Paul Provenza Talks Heart and Soul of Comedy in New Documentary, ‘Dying’ Laughing’: Why Being Funny is Only Part of the Equation


Dying Laughing is a powerful new documentary that looks into the mind of the stand up comedian, interviewing an impressive list of comics including plenty of our living (and in one case, no longer with us) legends as well as some younger comics still fighting it out in the trenches.

Filmmakers Lloyd Stanton and Paul Toogood created this visually beautiful and deeply thought-provoking feature, with an unbeatable line-up that includes , Jerry , Garry Shandling, , Billy Connolly, Dave Attell, , , Gilbert Gottfried, Jim Jefferies, D.L. Hughley, Tiffany Haddish and Paul Provenza among others. Toogood and Stanton go way behind the curtain to find out from these comedy greats why they chose comedy, what are the most difficult aspects of being a comic, what it’s like to go in front of a huge audience and lose the crowd, or worse yet bomb, and so much more. Particularly compelling is a section of the doc where the comedians talk about bombing, and trust me, after watching this you’ll never consider heckling or booing anyone ever again.

I spoke with Paul Provenza– one of the true guardians of comedy– about the movie and was thrilled to get his thoughts. Paul is a tremendous stand up himself, but his connection to comedy goes even deeper- he’s written a book about comedians where he interviewed the greats, (!Satiristas!), directed a comedy documentary (The Aristocrats), created and hosted The Green Room with Paul Provenza– and actually cares about comedy, it’s progress as an art form.  He was the perfect person to talk with about Dying Laughing.


The Interrobang:  I watched Dying Laughing, and it’s phenomenal. I’ve got to imagine there’s so much that’s not even in the movie- on the cutting room floor. I can’t even imagine putting this together.

Paul Provenza:  Well, I got to tell you, you know, the guys, Lloyd Stanton and Paul Toogood, they brought me into the project when it was already well, well along and they asked me to come in as an interview which I was very excited to do because their work is fantastic. I don’t know if you’ve seen any of this stuff they’ve done in the music world. He showed me some clips of some of the stuff they were doing for this documentary and I was like, this is … visually it’s beautiful. These guys are classy guys and they have such a respect and passion for the material that they cover. So, I was like yeah, so I’ll definitely get involved. I came into the project very late after we did my interview for the movie and we started to talk about how the project is going to progress. I also was very impressed by their work and what they were doing enough to say, “Yeah, sure. I’d love to get involved with you guys.” So, I don’t know a lot of what they’ve got. I’ve not seen all their footage and everything, but I know it is an immense treasure trove of really infamous and thoughtful stuff by everybody from people you’ve never heard of to some of the biggest names in comedy.

The Interrobang:  I didn’t know that you were involved beyond being on screen with the interview and that makes sense. It definitely has … I could feel there was a little Paul Provenza in this movie.

…this stuff is so compelling on a human level that you can relate to it whether you’re a plumber or a teacher or a doctor or a lawyer because it’s so much about a human being and dealing with alienation and your own existence…

Paul Provenza:  That’s how I responded to these guys. I’m like everything that I do is about going a little bit deeper than the obvious, “Hey, this guy is funny. This woman is smart.” Whatever. It’s about this sort of life of comedy and the heart and soul of comedy and the art and artistry, you know, that makes somebody devote their lives to it as a craft or an art or a business, you know? They were exactly down that track. They were like, you know, this stuff is so compelling on a human level that you can relate to it whether you’re a plumber or a teacher or a doctor or a lawyer because it’s so much about a human being and dealing with alienation and your own existence and all that. I was like, “Oh, yeah, you guys are not just looking to make a quick buck here.”

The Interrobang:   You know, you really hit on something with the discussions about the loneliness of comedy. It really resonates.

