“Misery Loves Comedy”: Are Funny People Depressed?

Misery Loves Comedy, already available on iTunes and in some theaters, is a documentary about “the dark side of comedy,” directed by Kevin Pollak. Notably, the film is dedicated to Robin Williams.

The gist, per IMDB: “Over fifty very famous American and Canadian funny people (filmmakers, writers, actors and comedians) share life and professional journeys and insights, in an effort to shed light on the thesis: Do you have to be miserable to be funny?”

A sampling of what and who you’ll see in Misery Loves Comedy:

Among the biggest complaints about Misery Loves Comedy are the too-high number of subjects and the too-low representation of women and minorities. For example, says A.O. Scott, New York Times: “Whoopi Goldberg is the only African-American, which is astonishing when you consider just how many talented black performers are part of the current comedy boom. There are a handful of women, including Ms. Goldberg, Lisa Kudrow, Amy Schumer and Janeane Garofalo. But the overwhelming impression that the movie leaves behind — or maybe the assumption with which it started — is that white guys are funnier.”

OVERVIEW OF ISSUES

Josh Modell, AVClub: “Though the stories are different—happy childhoods, miserable childhoods, shyness, extroversion—the twin through-lines are a deep desire for acceptance and the high that comes with commanding a room, making people laugh. More than one interviewee even puts it explicitly in terms of control: You know when the audience is going to laugh. You’ve got everyone exactly where you want them.”

Geoff Berkshire, Variety: “…Nick Swardson talks frankly about entering rehab as a teenager, Maria Bamford touchingly explains the relief at letting go of the shame over spending time in a psychiatric facility, and [Martin] Short spins a rueful and witty tale of suffering a minor nervous breakdown over the success of a peer (Bill Murray, if you’re into name-checking, as Pollak seems to be).”

Jordan Riefe, Hollywood Reporter:

The consensus is you don’t have to be miserable, but it sure helps. In other words, there are plenty of happy people who are funny as hell; however, the best comedians are miserable.

Penn Jillette disagrees. ‘It’s called ‘show’ business,’ he argues, claiming regular people are just as messed up as comedians, only they just don’t show it. As a result of the areas explored in the movie — the funny dads, the need for attention, the adrenaline rush of laughter — comedians wind up in a profession that compels them to act out in a public way, where the rest of us don’t. He may or may not be right. While suicides make up 3 percent of deaths among entertainers overall, it constitutes only 1.5 percent of deaths among the general public.

SELECTED REVIEWS OF MISERY LOVES COMEDY

Geoff Berkshire, Variety: “Lining up well-known comedians to riff on tragedy as the basis for comedy is a sharp idea, and a documentary doesn’t need to become a full-fledged therapy session to tease out the connective tissues. But Pollak proves too distracted by his subjects, or perhaps too inclusive on the invite list, to hone in on a meaningful thesis.”

A.O. Scott, New York Times: “Scarcely a word is breathed about religion, sex, race or money, as though Mr. Pollak were convening a prim dinner party at which such matters could not be mentioned.”

Matt Zoller Seitz, rogerebert.com: “…(I)t’s often difficult to say what the film’s focus actually is; a more accurate title might’ve been ‘Bits and Pieces of Interviews with 50 Comedians,’ but that wouldn’t fit on most marquees.”

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