Required Viewing: Great Documentaries About Comedians

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Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop , Rodman Flender’s intimate documentary account of the comedian’s 30-city “Legally Prohibited from Being Funny on Television Tour,” goes into limited release tomorrow. Aside from being uproariously funny (with O’Brien at his spontaneous, reactive best), it is also a fascinating account of a superstar comedian’s life on the road: the rehearsals, the travel, the meet-and-greets, the stress. Of course, Flender isn’t the first documentarian to take a close look at the business of stand-up, or the complex psychology of the working comedian; we’ve assembled just a few of the best documentaries about comics after the jump.

Lenny Bruce: Swear to Tell the Truth

In spite of its Oscar nomination for Best Documentary (and the star power of Robert DeNiro, who narrates), this excellent narrative of the groundbreaking comic’s life is still MIA on home video; that’s a shame, because it is one of the more penetrating and insightful profiles of Bruce out there. Writer/director Robert B. Weide (executive producer and frequent director of Curb Your Enthusiasm) goes into Bruce’s legal woes and historical importance with the expected detail; however, he also loads up the picture with clips of Bruce doing what he did best — being funny. The comic is so often bathed in the glow of First Amendment crusader that he doesn’t get proper credit for the brilliance of his bits. Weide’s is a thorough, complex, and multi-faceted profile; if you can find it, check it out.

American: The Bill Hicks Story

Hicks is one of the few comics of the modern era who not only received, but deserved, comparison with Bruce; whether dealing in government malfeasance, social mores, or the dumbing-down of the country, Hicks held up a mirror to his audience, and wasn’t afraid to make them uncomfortable to make a point. Directors Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas tell Hicks’s story entirely through the memories of those who were close to him; there is no narration, and precious few talking head shots, instead using most of the interviews as voice-over accompaniment to a kind of cut-and-paste animation photomontage. The film’s primary value (aside, again, from all of the great clips of Hicks at work — his material is still raw and cagey and alive) is as a consideration of his creative journey — how keenly it understands and articulates what it took to get him there, how he could have gone wrong, and how he didn’t. The people who knew him, his friends and colleagues, prove the best voices for understanding why he was important: what he did, how he did it, why it was different, and why he had such difficulty with his audiences. Their loss was our gain — his words continue to inspire and provoke in this affectionate and effective tribute.

The Original Kings of Comedy

Spike Lee’s 2000 film is primarily a concert movie — the majority of its running time is spent onstage, as Steve Harvey, Cedric the Entertainer, D.L. Hughley, and Bernie Mac perform their acts in front of a packed crowd in Charlotte, North Carolina. But Lee also takes his digital cameras with the comics as they do a promotional radio appearance; he goes to their hotel and backstage, as they hang out, talk shit, and work themselves up before taking on the Charlotte Coliseum. In those scenes, we see the complicated byplay between fellow comics working together — the camaraderie with just a touch of competition, the support (“Do I bring y’all out?!” Harvey, the MC, demands), and the hard work. It’s a nice bit of context for the on-stage material, which is brutal, honest, and explosively funny.

The Comedians of Comedy: The Movie

Patton Oswalt’s long-running tour of indie-rock clubs was given its name as a spoof of the Kings of Comedy tours; he played the Harvey role, doing his material and acting as MC for the rest of the bill, which consisted (in this original 2004 iteration, anyway) of Maria Bamford, Brian Posehn, and Zach Galifianakis. The film of their original tour, directed by Michael Bliden, screened at the 2005 SXSW festival; though it includes some stand-up material, it is mostly interested in what happens off-stage, observing the comics’ interactions on the tour bus and at various stops along the way. As the tour progresses, however, the comedians begin taking advantage of the cameras to stage bits and sketches, like Galifianakis’s solemn mediation on physical comedy (above). The tour continued for several years; the film inspired a six-episode reality series in the same style on Comedy Central (unfortunately unavailable on DVD, but easy enough to find on BitTorrent).

Comedian

Christian Charles’s 2002 documentary was marketed primarily as a vehicle for Jerry Seinfeld, who threw out all of his old material after the conclusion of his TV series and, for the first time in years, started working small clubs to put together a new act from scratch. But the film is also a parallel portrait of Orny Adams, a young comic intended to contrast the superstar (Seinfeld may be piecing together a new hour, but he’s still traveling by private jet) while intersecting with him in the common concerns and fears of all comedians. What makes the film interesting — and whether this was intended from the beginning is debatable — is that Adams is borderline intolerable, a self-satisfied blowhard who has the ambition for comic stardom, but not the passion (and those are two very different things). Charles also gets great footage of Seinfeld and his comic buddies talking shop (there’s a wonderful clip of Seinfeld and Chris Rock discussing the genius of Bill Cosby), but more than that, the director assembles a detailed picture of the nuts-and-bolts of being a working comedian.

Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work

Ricki Stern and Anne Sundeberg’s extraordinary documentary portrait of comic legend Joan Rivers rotates between verité­-style home and work footage, interviews, and her biography. She turns 75 years old in the course of the film, but she isn’t slowing down; she’s a survivor, she’s a hard worker, and most of all, she’s hilarious. Clips are interspersed throughout the film of her working new material in a small Manhattan cabaret, and she is explosively funny (and filthy as hell). She shows, in her office, a card catalog — 30 years of jokes, alphabetized by subject, typed up on 3 x 5s. We see her out on the road, working the showroom of a Wisconsin casino, and she slays them — and when a heckler interrupts to protest the offensiveness of a joke, threatening to stop the show cold, she burns the guy right down to the ground. It’s an amazing piece of footage, but it’s reflex for her. This is what she does. “This is where I belong,” she confesses. “The only time I’m truly, truly happy is when I’m on a stage.”

Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project

John Landis’s 2007 film is an ideal companion to the Rivers bio-doc; though not quite as candid and penetrating, it is an informative, insightful, and frequently hilarious look at a living legend. Landis culls from decades of TV clips, new performance footage, and scores of interviews (everyone from Robert DeNiro to Clint Eastwood to Robin Williams to Sarah Silverman sits to sing the comedian’s praises); he also explores, intriguingly, the odd dichotomy between the notoriously cruel insult comic and the off-stage man, who is apparently the nicest guy you’ve ever met.

The Aristocrats

This 2005 documentary isn’t just about the world’s dirtiest joke (and it is really, truly filthy — at least, if it’s told right) — though it is very much a history and performance of it, sometimes tagged off between tellers, sometimes done straight through, told in the form of juggling, as a card trick, and by a mime, done by The Smothers Brothers as a duet (and a funny one), transformed by Trey Parker and Matt Stone into a South Park sketch. But director (and comic) Paul Provenza also uses this joke as a jumping off point for a discussion of comedy, obscenity, and freedom of speech — with George Carlin as its constant, providing the finest insights about comedy, shock value, and social mores, and providing articulate transitions between the film’s various vignettes. For audiences with the stomach for it, The Aristocrats is very funny, but it is also a contemplative and thoughtful examination of the very act of joke-telling.