Seriously, folks: Comics speak with candor in ‘Dying Laughing’

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Kevin Hart laughs while sharing a story during the documentary “Dying Laughing.” | Gravitas Ventures

Think of the funniest person you know.

The woman at work, or your hilarious cousin, or your pal from childhood who is hands-down hilarious — the one that can have a room in stitches with stories and quips and retorts.

They’re just as funny as those stand-ups you see in the clubs or on TV, right? They make you laugh as hard as you laugh with Kevin Hart or Jerry Seinfeld or Amy Schumer!

Maybe they could even make it as a stand-up.

Maybe — but first they should watch “Dying Laughing.”

Directors Lloyd Stanton and Paul Toogood have assembled a Hall of Fame roster of comics, from household names to legendary grinders, and they all speak with candor, hilarious insight and sometimes deadly serious intimacy about the soul-crushing, physically exhausting, spiritually draining and, yes, sometimes exhilarating life of the stand-up comic.

From Jerry Seinfeld to Jerry Lewis, from Jamie Foxx to Tom Dreesen, from Amy Schumer to Sarah Silverman, they talk of the years and years it takes to perfect one’s act, the nightly courtship between comic and audience — and what compels one to stand alone on a stage with a microphone, facing an audience and pouring out heart and soul in an effort to win their approval, to gain their sublimation, to …

Make them laugh.

Each subject is filmed in striking monochromatic tints. They’re not “on,” though they often elicit off-camera chuckles with their frank and funny observations. Occasionally the filmmakers cut to color footage of Rust Belt city skylines, or bleak hotel rooms where one can almost make out the faint image of a chalk body outline, or the entranceways to comedy clubs, as the comedians tell their stories.

And to a man and woman, they’re wonderful, mesmerizing, honest, raw, brilliant storytellers.

As Chris Rock puts it, the old cliché about comics being manic-depressives might not necessarily be true, but you can’t be a good comedian without being smart and without being aware of the world, and that most certainly means most comics aren’t as happy as the blissfully ignorant.

The most compelling sections of the film are about heckling and bombing — more accurately, how different comedians deal with heckling, and how they react to bombing.

Sarah Silverman says she deals with hecklers by trying to talk to them, by getting to know them, by attempting to figure out why they’re unhappy and how she can help them become happy. British comedian Frank Skinner tells of an old lady who walked to the front of the stage and simply said, “Why don’t you go away?”

Skinner’s reply, “Well, you’ll never see another strawberry season anyway.”

Kevin Hart: “One night, [fellow comic] Jim Norton threw a phone book at me and said, ‘Somebody call anybody out of that book to get him offstage. Anybody!’ I picked up the phone book and said, ‘Thank you, good night.’ ”

Royale Watkins tells a deeply moving story about bombing so badly — with celebrities such as Michael Jordan watching from the wings — he put the microphone back in the stand and gave up. Bernie Mac then performed an act of such kindness, Watkins has tears streaming down his face as he recalls the moment.

“Dying Laughing” is a movie about stand-up with no performance footage. It’s like a documentary about baseball with no game footage — but it’s great and it’s valuable and it’s wonderful, because we love seeing and hearing these all-time greats talk about what they do with such passion and candor.


Gravitas Ventures presents a documentary directed by Lloyd Stanton and Paul Toogood. No MPAA rating. Running time: 89 minutes. Opens Friday at Facets Cinematheque and on demand.

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