Misery Loves Comedy: exploring the old myth that unhappy people make the best comics

The actor Kevin Pollak interviews 50 comics, and comic actors, about their craving for the laughter and approval of strangers.

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The cliché that comedy and torment go hand-in-hand gets another spin in the documentary Misery Loves Comedy, in which the actor Kevin Pollak interviews 50 comics, and comic actors, about their craving for the laughter and approval of strangers.

Late in the day, the picture gets around to addressing the question of whether one needs to be miserable to be funny, but you can’t say it’s done with any thoroughness.

And the conclusion can be summed up anyway by one well-known phrase: happiness writes white. As Clive James put it when discussing the concept of the troubled artist versus the untroubled one (early Eliot versus late, or Monet compared to Renoir), the Romantics maintained that, “art is an outward integration inspired by the artist's inner disintegration”.

I haven’t met enough comedians to know how true it might be in that art form. John Cleese seemed a bit sad and insecure, but then he had just been to the dentist and was anxious also about whether the producers of the James Bond films would be keeping him on as Q. (As it turned out, they didn’t.) Will Ferrell was fun but legitimately chagrined at comedy not getting the respect it deserves. (He even performed a song about the subject at the Oscars.)

Harry Hill and Julia Louis-Dreyfus displayed a precise analytical eye for where the joke was. Mike Myers was cheery, Kristen Wiig wore an air of comical bemusement, Steve Carell was sane and amenable.

Interviewed at The New Yorker festival in 2010, Carell had disputed the notion that psychological scars maketh the comedian: “I don’t think it waters it down, having a happy upbringing,” he said, adding that if he had become a lawyer, as he once thought he might, “then I’d be scarred and bitter.”

Nevertheless the old myth that unhappy people make the best comics shows no sign of being discredited. At least Matthew Perry adds some nuance to the idea, singling out fear as one of his stimulants: “I’m at my funniest in the doctor’s office,” he says.

Pollak is on more fertile ground examining what’s funny – and what funny actually feels like. Well-known names (Amy Schumer, Christopher Guest, Steve Coogan, Janeane Garofalo, Jemaine Clement) talk about killing the crowd, slaying them in the aisles (as opposed to the opposite, where the terminology is no less brutal: bombing, tanking, dying).

Not surprisingly, many of his subjects compare the feeling on stage to taking drugs. Jim Norton calls it an “immediate high” and says: “There’s no other way for me to achieve it.” Jimmy Fallon says it is “a drug. I don’t know what it’s a gateway to. Hour-long specials?”

Tom Hanks, who gave one of his best and most uncharacteristically troubling performances as a bitter stand-up in Punchline, likens it to hard drugs. “Crack cocaine. Big rock cocaine. You’re the one-man show. The adrenalin and blood shoots through your head in a way that is identical to crystal meth.”

It’s a decent enough film for comedy buffs though there aren’t a whole lot of surprises. Unless you count the montage of interviewees naming their comic influences. Kevin Smith might wish that his own contribution to this segment (“Bill Cosby and whatnot”) had been consigned to the cutting-room floor.

Misery Loves Comedy happens to be making its DVD debut in the same week as Brand: a Second Coming, a scrapbook documentary about Russell Brand that provides a précis of his career to date, before veering interestingly off-piste just as Brand himself is getting his act together and trying to use his celebrity for the forces of good.

What began as a thoroughly authorised film (the director Ondi Timoner, who made Dig!, the brilliant and turbulent documentary about the fortunes of the bands Dandy Warhols and the Brian Jonestown Massacre, was hired to salvage and complete an earlier attempt that had gone awry) ended up being snubbed by Brand.

Whatever he saw in the film that he didn’t like, it surely can’t have been the portrait of himself: Timoner is hugely generous toward her subject, and allows him ample time to explain his mission to reshape political discourse and democracy itself. She also makes the media scepticism and hostility toward him look hysterical and petty-minded.

Any attempt to get to the root of Brand’s objections, and why he apparently urged friends to boycott the recent screening at the London Film Festival, can only be conjecture.

There is one particularly painful scene, though, that can’t have been fun to shoot, let alone watch back. It shows the comedian and his father in the back of a chauffeured car, where Brand Jr is trying to explain and defend his own religious beliefs – only for his dad to interrupt in order to question the route the driver is taking. It’s a case of Brand the Father edging out God the Father. And it’s one of the few moments in the film when Brand himself is rendered (or chooses to remain) speechless.

The sight of old conflicts being played out for the umpteenth time isn’t comfortable viewing. But it’s one of the moments in which the picture sparks to life.

Misery Loves Comedy is on DVD now; Brand: a Second Coming is on DVD from Monday. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.