Paul Provenza:  I think that one of the reasons that comedy touches people in a certain way, and beyond just like, “Ah, that was funny. I had a few laughs.” There are a lot of people out there who respond to comedy the way other people respond to music. There’s something here that’s sort of life-affirming and there’s something that touches the soul. It’s just not entertainment. It somehow touches you in a way that means more than “Oh, I had a great time.”  You walk away with thoughts and feelings and stuff. I think the root of all that is a sort of human condition of loneliness and– aloneness is actually a better word for it, aloneness. The idea that we all, at some point in our lives, at some point during our day, we all feel like aliens. Comedians thrive on that separateness. They thrive on what’s going on in my head is different from what’s going on in everybody else’s head. That is what makes it such an idiosyncratic art form.

The Interrobang:  Everyone describes it as an unpleasant experience, but is there something about the experience on the road that helps you to be a better comedian? Beyond reaching wider audiences?

Billy Connolly, who, when I interviewed him for my book !Satiristas! he put it perfectly.

 Paul Provenza:  Well, you know it’s interesting because I find myself, when you ask a question like that, I find myself having to quote Billy Connolly, who, when I interviewed him for my book !Satiristas! he put it perfectly. He said, “A comedian’s life is really one of solitude.” You know, you go on the road. It’s not like going on the road with the band, with roadies, you know, with this group of people. You go on the road by yourself. You show up to the theater or the venue you’re playing by yourself. You’re backstage by yourself. You do your show by yourself. You say goodbye to everybody. You go back to the hotel room by yourself. The next day, you got to do it again. You’re alone. You’re by yourself, you know, even if you go to the mall. You go to the mall thinking about the show that night, you’re by yourself.” He said, “That is the reason why comedians generally tend to be original thinkers. Because they have to listen to their inside voice non-stop. It’s not like you have to deal with politics at or the complicated things on a project you’re working on if you’re working on a movie or a TV show. You’re dealing with a family there, you’re dealing with a collective. But when you’re doing comedy, you’re writing it, you’re performing it, you’re directing it, you’re producing it yourself. You spend all your time, the vast majority of your time alone, in your own head, in your own heart, responding to whatever comes your way in a solitary way. That’s what creates original ideas.” I thought that was a beautifully well put perfect sort of way to look at the balance of it all, like yeah that’s the price you pay for being originally creative.  A certain solitude, a certain comfort level with just being inside yourself and alone mulling those thoughts and feelings around on your own and not hearing voices, ideas, compromises, all that sort of stuff when you work. You have no option, but to listen to yourself.

The Interrobang:  One of the other things besides the loneliness that struck me from the movie is the conversation about bombing. Your quote about that in particular, it really grabs you and it’s so hard to understand… how you can come back on stage after feeling that feeling? 

You could have 500 people in a club audience laughing their asses off, but all you think about the whole show is that one guy you can see with his arms crossed who’s not cracking a smile.

Paul Provenza:  Well, that is why it takes a certain kind of person and it takes a lot of … People always talk… comedians are more fucked up than other people or, you know, have a mental or social or psychological problems or whatever, but I really believe that that’s, again, sort of the human condition and if you polled 10,000 lawyers or 10,000 doctors or 10,000 construction workers you’d end up with really … It’s probably about the same. It’s just that comedians are open about it, and it’s part of … It feels like a conflict. Going out there, making all these people laugh, but then going home having to deal with this sort of internal struggle. But, that’s the thing. When people talk about artists and suffering, people tend to think “Oh, that means they don’t have a lot of money and so they’re always struggling or it’s just a long road and a lot of rejection and they’re really struggling, but it doesn’t matter. You could be Jerry Seinfeld, you could be Garry Shandling or you could be somebody that you’ve never heard of doing comedy, but the struggle is the same and it is that. It’s all that stuff.

It’s how do you go from day to day dealing with the ups and downs and the emotional roller coaster of the realities of this life. Mark Twain had a great quote. He said, “A comedian’s job is the toughest in the world because his option is up after every single joke.” That’s the thing is you could do a set that’s, you know, you’re just killing, you’re destroying, but you go home and you remember that one piece that didn’t work and that’s all you think about. You could have 500 people in a club audience laughing their asses off, but all you think about the whole show is that one guy you can see with his arms crossed who’s not cracking a smile. It’s like that is the stuff … It’s torture.

