“Comedy is purely a result of your ability to withstand self-torture,” asserts Jerry Seinfeld in the new documentary Dying Laughing. Directors Lloyd Stanton and Paul Toogood assembled some of the most celebrated stand-up comedians around, as well as career comics whose names aren’t well-known, to share their personal stories in pursuit of making audiences laugh.
The film features talents such as Chris Rock, Amy Schumer, Kevin Hart, Jerry Lewis, Jamie Foxx, Cocoa Brown, Sarah Silverman, Jim Jeffries, and Steve Coogan. They reminisce about both the good times as well as the bad, each with his or her own one-of-a-kind voice and remarkable career path. Foxx describes the best part of being a comic by saying, “When a comedian is on, and you tell that joke, and it goes to the back of the house, and it comes roaring back to your face, there’s nothing like that feeling.”
But to hear that coveted laughter, comics have to earn it the hard way. Funny man Garry Shandling, who sadly passed last year, insists, “There is literally no shortcut” when it comes to comedy. Indeed, comic after comic shares the agonizing moments of rejection they endured in their stand-up careers. Kevin Hart humorously recalls the time a club owner bluntly told him he didn’t see comedic potential in him during an audition. Seinfeld describes what it’s like to bomb saying, “I couldn’t even get through what I had planned to do which was only about five minutes of things. I was so shocked and rocked by the density of the air in the room. And you feel the mood of the room that’s just this cement block. And I just left that night and I was devastated.” Similarly, after a rough time onstage, Jefferies’ father tried to provide some life perspective during an awkward car ride home. He advised his son saying, “You’re good at a lot of different things. This is, ah, this probably isn’t a thing for you. But if you enjoy it as some type of hobby, then it can’t hurt really. It could hurt your self-esteem, sure.”
The movie’s jokesters detail what life is like on the road with its boredom and loneliness as well as the dreaded hostile audiences. “It’s definitely not like a great way to invest in your romantic life. But I feel like if you have the capability to do this, you got to do it,” says Amy Schumer. She describes the depressing lodgings on the road where “it’s 100% certain people were murdered.” Keenen Ivory Wayans believes comedians are “damaged people, very vulnerable people.” Coogan agrees, insisting, “well-adjusted, spiritual comics are rare.”
With all its brutal, soul-crushing challenges though, for those who feel called to the craft of telling jokes onstage, “It’s beyond art, it’s a magic trick,” says Seinfeld. “All the heralding, the awarding, the trumpeting, the lauding…who cares?! That laugh is better than any trophy. And that’s what I live for.” And beyond their talent as entertainers and their determination, Rock insists that stand-ups are “the last philosophers.”