No one knows for sure who came up with the celebrated bromide "dying is easy, comedy is hard," but it's a thought that's perfectly suited to the subject matter of the brisk documentary "Dying Laughing."
An involving examination of and tribute to the art and agony of stand-up comedy, "Dying Laughing" will leave you convinced that a) comedians spend a lot of time thinking about their work and b) it's too difficult and even painful a vocation to take on unless you absolutely feel it as a calling.
"Comedians are damaged people, very vulnerable people," says Keenen Ivory Wayans, with Steve Coogan noting, "well-adjusted, spiritual comics are rare" and Chris Rock adding that "a group of people who think for a living are going to be sad."
Those folks are only three of the dozens of comics who are interviewed on camera, including fellow heavyweights Jamie Foxx, Kevin Hart, Jerry Lewis, Amy Schumer (who says stand-up is "definitely not a great way to invest in your romantic life"), Jerry Seinfeld ("It's beyond art, it's a magic trick"), the late Garry Shandling and Sarah Silverman.
Because co-directors Lloyd Stanton and Paul Toogood are Brits, "Dying Laughing" features more British comics than might be expected, the most prominent being Coogan and Billy Connolly, but their stories follow the same patterns as the Americans'.
While the film has some pro forma color footage of comedy clubs, and streets and highways meant to illustrate the rigors of being on the road, the heart of "Dying Laughing" are those interviews, all conducted in front of identical plain backdrops.
We never see any of the comedians actually performing, only philosophizing and telling stories, but even though they all tend to make the same points, the number of comics talked to and their widely diverse personalities and war stories insure that interest never flags.
It starts for everyone with their first time on stage, with Hart revealing that a club owner "told me to my face that I didn't have what it takes" and Seinfeld talking about what those clubs are like: "You have no idea how harsh the environment is. It's a dead solid quiet room of unhappy people — it is just this cement block."
Next come horror stories about the road, a rite of passage all comics apparently have to go through, starting with what one veteran calls "the crazy, insane notion that I'm going to a town where I've never been and I can make these people laugh."
Schumer talks about staying in depressing motel rooms where "its 100% certain people were murdered" and Jason Manford talks about the endemic loneliness that often means that "the audiences at the club are the first people you've spoken to all day."
Worse than being on the road are the hecklers ("I don't like them as a species," Connolly says) and the perplexing freedom people feel to give comedians a hard time. As one veteran grouses, "you never hear anyone heckling at a TED talk."
No comedian, no matter how prominent, is exempt from having a bad night, and the one Royale Watkins recounts brings him to literal tears on camera. "It hurts worse than going to your mother's funeral," says George Wallace, and no one spoken to here would argue.
Yet despite all these downsides, the surprising truth "Dying Laughing" reveals is that stand-ups think they have a privileged way of life.
When it works, says Jerry Lewis, "you get gooseflesh from your fingertips to your toes." Forget the money, the honors, the fame, says Seinfeld. "You're a comedian. That's your reward."
Running time: 1 hour, 29 minutes
Playing: Arena Cinelounge, Hollywood