The Interrobang:  You can talk to 50 different comics and 50 different cities and towns and they’ll all have that same experience and feeling.

There’s something here that’s sort of life-affirming and there’s something that touches the soul. It’s just not entertainment.

Paul Provenza:  Yeah. It’s like if you go to a party and you talk to five or six people and they find you tremendously engaging and you have a wonderful time with them and you go home and you feel great. You don’t think about the other 45 people that you didn’t interact with or maybe 20 of them that can’t even stand you. You don’t think about that, but as a comedian that’s all you think about.

It’s also a really frustrating conundrum because, now this is what I find fascinating and I think you really get this from Dying Laughing, I think you feel this from the collection of voices in there is that in order to do original work as a comedian, in order to have a distinct voice and an original point of view, you have to really not care what anybody thinks of it. At the same time, everybody’s got to like you and laugh at what you’re saying.

That’s the conundrum that is never ending. You have to not give a shit what anybody in the audience thinks of you, but at the same time what they think of you is all of it.

The Interrobang:   These aren’t things that can be taught or learned. These sort of have to be things that you just are.

Paul Provenza:  Yes, and that’s why I think a number of people in the film talk about how long it takes to find your own voice and to really become a comedian. The rule of thumb is like eight to ten years before you can really call yourself a comedian. That’s because all of this stuff is internal. You can’t really learn it, you can’t really define it. You can’t really read it in a book, it can’t be taught in a class. It’s just you have to have a magnitude of different experience so that you start to see what it is, you start to feel in a sense what it is that’s the universal and it’s those kind of things, those kinds of feelings and sort of ideological confrontations that you have to have.

How do you get to the place where you really don’t care what someone’s opinion is about you and your work, but at the same time you make everybody in the room get it and enjoy it? That can’t be taught and it can only happen after a decade of experiences. Not only on stage, but also internally grappling with it and feeling it.

The Interrobang:  You’ve seen comedy from more sides than I think just about anybody out there. Was there anything in this movie that somebody said that just really stood out to you and it’s “Oh, I haven’t heard anyone express that before. That’s interesting.”

Paul Provenza: Oh, bunches and bunches. I wish I could be more specific. The movie is so overwhelming with the voices that I would have to watch it again and specifically to answer that question go “Okay, that’s one.” But yeah, countless people. Again, that’s the thing. Even though a number of comedians are expressing the same ideas and the same feelings and the same thoughts they come out with an expression of it that’s completely unique.

The Interrobang: You have Felipe Esparza giving that barbecue analogy…

Paul Provenza:   Yeah, there’s a great example. Felipe’s analogy cracked me up and at the same time went, “Oh my God. That’s the way Felipe processed that experience. I process it completely different, but Felipe processes it in a way that wow, I’d never heard that.” And yes, it’s on the money. Yes, it’s a great example.

The Interrobang:  And then, Royale Watkins of course, has that unforgettable moment. That was the first time I saw that kind of raw emotion out there.

Paul Provenza:   Yes, yeah that was a beautiful, beautiful moment. That was … I hesitate to use the word courageous, but I guess it’s courageous to be that open and vulnerable, especially in a context where you don’t have to be. You’re just sitting in front of a camera doing an interview. You don’t have to be that open. So, I think there’s a lot of courage in that, but I also think that he doesn’t really have a choice because his emotional life is so palpable and that he loves comedy too, so it’s very real, it’s very authentically who he is, what he thinks and feels and that’s a great example for almost everybody in the movie. To see it come up in the way that it comes up in his interview was really fascinating. I mean I know, I was sitting there and I was like, “Oh gosh, I wish I was even more open in the interview when I did it because look what happens when you open up.”

