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?
At first glance, it doesn’t seem like the comedy documentary category would be that full. But there are, I've discovered, quite a few. Making a good comedy documentary is tough, for a lot of reasons, but it all starts with finding a genuinely compelling story to tell. Having watched dozens of comedy documentaries over the past year, here are a few documentaries I'd like to see made.
The great Chris Rock turns up in a whole lot of comedy documentaries. Whether he’s hanging out at the Comedy Cellar with Jerry Seinfeld, exploring the roots of black comedy, or praising the comics that paved the way like Don Rickles, his thoughts about comedy are clearly prized. And while he’s righty hailed as one of the greatest comedians ever (W. Kamau Bell compared his seminal 1996 HBO special Bring the Pain to the moon landing), he’s had an eclectic career outside of standup.
Rock has acted in dozens films, starred on Broadway, directed his own (non-comedy) documentary, hosted his own talk show, produced a different late night talk show, and if you're lucky, you can still catch him doing sets around New York. We know a bit about his childhood from Everybody Hates Chris, but I’d love to see an all-encompassing Piece of Work-esque documentary following Rock in whatever his next endeavor may be.
Robin Williams has been in his fair share of comedy documentaries as well, contributing his own version of a classic joke and discussing greats from Richard Pryor to Eddie Izzard. Like Rock, he’s had a diverse career; unlike Rock, he hasn’t always been admired. A scandalous private life, issues with drugs and alcohol, and long-standing allegations of joke stealing tarnished his reputation as a comedian.
The reaction to his thoughtful WTF interview was amazement that Williams (described in the NY Times as “usually an unstoppable riff machine") could actually act like a real person. The mixture of admiration and scorn that Williams earns is unique and fascinating. Now in his sixties, it seems an appropriate time to reflect on his life and career so far, and how he feels about it all.
It’s a struggle for any documentary to attempt to capture a bygone era, which is why the most memorable docs are often the ones that show the raw, unexamined scene happening right now. While this current comedy boom is hardly undocumented, there are elements of the scene that can't be captured in myriad podcasts and excellent comedy blogs. I firmly believe that comedy, be it standup, sketch, improv, or any other variation, is best experienced live, and it’s hard to capture the excitement of a live show in a discussion or review.
Scott Moran’s fantastic Modern Comedian series does a great job of delving into the lives of working comics, but a full length feature could follow, for instance, the booking of an ongoing weekly standup or variety show. Aside from the opportunity to showcase comedy in a less polished form, there’s bound to be drama. In May, Blackbook featured four of their favorite double-act hosted comedy shows in New York. Only seven months later, at least one host of the each of those shows has moved LA. Also, no one has any money.
Few things have been discussed more in comedy than Saturday Night Live. It’s a training ground for brilliance, but also an easy and oft-abused punching bag. But one thing that is never debated is the influence of the great Lorne Michaels. It’s an understatement to say that it didn’t go so well when he left the first time (RIP, @JeanDoumanian Twitter feed), and the thought of him leaving again is more than a little terrifying. But Michaels is 68 years old, and he produces one of the most stressful shows in the history of television. A documentary on Lorne Michaels' last year at SNL would be a fascinating journey.
It could easily be another 15 years before Michaels retires, though there was gossip last spring that NBC was grooming Tina Fey as his replacement. Given NBC’s history of late night handovers, what happens in the transition will likely be dramatic, intense, and a bit chaotic. It would be a heroic feat to properly tell the whole story of SNL and Michaels in one film, but it would be a fitting ending for the end of an amazing reign in American comedy.
What comedy documentaries would you like to see made?
Elise Czajkowski is a freelance journalist in New York City. Do people actually read these?