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:
I’ve also learned that, while some documentaries are better than others, each film teach us something:
I Am Comic: Comedy documentaries don’t have to be “so fucking serious.”
Comedian: It’s still fun to peek behind the curtain of a megastar comic.
American: The Bill Hicks Story: Over explaining a comedian can take the edge off of his material.
When Stand Up Stood Out: Isolation breeds genius.
Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work: Sometimes, working hard pays off very, very well.
Trust Us, This Is All Made Up: Long form improv is hard to explain, but magical to watch.
The Unbookables: The dark, dirty underbelly of comedy has a certain appeal.
Comedians of Comedy: The founding fathers of alternative comedy have seen their vision come to life.
Why We Laugh: Knowing the history of comedy will make us love it more.
Comedy Gold: We owe a lot to the Canadians.
Believe: Success is never an easy road.
Exporting Raymond: The universality of comedy is still up for debate.
Heckler: Whining 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 Stop: Conan isn’t always the lovable goofball we see on TV, but he is always a genius.
The Delmonic Interviews: One man can inspire the multitudes.
Basic Black: Affability doesn’t make up for a lack of self-reflection.
Mr. Warmth: Stick with what you’re good at as long as it makes you happy.
Six Days to Air: Genius emerges under a strict deadline.
I Ain’t Scared of You: A Tribute to Bernie Mac: One amazing set can change everything.
The Aristocrats: You can, in fact, explain a joke without killing a frog.
When Comedy Was King: Silent comedies have their charm, but old school sexism can be hysterical.
Johnny Carson: King of Late Night: Carson’s legacy at The Tonight Show extends to more than just comedy.
95 Miles To Go: Being 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 You: Sometimes being too nice to someone does them a disservice.
Alone Up There: The romantic idea of standup can be a tempting siren.
History of the Joke: Taking comedy seriously can make it even funnier.
Gnarr: Comedians can go on to even greater things.
The Bitter Buddha: Brilliance is hard to explain.
Finding the Funny: Watching the beginnings of a comedy career is a painful.
Women Aren’t Funny: Women can be funny, and writers can make documentaries funny too.
Dying To Do Letterman: Stories about comedy can also be heartwarming.
Warm Beer Lousy Food: The first comedy club was something of an accident.
Richard Pryor: I Ain’t Dead Yet: Recognize 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.