Looking at the Questionable Value of Stand-Up Schools in ‘Finding the Funny’

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?

A class that attempts to teach someone to become a stand-up just feels, well, wrong. The new documentary Finding the Funny follows one such class, a six-week course in Las Vegas. As the film’s director and narrator, John Bizarre, says at the beginning, “Comedy class? What kind of bullshit is this?” It’s to the documentary’s credit that, despite the class’s instructor, Don Barnhart, also serving as the film’s executive producer, it approaches the idea of a stand-up course the way many in comedy do — with a suspicion bordering on hostility.

“Aren’t you just taking their money?” Bizarre asks Barnhart early on. It’s a relief to hear the question, and Barnhart answers it well, saying that he’s not attempting to turn his students into professional comics overnight, but get them over some of the early hurdles that could take years to work out on the road. His claim that it will serve as a substitute for five to ten years of road work seems ambitious, but a later interviewee’s theory that it may shave three months off of open mics seems fair, likening it to a pre-school Head Start for comedians.

The class itself has just under a dozen students, mostly older white guys. The film shows their first few times on the practice stage, which are as painfully difficult to watch as you’d expect. There are also interviews with a string of comedians, the most recognizable being Andy Kindler, Louie Anderson, and Brad Garrett. Most of the comics are, at best, dubious about the value of comedy classes, though some, like Anderson and Wendy Liebman, argue for their value in a difficult industry. “It’s a very complex thing, the whole comedy thing,” as Anderson eloquently notes. “It isn’t even explainable, really.”

As the cultural interest in comedy continues to rise, in some ways the film is well-timed. It’s gritty and honest and presents several different opinions about the industry. Had this film come out ten, or even five years ago, it would have been a must-see for anyone considering going into comedy. These days, though, it can’t provide too much information that a comedy fan is unlikely to get from the myriad of comedy podcasts and (ahem) comedy blogs.

The film’s biggest asset, though, is that it doesn’t glamorize the business, or the path to comedic success. Even the most well-meaning podcasts can give the impression that being a comedian these days is mostly about hanging out with your funny friends. But hearing from the mostly Vegas-based comics in Finding the Funny, as well as seeing the early, ugly beginnings of any career, is a slap-in-the-face reminder that this is often a difficult, often unpleasant, career path.

And so, in conclusion…

Is it interesting? Overall, yes. The comedians’ stories about first times and early days of comedy can get a bit repetitive, but it is interesting seeing comics at various stages in their career, especially the very, very beginning.

What does it have to say about comedy? Is a comedian born or made? Are you inherently funny or, as the film’s title suggest, can you find the funny in anyone? The documentary doesn’t necessarily answer those questions, though most of its contributors seem to side with the “you just have or you don’t” mentality.

Is it funny? Not especially. Most of the stage time is given to the students, who are, by definition, not funny yet. Unsurprisingly, the funniest bits belong to Andy Kindler, particularly his rambling musings over the closing credits.

Can I stream it on Netflix? Nope, but it is available on DVD.

Any comedy documentaries you’d like to see discussed? Do let me know.

Elise Czajkowski is a freelance journalist in New York City. She has both power and internet, and she’s happy to share.

Looking at the Questionable Value of Stand-Up Schools […]