What I Learned From Watching a Boatload of Comedy Documentaries This Year
The appeal of comedy documentaries, for me, has always been the opportunity to see a subject I love addressed seriously. I find it valuable to get an outsider’s perspective on comedy, an industry that loves to look at itself but can be resistant to external scrutiny. And no matter how much comedy I see, I never tire of watching the change between a comedian on stage and off, to see what elements of themselves each performer brings onstage. Because humor requires the element of surprise, comedy is constantly evolving and changing.
There’s so much to learn, and documentaries are a fantastic resource. Though great documentaries vary in style and subject matter, there are few necessary ingredients for a good doc. I consider these the basics:
- Tell a story. This is filmmaking 101, and as I said last week, it’s the most important part. Simply talking about comedy or comedians feels anticlimactic if there’s not a narrative to add weight to the proceedings. Make me feel like I’m not wasting my time.
- Be objective. Documentaries don’t always have to be journalism, but they don’t have to be love letters either. It’s tempting to make a film about someone you adore, but a bit of distance from your subject will make the film infinitely more compelling, and will make the film’s subject seem more interesting and worthwhile of examination.
- Look someplace new. Famous comedians are great, but comedy is about more than just headliners. Comedy is a lot of different things to a lot of different people, and films about the quirkier corners are often more memorable.
- Make it funny. That doesn’t mean it can’t also be deep, thoughtful, melancholy, and a million other things. But if you’re going to immerse me in the world of comedy, let me see what’s funny about it. That’s probably what drew you to it in the first place.
I’ve also learned that, while some documentaries are better than others, each film teach us something:
I Am Comic: Comedy documentaries don’t have to be “so fucking serious.”
Comedian: It’s still fun to peek behind the curtain of a megastar comic.
American: The Bill Hicks Story: Over explaining a comedian can take the edge off of his material.
When Stand Up Stood Out: Isolation breeds genius.
Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work: Sometimes, working hard pays off very, very well.
Trust Us, This Is All Made Up: Long form improv is hard to explain, but magical to watch.
The Unbookables: The dark, dirty underbelly of comedy has a certain appeal.
Comedians of Comedy: The founding fathers of alternative comedy have seen their vision come to life.
Why We Laugh: Knowing the history of comedy will make us love it more.
Comedy Gold: We owe a lot to the Canadians.
Believe: Success is never an easy road.
Exporting Raymond: The universality of comedy is still up for debate.
Heckler: Whining is never appealing. And no one like Jamie Kennedy.
Woody Allen: A Documentary: Woody Allen is exactly what you expect him to be (aka awesome).
Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop: Conan isn’t always the lovable goofball we see on TV, but he is always a genius.
The Delmonic Interviews: One man can inspire the multitudes.
Basic Black: Affability doesn’t make up for a lack of self-reflection.
Mr. Warmth: Stick with what you’re good at as long as it makes you happy.
Six Days to Air: Genius emerges under a strict deadline.
I Ain’t Scared of You: A Tribute to Bernie Mac: One amazing set can change everything.
The Aristocrats: You can, in fact, explain a joke without killing a frog.
When Comedy Was King: Silent comedies have their charm, but old school sexism can be hysterical.
Johnny Carson: King of Late Night: Carson’s legacy at The Tonight Show extends to more than just comedy.
95 Miles To Go: Being on the brink of superstardom is an odd place to be.
Let America Laugh: Crazy tours don’t always make for intriguing films.
Goodnight, We Love You: Sometimes being too nice to someone does them a disservice.
Alone Up There: The romantic idea of standup can be a tempting siren.
History of the Joke: Taking comedy seriously can make it even funnier.
Gnarr: Comedians can go on to even greater things.
The Bitter Buddha: Brilliance is hard to explain.
Finding the Funny: Watching the beginnings of a comedy career is a painful.
Women Aren’t Funny: Women can be funny, and writers can make documentaries funny too.
Dying To Do Letterman: Stories about comedy can also be heartwarming.
Warm Beer Lousy Food: The first comedy club was something of an accident.
Richard Pryor: I Ain’t Dead Yet: Recognize the greats before they’re gone forever.
Elise Czajkowski is a freelance journalist in New York City. After all this time, she still likes watching comedy documentaries, so feel free to send them her way.