In the documentary. Misery Loves Comedy, actor, comedian, creator and director Kevin Pollak asks his fellow comedians do you have to be miserable to be funny?
It’s the stereotype of the artist, of the genius, of those who are often considered the best. In order to explain why they’re so good at the thing you do there must be some tragedy, substance abuse, misery, or mental illness that made them this way. Comedians are no different.
The likes of Richard Lewis, Wayne Federman, Lewis Black, Steve Coogan, Amy Schumer, Stephen Merchant, Kelly Carlin, Jon Favreau, Dana Gould, Marc Maron, Judd Apatow, Jimmy Fallon, Nick Swardson, Jim Norton, Kevin Nealon, Jim Jefferies, Jim Gaffigan, Lisa Kudrow, Mike Birbiglia, Matthew Perry, Chris Hardwick, Jimmy Pardo, Kevin Smith, Jeanine Garofalo, James L. Brooks, Andy Kindler, Andy Richter, Maria Bamford, Larry David, Scott Aukerman, Jake Johannsen, William H. Macy, Jason Alexander, Jason Reitman, Martin Short, Freddie Prince Jr., and Tom Hanks all lend their voices in personal and self-deprecating stories of how they became comedians.
If you’re truly brilliant at comedy you can guarantee your marriages aren’t going to work and your kids are going to turn out fucked up. – Jason Reitman
Is it their families that make them funny? Some comedians had a parent that was funny, seeding a love of comedy from a very early age. The comedian will think Oh, here is someone I admire who is funny. I want to be funny. Others grew up struggling to get the attention and love they wanted from their families so it only made sense they’d want the love of strangers. Lastly, for other facing tragedy in their family lives comedy was that safe haven through the storm that eventually led to careers.
“If you change your mind you can always go back to Conan.” – Andy Richter’s Dad to him, after leaving Late Night.
Pollak in the documentary refers to becoming a comedian as choosing Hey, look at me as a career. When you’re on stage getting laughs it’s an adrenaline rush stand-ups can get addicted to. To a kid who’ll one day become a comedian there’s nothing like getting the validation from your parents with their laughter. When they become comedians, nothing compares to the laughter of a room full of people.
“A healthy person probably looks around and says “It’s a wonderful world full of wonderful things,” and an unhealthy person says “I want people to think I’m one of the wonderful things. I want people to be glad I live on Earth. I need to hear it.” – Paul F. Tompkins
A novice stand-up throws themselves to the wolves at open mics, comedy clubs, and shows of any kind where they could get booked. When they begin comedy they have to learn how to craft a joke, about timing, and how to deliver a joke all while performing to a smattering of laughs, silence, or even heckling. The comedian realizes they’re not like normal people, often comparing comedy to a drug. While the struggle to make a living in comedy was difficult, the struggle to find their identity before comedy was much worse.
“Common denominator of all comedians: You have to love to watch yourself die.” – Lewis Black.
Comedy is a culture, and comedians are a niche group that are bound together. Comedians flock together because a fellow comedian know how they think, and understand their point-of-view of the world. They see another comedian in know there’s someone who will get them.
“Comedians are veterans of a shared combat experience, not foxhole buddies but snipers with similar stories of kills and misses. There’s only so many bell towers.” – Kevin Pollak
“Ah, no kidding. I brought my lunch, I could be up here all night. I have a box of dynamite too in case it gets out of hands.” – Greg Proops
Everyone uses laughter to deal with or avoid the pain of failure. In the minds of the comedians confessing in the film, comedy has roots in trauma, pain, and sadness but whether that means that miserable comedians make better comedians is left in question.
“Once we started speaking honestly about ourselves, having a point of view, and not just being a type of clown. Once comics started to talk out loud about their life and life around theme people just made this assumption, “Oh, they’re all incredibly fucked up.” I think that’s a mischaracterization. I think that struggle is necessary but I don’t think misery is necessary.” – Marc Maron
This all leads to the last question Pollak asks the comedians, Do you have to be miserable to be funny? It might not be the comedy comes from misery but from negativity. It could come from insecurity, or something else wrong with the comedian.
“Everyone’s miserable. Everyone has misery in their lives. Really, misery is just a form of dissatisfaction so maybe comedy is just taking dissatisfaction and discomfort and spinning it that helps you deal with it.” – Chris Hardwick
If everyone deals with misery then why the stereotype of the miserable comedian? The difference might be like an actor, musician or artist they’re in the business of showing themselves therefore that underlying misery is more available for people to see.
“At a party no one dabbles in dentistry but everyone can dabble in comedy. It can be terrible but they can at least do it.” – Kevin Pollak
Misery Loves Comedy gives a glimpse into the psychology of becoming and being a comedian whether it answers its primary question or not.