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DVD Review: The Comedians of Comedy

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The Comedians of Comedy is a fly-on-the wall documentary about four stand-up comedians on the road. There’s not much else to it. Those looking for much insight into the life of a stand-up will be disappointed since the comedians seem wary of honestly examining their work or their lives without making fun of themselves for doing so (one sequence features Zach Galifianakis waxing about how comedy has gone too far toward slapstick, how he favors “the word” over falling down antics and then his chair breaks). But that doesn’t matter because the one thing that unites all of these four comedians is their brazenly honest approach to comedy, so the acts themselves provide plenty of insight. All four comedians are super-funny and the movie nicely conveys the feeling of spending a few days on the road with four people who are much funnier than you are. In my case, that feeling expresses itself in a thin sheen of sweat from the exertion of laughing and a desire to take a shower.

We follow Patton Oswalt, Brian Posehn, Maria Bamford, and Zach Galifianakis, on a unique tour aimed at taking stand-up out of comedy clubs and into smaller, indie-rock venues. The idea is to make the experience of watching stand-up closer to the way one watches the local music scene, away from exorbitant cover charges and two-drink minimums. Oswalt, Posehn, and Bamford all tell horror stories about working in a traditional comedy club, some related to the awful environment and others about the types of comedians that work there.

The movie, directed and edited by Michael Blieden, is structured well, focusing on each day of the tour in a way that allows thoughtfully mingled concert footage with backstage or on-the-road footage. It captures the backstage feeling well with grainy, gritty video in the darkness of indie rock clubs, blown out irises in the tour bus, and dim, flat footage of generic hotel rooms. I was particularly taken by some of the concert footage which featured odd angles on the faces of the comedians, very close and canted wildly. It felt like the right expression for the material, often screamingly outrageous. I also enjoyed the way the movie would often show its subjects talking about something that had happened to them earlier in the day and then flash back to the event in question.

None of this would matter if the four comedians weren’t fun to watch. They are. I was blown away by a bit done by Zach Galifianakis. Dressed up in olde timey garb, he does a traditional stand-up routine as if he’d time traveled from the 18th century (“Is this thing on? What is this thing?”). The tense, sometimes antagonistic camaraderie is entertaining, especially when they’re riffing together, piling joke on top of joke or bear pun on top of bear pun. It’s interesting to see Bamford, who seems somewhat shy in the backstage footage, let loose on stage with a horrifyingly funny pterodactyl shriek. And then there’s the faux gay porn movie that Posehn and Galifianakis make, something the movie doesn’t reveal in its entirety but exists in all its shameful glory on the DVD.

Speaking of the DVD, this is a Netflix movie, financed and released by the company. It’s unfortunate to see some Netflix banners in the concert footage, but, still, I like what they’ve done here. The DVD contains a few deleted scenes (that puppy is adorable), but more importantly, they’ve included video of some of the stand-out stand-ups Oswalt and Bamford mention during a radio interview. Oswalt laments while naming these people that no one will have heard of them because they haven’t gotten the exposure, their innovative work aside. Stand-up being a specialty genre anyway, it’s heartening to see these people getting this exposure through a kind-of direct marketing via Netflix.

So, yeah, this is a lot like a concert movie and a backstage, behind the scenes tour movie got smashed together in a boating accident. It’s not particularly ground breaking, but it’s well done and extremely funny. These are the right comedians to document since they are honest on and off the stage. At times, it seems like an ideology with them. Posehn recounts a story of his early years as a comedian where a fellow comic advised him not to mention that his dad died during a joke because it was too depressing for the audience. Posehn is repulsed at the idea of lying about his life to make everyone feel better. The movie strays from this overt honesty in one out-of-place montage that comes way too soon, not giving us the chance to learn who these people are before glossing over details (and it’s smarmy to boot). But, for the most part, it’s right there with the four, wisely allowing them to speak for themselves since, when they do, they kill.

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About David Wester