You have to not give a shit what anybody in the audience thinks of you, but at the same time what they think of you is all of it.

But I was sitting there going … Yeah, I go back over a lifetime in comedy as a career and as a passion. I can’t even count the times when I’ve been moved to tears. Sometimes joyfully, and sometimes really, really in a desperate, sadness solitude driven crank of like, oh my God. Those moments when you just want to go home and cry after a period of time that’s just like “oh my God, I just can’t even deal anymore.” I can’t even tell you how often that has happened to be in my lifetime. As I’ve grown older and matured it’s become a little bit different, but the process to get to the place where, “Okay, this is what it is” is a very, very torturous one. That is the “artist suffering.”

Seeing him do that in this documentary reminded me just really, really how emotionally challenging it is to put yourself on the line every day, to be judged every minute of every day. Every minute of every show to be judged, and to be judged in a way that’s not “Oh, I didn’t like that song” or “Oh, it screwed up that passage.”

Or whatever because when you’re doing comedy you are, as I said, your own director, writer, producer, all that sort of stuff, but it also means that you’ve tapped into who you are as a human being in order to express yourself in this way that’s original and unlike anybody else. When you’re judged based on that it’s not just “Oh, you know, you filed this report wrong. Oh, you screwed up, you made a mistake in this particular thing.” It’s you, as a human being that’s being judged. It’s you, your value, your worth, your internal life is being judged and that I think makes it a unique scenario. It’s not even the same for actors, singers, dancers. I don’t believe it’s the same for any performing art because there’s usually a layer of something between you and the audience.

It’s you, as a human being that’s being judged. It’s you, your value, your worth, your internal life is being judged and that I think makes it a unique scenario.

With comedy there is nothing between you and the audience which is why it’s fascinating to me that a lot of comedians are today’s climate a lot of comedians are being taken to task for jokes that they make and it’s a very hard place to be because on one hand you want to say, “Oh, it’s just a joke”, but on the other hand you also have to say, “But, this came from someplace inside of me that’s real and authentic.” So, how do you balance that out? Nine times out of ten … I went off on a little tangent here, but nine times out of ten when that happens, it’s because it’s being received through somebody else’s filter and you’re not, you know, they’re not really seeing the issue. They’re not really seeing the irony. They’re not really seeing whatever sort of unstated distance you’ve put between yourself and this idea, which popularly is known as irony.

When people see work and should they take offense at something she says 99 times out of 100, it’s because they’re not appreciating the construct of the distance she’s put between herself and the idea.

The Interrobang:  And that’s different from the problem of when the audience just doesn’t laugh. It’s different from when they’re offended at something you said.

Paul Provenza:  Totally different. Totally different. Totally different because there’s a, I forget who said this quote, but there’s an adage that offense is not given, it’s taken.

The Interrobang:   Watching this it’s hard not to wonder, how does anyone keep doing this? 

It definitely takes a certain kind of person and it definitely takes thick skin and a real strong sense of wanting to accomplish something

Paul Provenza:  It definitely takes a certain kind of person and it definitely takes thick skin and a real strong sense of wanting to accomplish something that may not even be recognized by people. I mean even the average working comedian that’s doing cruise ships or clubs or corporate dates or whatever. There is an internal journey there, that is way more complex than you could ever imagine just to be able to do it, let alone achieve what you’re trying to do. Just to get up and do it really involves a lot. That’s why I think it’s the most complex and rich and compelling art form there is. I really do. I think anybody who chooses to work in the realm of comedy, stand up in particular, is taking the most challenging route of any of the art forms.

Because there’s also, there’s so many other things that play, you know? People are rarely offended by music, they’re rarely offended by dance, they’re rarely offended by opera, they’re rarely offended by paintings, but it’s very easy to be offended or put off by comedy and to be in the place where you’re playing with fire every minute is quite a compelling and interesting and ambitious thing to do.

You can see Dying Laughing now in theaters and on VOD.

 

 

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