In what could probably be seen as an act of masochism on this outta work blogger's part, I recently watched an airing of Annabelle Gurwitch's documentary Fired! (Shout! Factory). Gurwitch, who I first remember noticing on the old HBO comedy news series Not Necessarily the News, opens the doc with a recreation of her own big stomach-churning moment – of being let go by Woody Allen during a reading for a new play of his. (The blunt Allen purportedly told Gurwitch she looked "retarded" while making a particular expression, a story she repeats more than once in the movie to sympathetic ears.) The experience led to her collecting other folks' stories of getting canned, which in turn led to a theater piece, book and, of course, this diverting doc.
None too surprisingly, a significant majority of these stories come from show biz: actors and comedians recounting their abortive attempts at doing "straight work" ("I should've been fired from every straight job I've ever had," Bob Odenkirk confesses early in the picture, "I was just shitty!"). Which can only take you so far into the subject since 1) we already know that show biz is a less secure working environment than most other places; 2) many of the jobs they're describing were crappy first-time things designed to be short-lived and 3) the fact that these folks found varying degrees of success as performers (check out Fred Willard in his hot tub!) pretty much cues us that they weren't temperamentally inclined toward other kinds of employment in the first place. Still, when Gurwitch fills her film with footage of writers, actors, and comedians on stage reading about their own experiences getting axed, the stories prove undeniably funny. I particularly enjoyed Andy Borowitz's caustic retelling of his short stint writing for The Facts of Life.
A half hour into the film, though, Gurwitch starts talking to folks in more mundane professions – speaking to out-of-work grown-ups at a jobs fair; going to Lansing, Michigan, to speak to auto workers in a plant that'll ultimately be shut down; interviewing professionals devoted to helping adults who've been "downsized" or whatever the new term is this week – and the scope of Fired! aptly expands even as the laughs periodically vanish. She also speaks to two economists from opposing sides of the political spectrum, though conservative Ben Stein, tellingly, also proves to be a veteran of the entertainment industry, while former Clinton advisor Robert Reich tries to sell Annabelle on a screenplay one of his kids has written. I guess everybody, as Ray Davies once sang, is in show biz – or at least wants to be. I have to admit I was both surprised and pleased to watch Ben Stein wax wroth against CEOs who bail on bankrupted companies with multi-million dollar parachutes. Nice to see Nixon's former speechwriter displaying an abiding sense of fair play.