It’s no secret that sometimes comedy is taken a bit too seriously. Comedy obsessives love not just the jokes, but the mechanics and emotions of the comedy world. There are a raft of comedy documentaries exploring comedy and comedians, but do they really have anything significant to add to the discussion? This series looks at comedy documentaries and whether they’re interesting, insightful, and possibly even…funny?
Often, the biggest problem with a road documentary is that not enough happens. That charge definitely can’t be levied at Let America Laugh, David Cross’s 2003 tour diary which followed him across the country as he put together his Shut Up You Fucking Baby! album. Instead, the film is practically bursting at the seams with drunken hecklers, terrible venues, and grungy parties.
Instead of a traditional fly-on-the-wall style, the process of making the documentary is itself a part of the film. It kicks off with Cross leaving a voicemail for the director, asking him to “follow me around with that goddamn camera of yours.” Later on, when a few shows aren’t caught on tape, there’s a section devoted to mocking a temporary cameraman who didn’t quite understand the gig.
With that in mind, it’s hard to say how many of the film’s wackier moments are done with the cameras in mind, and how many would have happened regardless. At the tour’s first gig in Nashville, they’re met with the wrong name on the sign, the wrong set-up in the venue, and an unforgiving club owner who kicks Cross out for discussing those first two issues on stage. All that was certainly authentic. But Cross’s decision to annoy the owner by dragging out the packing up process for as long as possible seems at least partly done for the cameras.
It’s not a problem if he’s trying to make the film more entertaining, since it completely works. But with crazy incident after crazy incident, there’s very little down time. Often, the most interesting parts of road documentaries are the quiet, reflective moments, while this film gives the impression that every night was constant chaos.
In fact, one of the few revealing moments comes as Cross stands on a street corner, watching a few people ride a small roller coaster. “Man that looks lame,” he says with a tight smile, still watching. It’s always hard to tell when Cross is being genuine, but for a split second he really does look upset to be removed from the simple pleasure of a boring roller coaster, as if he’s realized that all his sneering has actually cost him something.
Cross does come across as holier-than-thou for much of the film (a charge directed at him for his entire career). He does get a form of comeuppance, when, late for a Mr. Show signing in Los Angeles, Bob Odenkirk takes center stage. “David is late because he no respect for the fans,” Odenkirk says, tongue-in-cheek but also clearly annoyed. The funniest bit of the whole film comes from Odenkirk pre-signing a dozen photos as he waits for Cross, with things like “David doesn’t think much of you” and “David, You are class personified.” Each photo is funnier than the last, and provides a much-needed taking down of our leading man.
Yet for all of this seeming madness, in some ways the documentary doesn’t amount to much. It’s loosely tied together by a string of Mr. Show-esque sketches featuring Cross as a mid-level office worker, building to a nicely surreal punch line. But from the tour itself, the only conclusion I could draw was that going to a David Cross gig doesn’t look like that much fun, and going on tour with him seems even worse.
And so, in conclusion…
Is it interesting? It’s definitely not boring. It feels more like a rock documentary, with rowdy crowds, drunken parties, and the occasional groupie.
What does it have to say about comedy? Actually, not a whole lot. The film is more likely to show Cross as he deviates from his set to interact with the audience than show substantial clips of his actual standup. In some ways, comedy seems like an afterthought to the tour.
Is it funny? Definitely. Cross can manage to make almost everything funny, and even when he’s being immature or bratty, he’s amusing.
Can I stream it on Netflix? Yes.
Any comedy documentaries you’d like to see discussed? Do let me know.
Elise Czajkowski is a freelance journalist in New York City. She is trying to use fewer semicolons in her writing.