What I Learned From Watching a Boatload of Comedy Documentaries This Year

The appeal of comedy documentaries, for me, has always been the opportunity to see a subject I love addressed seriously. I find it valuable to get an outsider’s perspective on comedy, an industry that loves to look at itself but can be resistant to external scrutiny. And no matter how much comedy I see, I never tire of watching the change between a comedian on stage and off, to see what elements of themselves each performer brings onstage. Because humor requires the element of surprise, comedy is constantly evolving and changing.

There’s so much to learn, and documentaries are a fantastic resource. Though great documentaries vary in style and subject matter, there are few necessary ingredients for a good doc. I consider these the basics:

  • Tell a story. This is filmmaking 101, and as I said last week, it’s the most important part. Simply talking about comedy or comedians feels anticlimactic if there’s not a narrative to add weight to the proceedings. Make me feel like I’m not wasting my time.
  • Be objective. Documentaries don’t always have to be journalism, but they don’t have to be love letters either. It’s tempting to make a film about someone you adore, but a bit of distance from your subject will make the film infinitely more compelling, and will make the film’s subject seem more interesting and worthwhile of examination.
  • Look someplace new. Famous comedians are great, but comedy is about more than just headliners. Comedy is a lot of different things to a lot of different people, and films about the quirkier corners are often more memorable.
  • Make it funny. That doesn’t mean it can’t also be deep, thoughtful, melancholy, and a million other things. But if you’re going to immerse me in the world of comedy, let me see what’s funny about it. That’s probably what drew you to it in the first place.
  • I’ve also learned that, while some documentaries are better than others, each film teach us something:

    I Am ComicComedy documentaries don’t have to be “so fucking serious.”

    ComedianIt’s still fun to peek behind the curtain of a megastar comic.

    American: The Bill Hicks StoryOver explaining a comedian can take the edge off of his material.

    When Stand Up Stood Out: Isolation breeds genius.

    Joan Rivers: A Piece of WorkSometimes, working hard pays off very, very well.

    Trust Us, This Is All Made UpLong form improv is hard to explain, but magical to watch.

    The UnbookablesThe dark, dirty underbelly of comedy has a certain appeal.

    Comedians of ComedyThe founding fathers of alternative comedy have seen their vision come to life.

    Why We LaughKnowing the history of comedy will make us love it more.

    Comedy GoldWe owe a lot to the Canadians.

    BelieveSuccess is never an easy road.

    Exporting Raymond: The universality of comedy is still up for debate.

    HecklerWhining is never appealing. And no one like Jamie Kennedy.

    Woody Allen: A Documentary: Woody Allen is exactly what you expect him to be (aka awesome).

    Conan O’Brien Can’t StopConan isn’t always the lovable goofball we see on TV, but he is always a genius.

    The Delmonic InterviewsOne man can inspire the multitudes.

    Basic BlackAffability doesn’t make up for a lack of self-reflection.

    Mr. WarmthStick with what you’re good at as long as it makes you happy.

    Six Days to AirGenius emerges under a strict deadline.

    I Ain’t Scared of You: A Tribute to Bernie MacOne amazing set can change everything.

    The AristocratsYou can, in fact, explain a joke without killing a frog.

    When Comedy Was KingSilent comedies have their charm, but old school sexism can be hysterical.

    Johnny Carson: King of Late NightCarson’s legacy at The Tonight Show extends to more than just comedy.

    95 Miles To GoBeing on the brink of superstardom is an odd place to be.

    Let America Laugh: Crazy tours don’t always make for intriguing films.

    Goodnight, We Love YouSometimes being too nice to someone does them a disservice.

    Alone Up ThereThe romantic idea of standup can be a tempting siren.

    Looking for Lenny & Lenny Bruce Without TearsTwo films, made 40 years apart, can work in perfect harmony.

    History of the JokeTaking comedy seriously can make it even funnier.

    GnarrComedians can go on to even greater things.

    The Bitter BuddhaBrilliance is hard to explain.

    Finding the FunnyWatching the beginnings of a comedy career is a painful.

    Women Aren’t FunnyWomen can be funny, and writers can make documentaries funny too.

    Dying To Do LettermanStories about comedy can also be heartwarming.

    Warm Beer Lousy FoodThe first comedy club was something of an accident.

    Richard Pryor: I Ain’t Dead YetRecognize the greats before they’re gone forever.

    Elise Czajkowski is a freelance journalist in New York City. After all this time, she still likes watching comedy documentaries, so feel free to send them her way.

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