by Doing it in ‘Alone Up There’
It’s no secret that sometimes comedy is taken a bit too seriously. Comedy obsessives love not just the jokes, but the mechanics and emotions of the comedy world. There are a raft of comedy documentaries exploring comedy and comedians, but do they really have anything significant to add to the discussion? This series looks at comedy documentaries and whether they’re interesting, insightful, and possibly even…funny?
In Alone Up There, Canadian filmmaker and comedy fan Sean Patrick Shaul set out to understand and explore stand-up as an art form. The documentary is an over-arching look at modern comedy, in the vein of I Am Comic. Much of the film feels a bit like Comedy 101, making it a great primer for those less familiar with stand-up. There’s a quick history spanning from Vaudeville to podcasts, and interviews with comics about money, heckling, and sacrifices made in the pursuit of laughs. There’s also a look at the pieces that make up a successful act – confidence, timing, delivery, and material.
The real heart of the film unfolds in the last half hour, when Shaul is convinced by several comics that the only way to truly understand comedy is to attempt it himself. Despite suffering from crippling stage fright, he decides to attempt an open-mic spot in Los Angeles to gain a better appreciation of a comic’s job.
From that point on, the discussions of writing processes and stage presence hold a greater significance. While he started out as an eager fan, Shaul is now seeking out comedy advice as if his life depends on it. He attends stand-up classes, meets with a public speaking coach, and hears a whole assortment of nerve-racking stories from comics. “How do I tell if I’m funny enough?” he asks comedian Simon King. “They’ll let you know,” King responds with a knowing laugh.
The insistence that you can possibly “get” comedy unless you’ve tried it is a frequent refrain from comedians. As a result, countless journalists over the last few decades have attempted stand-up in hopes of better understanding the form. I don’t quite subscribe to that theory, but watching the film, I completely understand how Shaul’s curiosity forced him up to that mic.
In talking to comedians about stand-up so much, an aura surrounding the craft emerges that is hard to ignore. When greats like Marc Maron and Eddie Pepitone talk about catching the bug and knowing, from the first time they went on stage, that it was the thing they were meant to do, it’s hard not to get caught up in the romance of it. Immersed in this mindset, the temptation to try it was clearly too much to resist.
The film culminates with Shaul’s set, and the build-up makes it a nerve-wracking watch. The film’s ability to convey the experience makes it a great place for anyone toying with the idea of doing comedy. There are countless documentaries that make comedy seem like a lot of fun; this is definitely not one of them.
And so, in conclusion…
Is it interesting? The last half hour is. Anyone with a real love of stand-up won’t find too much new information in the first hour, although the inclusion of a lot of comedians outside of typical NY/LA sphere is a breath of fresh air.
What does it have to say about comedy? At it’s most basic, the film reinforces the idea that stand-up comedy is quite difficult. But it also is an interesting look at the mystique of comedy, and the siren call that can convince a non-performer to get on stage.
Is it funny? Not particularly. Both the filmmaker and the comedians take things seriously.
Can I stream it on Netflix? No. Alone Up There is an independent production, and it can be downloaded at http://aloneupthere.thestandupcomedians.com.
Any comedy documentaries you’d like to see discussed? Do let me know.
Elise Czajkowski is a freelance journalist in New York City. She does not, has not, and will not do stand-up.