Do you have to be miserable to be funny?

Salon talks to comic/director Kevin Pollak about humor, depression and his late friend Robin Williams

Published April 14, 2015 11:00PM (EDT)

Maria Bamford, Robin Williams, Judd Apatow           (AP/John Davisson/Osamu Honda/Chris Pizzello)
Maria Bamford, Robin Williams, Judd Apatow (AP/John Davisson/Osamu Honda/Chris Pizzello)

Do you have to be unhappy to be funny? Time and time again, we are confronted with the idea that humor and depression are two sides of the same coin, while the many public narratives of comics grappling with mental illness -- Maria Bamford and Rob Delaney, the late Robin Williams and Freddie Prinze -- appear to bolster that idea that laughter has to come from a place of deep suffering.

But does it really? In his new movie "Misery Loves Comedy," premiering in select theaters April 24th or available now on iTunes, veteran actor and comic Kevin Pollak explores that idea through interviews with more than 60 comics, including Jimmy Fallon, Larry David, Amy Schumer, Judd Apatow, Lisa Kudrow, Tom Hanks and many others, in order to get to the core of what makes comics tick. At what point did they realize they wanted to be funny for a living, and what is it that keeps them coming back to the spotlight's harsh glare? We spoke to Pollak about comedy as a drug -- both a catalyst for self-destruction and a tonic for it -- and dedicating the movie to his late friend and mentor Robin Williams.

Originally the film was going to center just on comics who suffered from clinical depression. What made you decide to expand the focus outward?

Well, I felt like if I talked to funny people about their misery they weren't going to be able to help themselves from being funny. That’s the joy of the film, I think. And at the time I thought, “Well, misery is a human condition and the comedian's job is to articulate and craft the story in an entertaining and hilarious way.” So it isn’t that we gather to watch someone be miserable onstage. The comedian often creates a universal experience, shines a light on what it’s like to be human. As Lenny Bruce early on decided, this is what stand-up comedy’s going to be -- let’s talk honestly and openly about what the fuck we’re all going through here. So that universal experience of misery is already there in the fabric of humanity and the performer, writer, director, painter, songwriter, stand-up comedian, it’s all of our tasks to make it entertaining, to make it funny.

Do you have to be miserable to be a good comic?

I think you have to have found a way to articulate your misery in a funny, entertaining way. In the case of Maria Bamford, you're talking about someone who confesses, not just in the documentary but much prior to the documentary, in her own act, that she had been in the psych ward. And what that meant to have stand-up comedy as a way to work through that misery and use it as a cathartic tool and a healing opportunity, a form of therapy. So, yeah, I don’t think you have to be miserable to be a comedian. I think that’s fairly apparent. Being miserable is everyone’s experience at some point — the loss of a family member, a broken heart — you know, there’s no way to get through your life without misery. There are people who are miserable all the time. They tend to not be so interesting or funny. They tend to be a little sad and heartbreaking or they're friends of yours, and they're like quicksand, you've got to get away from them. So the comedian’s job is really to be able to entertain with their own misery. I think that’s the tool, the specialty act of being a performer.

I remember Amy Schumer in the film said you don’t have to be miserable to be funny, but she said the funniest people she knows are the most miserable. Jimmy Fallon, as well, said he thinks people are funnier when they are miserable. Do you think there is something about these extreme negative conditions that brings something funny out in people?

To me the bigger question, the bigger story for the film was — who chooses to share that misery? Who chooses to devote their life to the vulnerability of being naked in front of an audience to illicit laughter from strangers? That’s a form of insanity in itself. Dana Gould points out, in the section [of the film about bombing onstage], to be onstage alone with lights and a stick that amplifies your voice, and to demand that attention and not pay it off takes a certain level of insanity as a design. So I wanted to go beyond the initial premise — to be miserable is to be funny — and use that as the third act. So the first two acts are getting to know these people and finding out how and why they chose to devote their lives to this ridiculous undertaking.

What are some of the common threads that push people into this intense profession?

I think they're varied. If the film works, if it’s entertaining, it’s because there is a diverse answer to that question depending on the individual’s experience. From Amy Schumer getting coddled as a child by her parents so she could do no wrong -- she would tell a stupid, pointless story and her parents would videotape it and she would watch it and say this feels like I’m going to be a star, to Wayne Federman saying, “I had an act with a ukulele that was so good it got me on television, but when my stepfather first saw it he said: What are you going to do with that?” So you’ve got opposite ends of the spectrum there, and everything in between was my goal.

Did you find that a lot of the people you spoke to had unhappy childhoods or had something bad happen to them when they were younger?

I don’t think the through-line of the childhood of a comedian is similar enough. What I found from almost 78 hours of interviews that I had to cut down to 94 minutes, if you can fathom that task -- I wish someone would have told me that before I started, I wouldn’t have done the film [laughs]. Thankfully nobody told me. But if you look at the through-line, we’re not all the same. Comedians aren’t comedians because they had a miserable childhood. I think that’s the misconception. They were drawn to wanting the attention. They were drawn to making people laugh. They got a special thrill or a drug reaction from controlling a room — first of friends, eventually of strangers — by what they thought was funny. That high, that drug, that attention, I think, is what we all have in common, more so than whether or not we had a miserable childhood.

Perhaps, as Jim Gaffigan says, a lot of comics share the experience of just feeling they were weird -- being weird kids.

Yes. Well, think about it — just the term “class clown” — it doesn’t sound like a positive thing. It sounds like an oddity. So yes.

I think Paul F. Tompkins brought this up in the film, but do you see comedy as the desire to connect or the desire to control?

