As anyone who has attended an open-mic gig will confirm, there is often nothing funny about stand-up comedy.
Delving behind the curtain, Dying Laughing presents insights from the world’s best comedians as they discuss the highs and devastating lows of their craft. To outsiders, generating occasional laughs amid the constant threat of humiliation may seem like needless self-inflicted torture, but as these successful comics reveal, their motivations for performing comedy are as varied as the horrifying pitfalls that come with it.
“You want to please the audience because that’s why you do stand-up," Sarah Silverman says. "Because of some kind of f***ed up need inside of you to have approval by strangers.”
A desire to please people who have paid to see you perform seems like a worthy attribute for a comedian to possess but in Silverman’s case the desire extends beyond pleasing fans. As Silverman discusses in the documentary, her need to feel validated by strangers even extends to her detractors. Rather than attacking hecklers, Silverman has been known to positively engage with them, famously reaching out to a troll earlier this year in an attempt to understand and redirect his misguided rage.
But not everyone is trying to make people laugh for the same reason. When asked if he is seeking the approval of his audience, Jerry Seinfeld says directly, “No, I’m seeking their sublimation.” In essence, persuading people to acknowledge that he’s in charge, and to come along for the ride to a destination of his choosing.
Rather than seeking approval, Seinfeld explains his need to do comedy stems from a natural desire to be funny that exists beyond his control. “…It doesn't matter how hard it is or how much pain there may be," he says. "You know you have no choice."
While acknowledging that comedy has put a strain on her personal life, Amy Schumer agrees with Seinfeld: “…I feel like if you have the capability to do this, you gotta do it.”
The pain and difficulties Seinfeld and Schumer mention become a common thread throughout the documentary, as various comedians discuss the worst gigs they’ve done and the darkest times they have endured. Shared stories of depression, the loneliness of touring, the horrible feeling of bombing, and hecklers all serve as a reminder that even the best comedians struggle. As the late Garry Shandling adds, “It’s really got to be a calling. It’s really not worth it if it isn’t a calling. It is too painful and too difficult if it isn’t a calling.”
But comedy isn’t solely about feeling terrible all the time. Some comics use stand-up and laughter as a means to combat negativity. Explaining her own rationale for performing, comedy legend Joan Rivers says:
“Life is so difficult… You have two choices: laugh or die. …That’s how I get past everything, and I think it’s a wonderful mechanism to have.”
The theme of using comedy to deal with unpleasant situations resonates amongst many comics. Often discussing her own mental health issues through stand-up, Maria Bamford further clarifies the sentiment, saying:
“…when you talk about it, it’s less powerful.”
Yet despite some comics using comedy as a positive means of coping with hardship or as a form of therapy, few who do stand-up are good at it in the beginning. To the contrary, when speaking on his first gig, Seinfeld remarks, “I just left that night and I was devastated.” Having shared a similar unpleasant response, Jim Jeffries puts it bluntly, “I just died on my arse.”
In the face of such common awful experiences in the early stages of their careers, the question naturally arises: why do comedians keep coming back for more? To which the answer is one of almost universal agreement – the feeling when it goes well.
After his second gig elicited a far more encouraging response, Seinfeld says:
“I got through it and the people laughed. And that was the greatest night of my life.”
Jamie Foxx concurs, “There’s nothing like that feeling.”
And Jerry Lewis adds to the chorus:
“…It’s hallelujah! …You can’t tell that to anybody because they don’t know what you’re talking about. But I know what it feels like.”
Laying stark the realities of a life spent trying to be funny, Dying Laughing confirms there is no single reason why people perform comedy. It also presents numerous sound reasons for avoiding it at all costs!
A candid insider’s look at an industry in which even the best suffer horribly, the documentary suggests that the draw of comedy may not be something that industry outsiders can fully understand. Yet it also reveals the overwhelming, intoxicating power of laughter, and that amid the darkness, mental ill health and horrifying humiliation, occasionally comedy can be funny.
Dying Laughing is now streaming at SBS On Demand.