Inside ‘Misery Loves Comedy’ with Kevin Pollak

“Do you have to be miserable to be funny?” That’s the question that comedian, actor, and podcast host Kevin Pollak sets out to explore with over 60 comics in a new documentary called Misery Loves Comedy, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival last night and has already topped the iTunes charts since its VOD release last week. I recently spoke with Pollak about his first experience as a filmmaker, how to make a comedy documentary that’s both serious and funny, and how he’s learned to get great interviews from his fellow comedians.

Congratulations on the documentary release! I just watched it, and it’s fantastic.

Thank you! Aren’t you a wonderful person whose opinion I agree with!

Well, sometimes I’m a little wary going into a more “serious” documentary about comedy. They always run the risk of being…

Horrible? Taxing? Depressing?

[laughs] Well yes.

Yeah. At some point in the editing process, which was ten months long and over 70 hours of material, I decided to cut it to be a comedy. Instead of being dramatic and then having moments of comic relief, I thought – the initial thesis was “Do you have to be miserable to be funny?” – what if that were just the third act and we used the first two acts as a narrative to get emotionally connected to these people, listen to their stories, and get to know them and care about them so that by the time they address the question in specifics, we kind of already knew? Then in some cases it became surprising, like when Marc Maron says “No, no, I don’t think you do have to be miserable” when he’s clearly miserable all throughout life. [laughs] So yeah, I made the decision to cut it into a comedy. And if there are critiques, it’ll be that the film doesn’t go dark enough, doesn’t go deep enough, it just hits the surface…and I’m fine with that, because that just wasn’t the film I wanted to make.

The film you wanted to make – did that evolve over the course of doing the interviews too?

Well, I wanted to surprise people. I wanted there to be some darkness and insight for sure, but I didn’t want to set out to make the very kind of comedy documentary that you just mentioned before – honestly, I didn’t want it to be one of those. And I felt like it didn’t have to be, while still allowing for some insight and some darkness. So you get Jim Jefferies being incredibly funny talking about the basketball-spinning unicycle family – which is, to me, one of the funniest moments – and then also him saying how he’s been on antidepressants for almost ten years and has been suicidal. So first you have a chance to get to know him, to laugh at his thoughts and his points of view, listen about him being concerned his son’s gonna be a little “fuckwit,” and then have him share darkness. That’s much more interesting to me.

Your interview with Freddie Prinze Jr. was one of the biggest surprises. It was very interesting to see him open up about his dad. I did not see that coming.

No you didn’t! There’s a lot more to it, too. Freddie was amazing.

I haven’t seen an interview with him in a while.

Well he hasn’t talked about his father on camera, so that was very important to me.

How do you keep a balance between making a comedy documentary that’s insightful and informative without getting too analytical?

That was really a hard journey and tightrope, because as a comedian who’s been writing my own material for 35 years, I’m always after creating an ebb and flow. It’s one of the things that – like when Jimmy Fallon talks about comedy being a drug – the control you have over the audience is a control you don’t have in life or over anyone. And if you’re onstage for an hour, 90 minutes, you have to learn how to write, edit, and perform that ebb and flow. You’re purposely creating highs and lows and you’re creating silence where you want them to listen and dial in. It took me a while as a comedian to live in the silence, which is why I had Lewis Black talk about that a little bit – that all comedy lives in the silence; you’ve created that moment of silence on purpose. So since I’ve been doing that for a very long time as a comedian and a writer, as a director of a film and in editing I set out to create highs and lows and that pace where there were moments of silence and plenty of laughs.

I’d imagine it’s a big advantage for an experienced comedian to make this documentary versus a filmmaker who doesn’t perform comedy. How’d that help you the most?

One thing is they feel like they don’t have to explain what they’re talking about the way they might when they’re talking to a journalist, per se. They could cut to the quick a little better, they could get to the heart of the matter or the truth a little quicker by not having to deal with exposition. So that was a huge advantage, I think.

The documentary does a great job at showing the two sides of standup: On one hand it’s brave and selfless to get onstage and perform in front of strangers, but on the other hand, it can be seen as selfish, the idea of “Why do you think what you have to say matters?”

That’s the Marc Maron moment in the film, when he says…

The “hurricane of bullshit” moment?

Yeah. “These guys look like they got a handle on things…I felt that I had something to say,” he says. And yeah, it takes a very special breed of cat to think your voice needs to be heard – that’s almost absurd, especially when you factor in that public speaking is America’s #1 fear, above death. So who are these people who can’t wait to get onstage? And they’re not just narcissists. I really set out to prove that as well that there is a delight and a joy in performing, and it’s not just to get gratification.

You mentioned earlier how Marc Maron’s response surprised you. Were there other interviews that were similar, where you came out with answers you couldn’t have predicted?

Almost every moment that made the cut is something that surprised me. I’d say, conservatively, 80% of the entire film were surprising moments that I felt would surprise the audience, and it was just a matter of putting them in an order that felt like a great story. So yeah, it was one revelation after another.

Between this documentary and Kevin Pollak’s Chat Show, you have tons of experience interviewing comedians. What have you learned, and what’s your advice for someone who wants to be a better interviewer?

On my show I have a research producer who gives me a 30 to 60-page dossier on everyone who comes on the show. I want it to be like Charlie Rose but fun, so I come to it with a journalist standpoint. I did a pre-interview already for the Today show – most of those shows do a pre-interviews, and you feel like you’re auditioning your anecdotes. I did two dozen appearances on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, Letterman, Conan, all of them, and there’s a pre-interview, and then you have to kill for six minutes from the couch and have a conversation. But I was always fascinated by people’s stories and reading autobiographies. So if you come to it from a place of not just curiosity but from a point of interest they maybe haven’t talked about before, that elicits the quickest response and the most insightful response because they feel like they haven’t been asked this before. That’s the most difficult part – you gotta get past the Google search and the obvious questions, which tend to be the most urgent questions that you want to know. But you have to fight that need and go beyond that to engage them in a conversation, and then you can circle back and ask them some of the more obvious questions later.

“Living in the silence” is important with interviews too, I think. Awkward pauses aren’t always a bad thing, but it can be tempting to fill them sometimes.

Yeah. The best compliment I ever got during the Chat Show was when a guest said “You’re really good at this because you’re just listening.” And the instinct is I can’t just sit there and listen – anyone can do that. But the truth is…no, they can’t.

Misery Loves Comedy opens at the IFC Center in New York tomorrow night, and you can watch it now on iTunes.

Inside ‘Misery Loves Comedy’ with Kevin Pollak