[Paul F. Tompkins] talked about different phases of connecting and the audience saying “oh, me too.” But in terms of the drug, the actual endorphin release, that’s also attributed more to the control element. You’re taking the stage alone. You have all the attention. Everyone paid to see you. You’re taking the audience for a ride of your choosing. For an hour you control the highs and lows, the tempo. And you’re getting all this appreciation for a very specific amount of time for your thoughts, for your creative musings. It is singularly the most rewarding experience you’ll have on any given day of any given month of any given year. So if that’s not a drug, if that’s not an actual desire and need -- as Jim Norton talked about, you get offstage and you're just another person at the bar. If anything comes through in the film it’s a desire for that attention. It’s a desire for that time of standing in front of people and entertaining them. So how do you fit back into society after that? It’s one of the reasons that so many suffer from drug and alcohol addiction, because you're definitely chasing a high. And you’ll never get it until you get back onstage because it’s so specific of a level of appreciation and control — you’re controlling! No one has that kind of control in life. You don’t get to stand in front of a roomful of strangers and say “listen to me” for an hour. Where in life does that happen? It doesn’t. So I think it’s interesting what leads a comedian to become one. The bigger question might be, did they become more miserable after?

Right. I guess there is sort of a chicken and egg question of do people get into comedy because they have some sort of turmoil brewing within them, or does that sort of hedonistic, adrenaline-fueled lifestyle push people to extremes?

Yeah. It was Kathleen Madigan who said, “You don’t work at IBM and get there in the morning and a guy says, 'Do you want a shot?'”

Do you think the comedic lifestyle can drive people to depression and substance abuse?

There is no question. Again, it’s comparing so-called normal life to a heightened reality of what takes place when you’re onstage, if things go well. If things don’t go well, you can’t wait to get back to reality. But under the guise of things went well… You’ll never in life, just returning from the road from a weekend gig back to your significant other and/or children and the demands they have on you, compared to standing alone onstage in front of strangers who just love you for an hour. Think about that for a minute. It’s powerful stuff. And the notion that in the history of the art form that no one would have turned to drugs or alcohol to try to either numb the pain of reality or chase the high of what they experienced, to suggest that that wouldn’t happen … I think the argument is, how does it not happen more often?

But a big idea in the film is that comedy can help save people as well as leading to self-destructive tendencies. For example, I remember Jon Favreau talked about how making "Swingers" really helped him get through a hard time. 

Yeah. Look at Maria Bamford who admitted to being in a psych ward and then talked about it in her act and saying that being able to talk about it in her act, and therefore being able to talk about it in public, is what allowed her to live with what she thought was the most shameful experience possible. That’s an ultimate example of using the art form as a form of therapy but also as a saving grace.

As a comic who has been in the industry for many years and knows many of the film’s subjects personally, was there anything that you learned that particularly surprised you?

Yeah. Freddie Prinze Jr., who I knew when we worked together on “She’s All That” — that was a movie that made him a star, what used to be termed a “matinee idol” — I had seen him in “The House of Yes,” this little independent drama, and thought he was a great actor. I didn’t know he was about to be little movie star and on the cover of teen magazines. I thought he was an exceptional talent. And having admired his father [comedian Freddy Prinze Sr.] and being aware of the impact his father had on young comedians like myself, and then to have Freddie open up for the first time ever and talk about his father on camera, that was a revelation.

But also to have Jim Jeffries be as incredibly funny as he was. He has my favorite comedic moment in the film — and he promises me this wasn’t from his act and he still has never done this onstage — about the family of unicycle-riding, basketball-spinning people, and how he said, “That must have been one person’s passion, there’s no way more than one family [had that passion].” And then later in the film he talks about being clinically depressed and at times in his life being suicidal. And he says it in such a matter-of-fact way that you go, “Wait, what did he just say?” And Judd Apatow not just talking about being picked last in sports but just being able to say he’s chasing happiness as an adult. He’s not even finding it in the success of his work. He realizes he’s only happy when he’s doing a film — either shooting or editing — and he’s trying to focus on figuring out how to be happy when not working and he’s failing miserably at it. That’s a revelation he didn’t have to share.

At what point did you decide to dedicate the film to Robin Williams?

I started doing stand-up comedy in San Francisco in the late '70s. Robin had started there a couple years before. He was around the San Francisco comedy scene all the time, and became a friend and a mentor of mine. When I was shooting the film I only had four weeks to line up the talent. Whoever we got is who we got, and we had 25 or so people slotted in when we started shooting. And as we were shooting, people kept saying yes. We kept adding them and we ended up with over 60. And during those four weeks I was on the phone on two different occasions with Robin and he was shooting his television show with Sarah Michelle Gellar and working 12- to 14-hour days, and there was physically no way for him to be available, as was true with a handful of other people. But having spent a couple of occasions on the phone with Robin, for about an hour each time during the shooting, I sense that he not only wanted to be a part of the film very much, but was sort of conducting an unusable conversation about the topic with me on the phone -- just as friends talking.

And what went from a sadness that he wasn't going to be able to be in the film to a profound aching that he had passed — that occurred when I was in editing about five months in. And my producers just asked if maybe I wanted to open up the film and go interview some comedians again and ask them about Robin. And I thought that was just a reaction to the news and it wasn’t germane to the film to have people talk about Robin. But to dedicate the film to him out of love and respect made instant sense.

And given the topic of the film, it's such a devastatingly relevant story of this person who brought so much joy into the world and yet he was struggling privately in a way that no one saw.

Those that knew him knew he suffered on and off from clinical depression his whole life. And for the public to find out in the worst possible way about someone who had just entertained them and nothing more, became the devastating part of it for everyone else. Those of us that knew him just lost someone we loved and cared about for so very long.

By Anna Silman

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