Applause for Comedic Effect
I Am Comic is the stand-up comedy documentary I’ve been waiting for. I love elements of The Aristocrats and Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, but they focus on one aspect and one personality of the industry, respectively—providing glimpses of the art of stand-up and the weird, brilliant personalities one might encounter on the road. But director Jordan Brady has broken it all down, using interviews with some of these same people to explain, for instance, what a joke is, what comedy stands for, and how spending years traveling the country doing small-town gigs can be more lucrative and creatively satisfying than headlining a club in L.A.
Brady frames his movie with the comeback of Ritch Shydner, a stand-up whose career peaked in the 80s. After that, he spent twenty years collaborating as a writer with superstars like Jeff Foxworthy, making a comfortable living outside the spotlight. Shydner works with Brady not only to film his own return to the stage, but to help him land interviews with some of the biggest names in comedy, from Roseanne Barr and Carrot Top to Jim Gaffigan and Louis C.K.
If the names Roseanne Barr and Carrot Top turn you off, and you’re unfamiliar with Jim Gaffigan and Louis C.K., this is the movie for you. I Am Comic introduces us to a host of talent both undiscovered and decades past their prime, as well as people who’ve just begun to get mainstream attention and modern superstars. They all take the art of making jokes very seriously, and dispel the romantic notion of comedy as an easy, hour-a-day job. Successful comics spend most of their “free time” writing, refining bits and honing their stage act so that they can feel at ease dealing with hecklers or crowds they're not accustomed to.
Foxworthy has a great story in which he describes his first appearance on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. He’d been told to come up with a tight six-minute set for his segment (not one second longer or shorter). His first two jokes did okay, but the third one killed; he hadn’t factored in applause breaks—he’d never had to—so while his body continued the act, his mind raced to think several bits ahead, calculating the time he’d need to trim from the rest of the material, and editing weaker jokes to balance out his routine.
Even I Am Comic’s sillier aspects are steeped in truth. When Brady interviews former In Living Color star Tommy Davidson, we see a wiry, energetic man who’s boiled stand-up comedy down to a Bruce-Lee-inspired Zen philosophy. Some of it make sense, but Davidson’s over-the-top delivery is so strange that it’s unclear whether or not he’s putting on an act or if he’s gone completely crazy. The antics are easily dismissed, until we see footage of him wrapping up what looks to be a sold-out show—where he exits the stage to raucous cheers and laughter.
Then there’s Nikki Glaser, a young comedienne who gained some notoriety on NBC’s Last Comic Standing. She walks us through the Comedy Condo—which is a generic term, but she happened to be staying in one at the time of Brady’s shoot. A long time ago, club owners figured out that they could save a lot of money on putting up performers in local hotels by simply buying their own apartments and having guests stay there on a rotation. It sounds like a nice idea, until you factor in the debaucherous habits of road comics; I learned never to use the ice cubes or mayonnaise in a Comedy Condo fridge if John Fox has recently blown through town).
The movie itself is also very funny. Brady injects humor in all the right places, finding creative uses for subtitles, editing and camerawork (Andy Kindler’s candid filming of an audience has a great punch line that I didn’t see coming—I didn’t laugh at it, but I admired its inventiveness). If I Am Comic had been filmed as a straight documentary, the subjects and subject matter would have provided enough laughs and insight to satisfy any fan of comedy; but these little bits of punch-up really sell the fact that this movie was made by people who understand and appreciate humor. Sure, some of it’s corny, but that doesn’t make it any less funny.
As for the film’s hero, Ritch Shydner makes for an interesting case study. In clips from old TV appearances we see an enthusiastic, young performer who’d probably feel right at home on a nice family sitcom. He looks to be the sterling side of the comedy coin—whose scuffed and dented flipside would’ve been audience-baiting misanthrope Bill Hicks (I say that in all due reverence to Hicks). Twenty years on, Shydner comes off as amiable but restless, with a desire to perform that’s so powerful it borders on need.
So, how does he do on stage? Not bad, but not great. It becomes clear very quickly that the live-performance part of his comedy brain was frozen in amber sometime around 1989, and at his first new gig—at a sports-bar/comedy club—he ditches his prepared material pretty quickly (due to lack of laughs) and resorts to riffing on the venue’s ridiculous sensory overload: patrons talking loudly at the bar, a game of pool at the back of the room, and dual televisions with subtitles that allow customers to completely tune out the stage. It’s a great recovery, but not a particularly funny one; but it doesn’t have to be hilarious in the moment—just filed away and crafted into a bit for later use.
As we follow Shydner from club to club, playing to different crowds (from brand-name comedy club tourists to an all-black audience in a more intimate venue), a picture emerges of an artist constantly sketching (not to be confused with sketch comedy, of course) and stretching his skills. Creating a great joke, we learn, is about phrasing, timing and content, all of which must be adjusted in front of various live audiences before becoming strong enough to play almost anywhere. At the end of the documentary, we learn that Shydner, despite not having been launched back into the spotlight, continues to do stand-up today. It’s an inspiring message of a person living to chase down a dream and not giving up in the face of imperfection.
Whether you’re a newbie or a comedy nerd, you’re likely to find a whole new respect for comedians and the grueling, sometimes life-destroying work that goes into making people laugh for a living. Like comedy albums, I Am Comic is a movie I’d like to see sequelized every few years, to get more perspectives from more comics, and to track audience and industry changes from generation to generation. If and until that happens, we still have Jordan Brady’s engrossing, entertaining documentary to tide us over.