When setting out to make a definitive portrait of the life of a standup comedian, Lloyd Stanton and Paul Toogood knew what they didn’t want to do.
“The idea of watching a pithy comment from the dressing room, cut to an affordable piece of archive television show from the ‘80s is a television format that people are a bit tired of watching, so we’re trying to do something a bit different with this,” says Toogood. “So we took many famous faces and cast them in a way we haven’t seen them before.”
Indeed, their film “Dying Laughing” unspools as if it’s a who’s who of modern comedy, enlisting the likes of Jerry Seinfeld, Kevin Hart, Sarah Silverman, Chris Rock, Jerry Lewis, the late Garry Shandling, Amy Schumer and too many others to name, to reflect on their careers and their common journey to build an act, earn credibility one audience at a time and find their groove on a stage that never gets any less lonely. But while the faces may be familiar, the stories they tell are not since Stanton and Toogood honor their subject by presenting the film is a deceptively simple manner – with interviews shot in stark black-and-white curling around footage replicating the experience of hitting the road and enduring the day-to-day grind of refining material and delivering it to comedy clubs small and large across the country, “Dying Laughing” goes into almost granular detail about the process where the personal, professional and often political intersect to speak the truth in a way unparalleled by any other medium.
Following a premiere last summer at the L.A. Film Festival, “Dying Laughing” is about to embark on a theatrical tour as rigorous as the comics it features usually travel, but fortunately, Stanton and Toogood spared a few minutes to talk about how they put together such a comprehensive survey of comedians and getting such candid observations about their craft, as well as why there’s no actual standup in the film and what they plan to do with all their unused footage.
How did you get interested in this subject?
Lloyd Stanton: Paul made a film called “The Art of Rap,” which was a way of looking at rap music that was more about the poetry and artistry behind it rather than some of the stuff you see on the surface, and we’ve been around and involved in comedy in different ways over the years, so when this subject came up, [we thought] people love comedians and they love comedy, but they don’t really perhaps know what is at stake to become a standup comedian and the personal investment you have to go through.
Paul Toogood: We’re best friends and although this is our first major project in terms of making a feature-length documentary, we’ve collaborated on lots of things and this was really timely. With great documentaries – and I’m not sure we’ve ever made one [laughs] – but it seems to me you take information that the audience thinks they know about and shine a light on it in a different way so you come up with a new piece of art. With “Dying Laughing,” we were interested in the idea that these people make it look really easy and it definitely is not – sanding up in a room, even with three people in it, is vomit inducing for most of us, so the idea that you’d stand up in front of 60 drunk people in a cellar bar or 6000 people in an arena is just extraordinary.
Even the greatest living practitioners like Jerry Seinfeld tell us in the film, this looks easy, but it is not. And when they first tried to do it, they could not do it. So we think that’s inspirational testimony to anybody who’s trying to do anything, be it learn how to play ball or trying to pass an exam – it’s about application, it’s about the time you need to spend on anything in life, if you really believe in it, to become good at something. And that when you do, you discover yourself through doing that.
You cast a very wide net in terms of the people you interview – how did you decide who to pursue?
Paul Toogood: By interviewing over 120 people, certain things start to emerge. [Lloyd and I] have complimentary skills. I ask the questions and do the interface with the artist and Lloyd keeps a watchful eye over the whole thing from the director’s point of view and these projects are an enormous quest – they’re almost like a census. We’ve made films that have taken a month and we’ve made films that have taken three years and that you think you’re going to knock it out of the park in a few months. And then you don’t get someone you want and then suddenly you start to interview people you’ve never heard of, but they’re incredible, so there’s an intoxicating mixture there where you just keep going.
What’s wonderful about this is that obviously you have to make really tough decisions [in the edit]. There are many different ways that we could’ve cut this material up – hundreds of different cuts and different approaches – and we decided to only include a certain amount of people’s testimonies – and there are people who were incredible in the interview who aren’t in the film because it happened that what they said did not fit that story. Luckily, we now have the option to make a ten-part spinoff television series, which brings a number of the themes of the film to life in greater detail and lots of people who gave us their time so beautifully are going to be featured in that television series, which will be available internationally later this year.
Lloyd Stanton: One of the things we were very conscious of is that there’s no standup performance footage in the film, which was something that we did very deliberately, in the same way that we put the black-and-white background on there to equalize all the performers. We didn’t want to show any standup so you just concentrated on who these people were and what they had to go through to get this stuff done. Obviously, what we get the chance now to do with the TV show is put some of that standup in so you see the development of the material into standup.
In terms of interviews, was there anybody that was particularly tricky to get? Jerry Lewis must’ve been difficult to pin down.
Paul Toogood: The way that works is you keep asking people and after a while, something like 18 months in Jerry’s case, they go, “these people really want to do this interview.”
Lloyd Stanton: We’re not going to go away.
Paul Toogood: So we keep going. You also don’t get rich making serious documentary films about standup comedy, so people worked that out as well. So you have write a lot of letters and then you keep getting more talent and maybe the talent thinks, Oh, well, if he’s doing it, I don’t mind doing it…”
Lloyd Stanton: Except Mel Brooks, who I think we wrote to six times and he still didn’t want to do it.
Paul Toogood: And in fairness to Mel, he’s contributed brilliantly to so many documentaries, he may think he’s got nothing else to say or that he can contribute to a documentary. We’ll go to our graves thinking [about one person or another], “why didn’t he want to do it” or “Why didn’t she want to do it?” But we hope we got a representative [group].
You get such great anecdotes, was there a special moment for you during shooting?
Paul Toogood: Yeah, Tiffany Haddish basically told us her entire life story in graphic detail from a very complicated upbringing through a very triumphant place that she’s landed in, even two years ago when we interviewed her as a working comic actress and a standup comedian. Her story is completely extraordinary and it speaks to the core of standup because she tells the truth – she told us everything and you don’t expect that. You expect people to give you guarded, rehearsed answers and nothing could be further from the truth. The same was true with Royale Watkins – they’re incredibly brave people who, let’s remember, don’t have any control over how we use their answers after they’ve given them and that takes great courage. You’ve got to know yourself to be able to do that.
I also liked how you created an experience around the interviews. Did that evolve over time?
Lloyd Stanton: As we were talking to comedians and learning more about their lives, particularly in the U.S. where the distances are so massive out on the road – and as [the film’s producer and comedian] Suli McCullough says you’ve got to take your comedy out to the people – we decided to drive across America to go to lots of little comedy clubs and to see the world from the comedians’ point of view. This film is very much from the comedians’ point of view – rather than seeing comedian in those places, we see what the comedians see – so those terrible motels and awful food and then those small comedy clubs with not many people in them, that is the life of the comedian. So it was important to put the context of their lives in amongst their words whilst also holding the image on them as long as possible.
A silly final question, but you can occasionally be heard laughing from behind the camera during your interviews, which some filmmakers might cut for fear it would ruin a take. Is that an occupational hazard in making a film like this?
Paul Toogood: Yeah, absolutely, and we have very different laughs and [Lloyd’s] is really high and mine’s really low, so throughout the edit, we’d go, “Oh my God, listen to that. You can’t have that in.” But we decided to leave it all in and certainly when we were lucky enough to watch the film at the L.A. Film Festival, we were quite surprised at how much people laughed because it’s quite a serious film about comedy. There are quite a lot of tears, but people laughed a lot along with us and our silly laughs, so we enjoyed leaving that in.
“Dying Laughing” opens on February 24th in limited release, including Los Angeles at the Arena Cinelounge and in New York at the Cinema Village. A full list of theaters and dates is here. It’s also available on iTunes.