Kevin Pollak’s Misery Loves Comedy is not just an adventure into the mindspace of stand-up comedians but an exciting exploration into the universal human conditions of misery, joy and hope. What started with the question, “Do you have to be miserable to be a comedian?” eventually evolved into a guide through the world of live performers. Pollak’s documentary, which raised over $54,000 on Kickstarter, features some of the nation’s top stand-up comedians— Jim Gaffigan, Lewis Black, Marc Maron, Jim Norton, Janeane Garofalo— as well as celebrated actors like Bobby Cannavale, Jason Alexander, William H. Macy, Christopher Guest and Martin Short. Also in the movie are family members of deceased greats– Kelly Carlin, Lynn Shawcroft (Mitch Hedberg’s widow) and Freddie Prinze Jr. (in a rare interview talking about his father). The How I Slept My Way to the Middle author takes the viewer to the emotional core of making humor with over 60 in-depth and candid interviews.
Misery Loves Comedy begins with the thesis that everyone suffers from what Kevin Pollak calls the “Hey, look at me!” Disease. The first act of this film wonders why someone chooses “Hey, look at me!” as a career. From there, we hear comedy icons explain the thrill of being on stage, the shameful personal fallout that occurs after bombing and putting in those 10,000 hours (a Malcolm Gladwell reference Pollak makes often, including in my previous interview with him). We hear stories of extreme jealousy and figuring out where one fits in this cruelly inconsistent industry that is show business. Finally, the original reason for the documentary reemerges as he asks his subjects, “Does this job require being miserable?” The answers may shock you in what, in my humble opinion, is the best stand-up comedy documentary to date– largely because Misery Loves Comedy strikes at the core of every one of the fucked up souls who feels a compulsion to grab a microphone and talk to strangers—not with strangers, but to them—on a nightly basis. Misery Loves Comedy will make you laugh, cry and feel empathy towards these lone snipers whose sole purpose is to bring joy to an audience.
I interviewed Kevin Pollak earlier this month as his film prepared to screen at the Tribeca Film Festival. We discussed the inherent loneliness of stand-up comedy, jealousy, and the depression and suicide that has robbed us of great comedic minds like Robin Williams.
In the documentary you had that quote, “Comedians are veterans of a shared combat experience. Not foxhole buddies, more like snipers with similar stories of kills and misses.” Beautiful. You use a lot of war metaphors, now that I look back at my last interview with you.
I think I stumbled across the analogy of being in sniper nests as opposed to foxholes. As an actor working on a movie on location, especially for a month or several months, you’re away from home. You’re with this group of people in this town. You’re working 12 hours a day, five days a week—you’re not even seeing your family when you go home, in most cases. So you are sharing a foxhole for that period of time. And you’re connected by it for life. Even if you’re shooting in your home town—in my case, Los Angeles (not where I’m from; I’m from San Francisco and we’re trained to hate Los Angeles and I still do)—but when shooting and getting to sleep in your own bed, even then you’re only getting to see your family at night for a couple of minutes before you go to sleep and have to get up at the crack of your ass the next day. So, five days a week, a minimum of 12 hours a day—you’re in the trenches with these people. As a comedian, you travel the country or the world and you’re not with anybody. You’re staying in a hotel by yourself. You’re going to the press in the morning by yourself. You get on stage by yourself. Then it feels to me more like we’re snipers, going from tower to tower seeing how many kills we can register. To a performer, the expression, “I killed,” or “I didn’t” has been around forever.
So I was just trying to find some common ground that people could relate to, I think more than anything. And Greg Proops, who’s one of the great intellects of our business, his reaction to me saying that wasn’t in the film by accident. He was so startled by it, by the notion, you see the shift in his face before he asks, “Did you write that?” Where he’s listening and then, whap!, beaming smile, which is when the moment of joy occurs from relating to the terminology. That is the same battle we’re waging when we go on stage with the audience. We’re trying to create that moment of connection to what we’re saying. That was one of the reasons that his reaction acted as sort of a bigger metaphor for me in terms of what performers are after.
