"When someone's off balance, that's the best time to hit someone," Jim Gaffigan says in Kevin Pollak's breezy, chatty Misery Loves Comedy, a documentary that asks many comics big questions about the dispositions of comics — but doesn't often enough put anyone off balance, the audience included. The film is dedicated to the late Robin Williams, and in it Pollak invites comedians to chin-stroke on the truism, somewhat commonly held, that people who are funny professionally tend to be more miserable than the rest of us.
Amy Schumer asks, "Why do I want to make people laugh, but then I want to disappear, also?" And Jim Norton offers an inspired gloss on the old comedy-as-defense-mechanism saw: In school, hilarious insults proved one thing he could do to a football player that a football player couldn't do to him.
That theory doesn't quite hold up to anecdotal evidence: I mean, if comedians are miserable, how about Jonathan Franzen and David Foster Wallace? Isn't it possible that sad-clown-ism is a strain of the more generalized ennui afflicting millions of smart, creative types in a world that favors thoughtlessness? One fascinating truth that Pollak never gets at that Marc Maron (featured here) often does on his WTF podcasts: Yes, comedians often seem angry, disconnected, and a little lost when not on stage, but that's rare among the yes-we-can funny folks who came up through the teambuilding mills of improv. Kathleen Madigan notes that working in bars, as standups must, seeds an unhealthy lifestyle, a point she illustrates by talking about ordering drinks from the stage after fights broke out at Houston's Laugh Stop: "Once people start beating each other up, I'm just another customer."
Misery Loves Comedy does too little to taxonomize its clown tears. But it at least offers lots of relatively unguarded moments with its clowns, many of whom let rip with their best stories: Kevin Nealon recalls the night an amputee chucked an artificial leg onto the stage, and here's Judd Apatow's lament when he learned that Jim Henson liked his ideas but didn't think he had the warmth to be on camera: "This is the guy who taught me how to read."
The sharpest moments come from people you might not associate with standup. Martin Short describes having a breakdown on his way to dinner with Bill Murray and Paul Shaffer when those two had hit success but he hadn't. Matthew Perry says, "The first person from my real life who made me laugh really hard? Dan Rather." Freddie Prinze Jr., more charismatic than I've ever seen him, speaks about his father's suicide with filial warmth and a survivor's acceptance — and seems as surprised as we are when he remembers that the source of the anecdote he just dished was Joanna Kerns of Growing Pains. Can we get a full doc on the Prinzes? Stephen Merchant's story of accidentally insulting Steve Coogan (also in the film) is first-rate cringe comedy, quite close to what Merchant himself would write. And what are we to make of the cheery James L. Brooks' insistence on referring to Richard Pryor as "Richie"? (Pryor is mentioned a lot, of course, as are George Carlin and Mitch Hedberg, both represented in interviews by surviving loved ones.)
Pollak's film never exposes comedians' souls, exactly. Some stories, like Maria Bamford's, come right from the performers' onstage material. Instead, much like Maron does each week, Misery Loves Comedy reveals artists adept at sounding out the darkest depths of our lives — and then transmuting what they find to laughter, a gift I bet sad young poets might ache for.