Kevin Pollak’s Hit Doc ‘Misery Loves Comedy’ Looks at Comedy’s Dark Side (Interview)


An Interview with Kevin Pollak, Director of Misery Loves Comedy

Kevin Pollak’s documentary Misery Loves Comedy may change the way you think about comedians.

The 94 minute talking head style documentary doesn’t attempt to address the importance or the history of comedy like many comedy docs.  Instead, director Kevin Pollak goes inside the sausage factory, to find out what draws some men and women to want to get on stage in front of a bunch of strangers, and try to make them laugh.  We talked with the documentary’s director, Kevin Pollak, about his vision for the film, what he learned from the experience, and what motivated some of the choices along the way.

Pollak himself has over four decades of experience performing comedy, and he’s also a skilled interviewer with six years of experience putting people at ease on camera with his series, Kevin Pollak’s Chat Show.  So when he was approached by producer and co-financier Burton Ritchie about jumping on board to direct a doc about comedians who suffer from clinical depression, he said “it was a bit of a no brainer.”  He postponed work on a script of his own to jump in and expanded the project a bit to tackle a broader issue– do you have to be miserable to be in comedy.  “The concept was genius and allowed for a larger conversation in my mind creatively, and that’s what the film became,” Pollak told us.

To get his answers, Pollak rounded up more than 60 of the biggest names in comedy today, many of them stand up comedians, but also actors, writers and family members of comedians, including Jimmy Fallon, Larry David, Judd Apatow, Steve Coogan, Amy Schumer, Jim Gaffigan, Lewis Black, Kathleen Madigan, Tom Hanks, Penn Jillette, and dozens more, all sharing intimate stories, in detail, many of which are unflattering.

There’s no singular answer here, but Pollak does uncover some interesting and unexpected explanations for why his subjects are drawn to perform, and many of them do stem from an unhappiness, or in some cases, irritation or even emptiness.  Hearing some of the funniest people on the planet talk about internal lives that aren’t fun, is a bit jarring, and thoroughly engaging.

jefferiesWhen most people think about comedy, laughter and happiness, come to mind, so you might not expect to hear comedians talk about having fears, needing to perform, addiction to being on stage, and sadness when they’re not. Pollak calls it ‘hey look at me disease.’ He explained, “One of the things I wanted– and I touched on it in the film, it’s one of the few times you hear me speak– is, children suffer from ‘hey look at me’ disease, because they’re children.  But adults clearly suffer from ‘hey look at me’ otherwise Facebook wouldn’t be a multibillion dollar company. If you have a page then you are someone; who clearly needs attention. But who chooses the need for attention to be a career, to be a lifelong pursuit as a profession? How needy is that child? I found the universal truth of that was— yeah, we all want attention and we all needed attention as children.”

Some particularly candid moments come from Freddie Prinze Jr., Jim Jefferies, Maria Bamford, and Bobby Cannavale. Freddie Prinze Jr. speaks on camera for the first time ever about his father, who committed suicide at the age of 22. Until the interview, Pollak said he didn’t know if Prinze would be so open. “I knew Freddie first as a sweet kid, early early early in his career. We worked on She’s All That, the film that sort of made him a star, a matinee idol, and I just saw him in The House of Yes and thought he was a terrific dramatic actor.  So I had this history with Freddie. We had talked about his dad a lot on the set working but he had never talked about him on camera before and so I had to ask, on the outside chance that he’d be up for it.  I can’t say that I actually expected him to be up for it.  And so that surprised me.”

Bamford’s candor was also a surprise.  Even though  she has talked about being in a psychiactric ward in her act for years, Pollak said he didn’t know if she would feel comfortable enough to share it in the film.  She did.  Judd Apatow was very revealing about his difficulty finding happiness, Dana Gould shared his struggle with panic disorder, and Jim Jefferies went from being hilarious to talking about being clinically depressed and suicidal at times.  “These were revelations for anyone, so there were a lot of surprises like that along the way.”

You know Bobby’s nuts,” Pollak said, “so it’s just a matter of, can I get Bobby comfortable enough to show the audience that he’s nuts and hilarious.

We also get to hear from performers outside of the stand up world.  Pollak explained why he chose to include comedic actors in the film.  “I knew people like Bobby Cannavale and William H. Macy and Sam Rockwell had done theater and had known what it meant to stand naked, vulnerable on a stage, and try to make strangers laugh in the darkness.”  Cannavale shares a story that’s one of the highlights of the film about a 40 block walk where he talks to himself the entire time, admitting that artists can be fucked up.  “You know Bobby’s nuts,” Pollak said, “so it’s just a matter of, can I get Bobby comfortable enough to show the audience that he’s nuts and hilarious.  So when he talks about the 40 block walk, it’s just beautiful. Spectacular.”

It’s not all about their discomfort.  There are also great stories about growing up, and what laughter meant to the comics as kids, the thrill of making people laugh, and a favorite topic for comics– talking about bombing on stage, something that is shared triumphantly, almost like a war story rather than an admission of failure.

There was no correct way to tell the story, just the one I chose.

Other than a few glimpses, here and there, Pollak stays off camera himself.  This was an easy decision for him.  “I was hell-bent on it not being about my opinion,” he told us preferring instead to have his voice heard through the editing, and through the questions he asked.  “I wanted to ask the right questions that created the right comfort and environment and elicited the right answers, and then the editing process– 70 hours to 94 minutes– became the script writing.” The editing process was “the greatest joy” he said, but it was not easy.  “It was an impossible undertaking that became only possible with a deadline from the Sundance film festival otherwise I’d still be cutting now,” he said.  “Because there was no correct way to tell the story, just the one I chose.”

Ultimately, Pollak says, “it is the ability to articulate misery that separates the artist, be it a painter, songwriter, a writer, a journalist, or a comedian.  How you articulate misery, that either makes it universal as Steve Coogan says in the film– shining a light on what it’s like to be human– or  it’s so personal and honest that the audience just sits there and gasps with the inability to fathom how the person is even being this honest, but also being hilarious at the same time.”

Misery Loves Comedy is available On Demand now, and on and iTunes.  You can also see it in select theaters starting Friday April 24.

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