You talk about as the thesis for the movie the “Hey, look at me!” Disease. What exactly is the “Hey, look at me!” Disease?
As I say in the film, children suffer from “Hey, look at me!” I don’t know why I decided to call it a disease. They’re children. They need attention from infancy into child years. They know what attention brings. It brings either the mother or the father or both. It brings picking me up, changing me, feeding me—whatever those things are are the initial reasons for craving attention. You need something initially. Then eventually you just need the attention. It stays with us as adults, otherwise Facebook wouldn’t be a multi-billion dollar company. Everyone needs attention. In the case of Facebook, if you have a page you’re somebody.
My curiosity with the type of person who then chooses “Hey, look at me!” as a career, as a profession, as a livelihood, as an artistic expression—you know, painters can paint in a vacuum of their studio and then put that painting out into the universe and whatever happens to it happens to it. Ultimately, they’d like somebody to appreciate it, but they’re not craving the attention when they paint. Whereas as a performer gets on stage or a filmmaker spends a year of their life [on a film], you want the reaction. When Jon Favreau in the film talks about facing studio executive saying, “Change this. Change that,” he says, “No. If you change that, I walk.” But if he plays the film for an audience and the audience doesn’t laugh, he immediately rolls up his sleeves and says, “Okay, let’s figure this out.” So I think it’s on the audience to go from craving attention to then doing something with that attention. The need and desire to entertain becomes the focus, instead of just, “Hold me, feed me, pick me up, love me.” It goes beyond that.
You had a lot of people who weren’t comedians in the documentary. There were some people I understood, like Tom Hanks who had done some stand-up. Then you had guys like [Boardwalk Empire‘s] Bobby Cannavale, who was great in it, and I was like, “What’s he doing here?”
Well, I realized that once I got into the larger thesis, which is, “Who chooses ‘Hey, look at me!’?” then if you’ve been on stage the way that William H. Macy and Sam Rockwell and Bobby Cannavale have been, and you’ve been on a stage in a moment when you were creating laughter, then you know what it’s like to stand naked on a stage and illicit laughter from strangers in the dark. There’s not much of a difference. You’re protected by a play and a script. You’re protected by other people in the play. But in the case of Sam Rockwell, I saw him here on Broadway in A Behanding in Spokane. He had a monologue where he stood alone to the audience with a curtain behind him. He was still portraying a character while he was doing that monologue, but there are very few moments when an actor feels more naked than that. So I wasn’t having them in the film because I knew they had acted in little tiny moments of a movie or a TV show and got to recreate the moment over and over again until somebody said they got it right in front of a camera, but because they had stood in front of an audience is what made them important to the conversation.
And also to get William H. Macy to say, “I’d put a gun to my head rather than do stand-up.” You can’t write that!
We saw some interesting things in the doc. We saw Martin Short share that story of—
Being jealous. Of not being able to share in another friend’s success, from someone who we don’t think feels that way about anything.
He just seems like such a cheery person.
He is, by the way. That’s the beauty of the film, and the reason why, “Do you have to be miserable?” became the third act and not the whole film. I wanted to get to know these people. I wanted to understand—I wanted the audience to understand what it’s like to choose this life, what it’s like to go through the process of being in this life and what it’s like to lose your amateur status and put in your 10,000 hours, bombing. I wanted the audience to experience all of these things. Then as we see these people’s tellings of these experiences, we’re actually making our own decisions and opinions of whether they’re miserable or not. So by the time we get to the end and I put the question to them, someone like Jim Gaffigan can deflect it by saying, “Not miserable. But maybe annoyed.” Or in the case of Marc Maron, who has used misery beautifully on stage and beautifully on his podcast, to see them represent their lives in those first two acts, and we see whether they’re miserable or not, that was kind of the notion.
