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?
With the recent passing of Phyllis Diller (and some associated controversies), it seems appropriate for a documentary to shine a light on the career and legacy of one of the most influential comedians in the world. Goodnight, We Love You, a 2004 film about Diller’s retirement from stand-up, is a well-meaning but ultimately disappointing take on a clearly amazing woman.
Though this was made years earlier, it’s difficult to not compare Goodnight, We Love You to the wonderful Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work. The situations were very different — Rivers was fighting to stay in the game, while Diller was attempting to bow out graciously — but the similarities between the two just prove the wasted potential of Goodnight.
A sequence with Diller putting on make-up before a show could have led to a discussion about the perception of her famously wild look or how she was perceived at in her advanced years. Instead, it’s an unremarkable clip of her discussing lipstick color and eyebrow shape, more like an elderly aunt giving beauty tips. It lacks none of the resonance of River’s famous make-up opening.
And while Rivers is largely portrayed in her film as a diva with an underlying sweetness, Diller is so fawned over here that it’s hard to not to suspect she was quite difficult to work with. Clips of her bossing around the emcee who is going to announce her final show hints at her strictness, and though dozens of friends and former employees are happy to say calculatedly nice things about her, it’s clear that she could be challenging at times.
Through interviews with former secretaries, we see a glimpse at the machine that Diller had working for her at all times. That level of classic Hollywood glamour is intriguingly different than our modern perception of comics. Her early days of comedy were not short sets in tiny bars, but lounge acts in cabarets. She carted around a ridiculous amount of luggage, sometimes bringing a hot plate with her to hotels so that she could cook for herself.
It’s the stories from those old days that are undoubtedly the most interesting, but the documentary spends far too much time on trivial elements of her life, like her love of old cars and her painting talent. It’s worships her in such a formal way that at times it feels awkward. There is no allusion to any difficulties in her life, such as her two divorces and the death of her long-term partner. It’s a shame there’s not something more substantial to commemorate such an influential comedian.
And so, in conclusion…
Is it interesting? Ultimately, not really. If you don’t know much about Diller going into this, you’re unlikely to feel like you know much about her at the end.
What does it have to say about comedy? Diller clearly took her performing very seriously, fully committing to her character of the unappealing housewife. “I feel that I’m a court jester,” she said as she prepared for her final show. Occasionally, a clip of her talking about writing suggested that she had a love of the process of putting together comedy, but it’s not explored.
Is it funny? I can’t say that it is. Diller’s material hadn’t entirely held up — even she refers to it as “corny.” That said, if you don’t smile when Phyllis Diller laughs, you are dead inside.
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’ll make a great diva someday.