You get a Martin Short talking about feeling jealousy to the point that he refers to that [place in a restaurant] as “Breakdown Corner.” He is that hilarious person that you think he is. If the film captures him being honest and truthful about a moment in his life, as he described it, “I was lost at the time. I hadn’t decided what was my career path, therefore couldn’t celebrate the success of a friend who had.” That’s part of the journey I felt was amazing and impossible not to include in the storytelling of the film.
Right. Someone so bright showing a dark moment we didn’t even think they were capable of.
It’s just human. Misery is the human condition. There’s no way to avoid it. Whether it’s every day or a few times, if you’re lucky, there’s no way to avoid misery. And then the artist—whether your’e a painter, a comedian, a songwriter or a filmmaker—you have to articulate either your own misery or universal misery, where the audience says, “You’ve just shown a light on what it’s like to be a human.” You have to figure out how to articulate your misery or our misery in an entertaining way. And I think that becomes the joy of being a performer is solving that puzzle.
You’ve used the 10,000 hours motif a lot. You used it the last time we spoke. You used it on WTF with Marc Maron recently. So it sounds like you’re saying that that Martin Short moment is part of those 10,000 hours. He hadn’t discovered his true path yet. When you were going through that stage of finding your voice and your path, did you ever have similar feelings of hopelessness or jealousy?
I don’t think hopeless was an emotion that I felt because I started so young and had attention for being funny so young. By the time I got into professional [performing] at 17, 18, 19 years old, then coming up the ranks of the San Francisco stand-up comedy scene by the age of 20, when I had set-backs and disappointments throughout the rest of my trajectory—and I still do because it’s part of the human experience—hopelessness wasn’t the feeling that a lot of my fellow artists go through. It’s more like a sense of wonderment at either the unfairness of life, the randomness of decisions and opportunities, and the insane good luck or good fortune that one must have at various points to succeed. Those become the hurdles and the painfully disappointing and depressing moments in life. But they never created a sense of hopelessness for me.
I think it’s just the way you’re wired. For a lot of brilliantly successful performers there’s been a sense of hopelessness. I mean, Freddie Prinze Jr. talking about his dad for the first time in the movie, clearly his dad burned white hot from the age of 19-22 and then ended his life on the sense of feeling hopelessness at the height of his success.
Suicide and deadly drug addictions seem to be a thing that pop up in the comedy community unfortunately too often: Robin Williams, Richard Jeni. I liked what David Koechner said, “Why be miserable?” But he does say, “But something has to be wrong with you.” What was your answer to your final question in the documentary of, “Do you have to be miserable to be a comedian?”
I don’t think you have to be miserable. I think you have to figure out a way to articulate or entertain with either your personal misery or the misery we share as people. I think misery is a great topic for any art form. It really just becomes a way of how to articulate. In terms of the suicide rate and the drug and alcohol abuse, I think it’s true in all the arts. I think it’s because the struggle itself to succeed, because of the randomness and the luck necessary to make certain levels of success, because of the unfairness and the unjust nature not only of life but of show business—I used to have a mantra in my mid-20s that was, “Chachi’s a millionaire.” There was no rhyme or reason that that teenager walked onto a set of a television show and became a household name on the cover of magazines. It’s just pure happenstance. He was the one selected to play Chachi. That was it. He needed to have talent so there was a case of opportunity meeting preparation, but in his case it was the preparation of a 13-year-old! So that sort of randomness and what not I think fuels the depression. I think it makes it so that Martin Short can talk about being jealous of Bill Murray because Bill Murray got the luck, he got the moment before Martin did. And then Martin put it on himself by saying, “I was lost. I hadn’t decided what I was going to do.” Then it circles back to get out of your own way and be proactive in your own trajectory.
Misery Loves Comedy is now available on VOD, iTunes and other on-demand platforms. It also currently plays at the IFC Center in New York City. Pay for this one so they’ll keep making more things like this, you cheapskates.