If it were possible to apply the themes of a documentary as heartbreaking and inspiring as King of Kong (2007’s geeky video game players documentary) to a profession as drug-ridden as stand-up comedy, I Am Comic just about pulls it off.
Former stand-up Jordan Brady mixes memorably funny interviews about the basics of comedy with an unexpected and inspirational tale of creative rebirth. Brady takes an Aristocrats-style approach to assembling subjects, opting for a wide range of interviewees including Phyllis Diller, Nick Kroll, Sarah Silverman, and Jeff Foxworthy. As he documents the every day existence of the stand-up comic, with expected discussions of the challenge of honing a routine, surviving hell gigs, and working the road, Brady moves the film along with a fun visual zip usually absent from the few other nitty-gritty stand-up documentaries.
And, a handful of the interviews, including Louis CK’s detailed explanation of how he assembles his shows and Carlos Mencia’s bizarre pseudo-admission of stand-up theft, offer real insight into the comedians in addition to all of the fun of seeing stand-ups pull back the curtain. But, it’s not until Brady’s narrator/guide Ritch Shydner finds himself once again falling in love with performing comedy that the film finds its heart.
Shydner, a fellow recovering stand-up comic and co-author (with Mark Schiff) of the road stories collection I Killed, joins Brady initially to assist in interviewing comedians for the film. Along the way, Shydner rediscovers his own passion for performance, and I Am Comic threads its interviews around Shydner’s difficult journey back into the comedy trenches as he attempts to build a stand-up act after a nearly 15 year absence from the stage.
I Am Comic debuts on Showtime tonight, June 11th at 11:00 pm EST. And it will be available on demand through July 9.
Brady and Shydner will screen the film in person at the Silent Movie Theater in Los Angeles as part of the Cinefamily’s 2nd Annual Comedy Festival this Saturday, June 12th, at 7:30pm.
I interviewed Brady about the film over lunch in Culver City, CA.
Why did you want to make this documentary?
I knew I wanted to do a film about what it takes to be a comedian. What it is to be a working comedian. Because I was a stand-up comedian for a dozen years, made a nice living, got some TV opportunities, and then started directing. And, constantly, like on the set of a commercial, a client would ask “I heard you were a comedian. What was that like? What do you do the other 23 hours of the day?” And, if McDonald’s is paying you six figures to run a commercial, you can’t really say that you smoked pot, watched cartoons, and went to the mall. You want to sound a little more responsible than that. So, I said, let me try this documentary. [Ritch] Shydner I got in touch with later. I had opened for him [back in the day]. I think we did coke off of a stripper’s ass in North Carolina together after a show. It was in the heyday of the boom. And, he remembered me.
Had you stayed in touch with Ritch in the intervening years?
Not at all. I got in touch with Ritch because of Amazon.com. Amazon recommended I Killed this book Ritch wrote with this other comic [Mark Schiff], of these road stories. I wanted to do a more encompassing documentary. But, Ritch has always been a great guy. And, he has goodwill out there in the comedy community. So, I said, “If you’re not doing anything, I want to make this. Why don’t you help me wrangle comedians, and we’ll work on questions, and we’ll explore the occupation of being a comedian.” That’s how it started. So, really, I have to thank some weird logarithm in the universe that Amazon.com said, “Hey, Jordan, you may enjoy this book.”
You also have to thank that stripper whose ass it was. But, had you naturally transitioned away from stand-up in your own career?
The short answer is my first real break was hosting this MTV game show that went nowhere. But, it was on for a half a year, and I did a bunch of episodes, and from being a game show host, NBC had me host this kid’s show. Mario Lopez was the host, and I was the co-host of Name Your Adventure. It was like the host’s job to take a kid and go to space camp with him, or learn to be a chef in chef school. The show was like Make A Wish for healthy kids. I started directing my own segments. Then, I started directing Mario’s segments. The more I started directed, the less I cared about being in front of the camera. So, I wrote some scripts, got some shows made, started doing movies, and then fell into commercials.
Do you not do stand-up any more?
Once a year. Stand-up to me is like having genital herpes. It breaks out once a year. You take care of it. You don’t talk about it a lot. And, then it subsides. How much of what we see in the film, of Ritch feeling compelled to return to stand-up, actually happened the way we see it? He will tell you that I manipulated him. Because we would do the gang bang of comedians [being interviewed]. We did one at the Improv, one at the Laugh Factory, and then one in New York at the Comedy Cellar.
We’d have 15 or more comedians, and we’d spend twenty minutes with them, and put it on a data card. When the data card was up, we’d go onto the next comedian. I used the crew from my commercials. Then, after the taping at the Cellar one night, we bought everybody dinner, and then we watched the show. We didn’t film a lot of stand-up. We’d just watch the show, because it was a nice thing to do. Ritch gets up and leaves the Comedy Cellar. He can’t take it. Literally, he bolts. I run into him later, in the park in Washington Square. I had texted him, like, “Where the fuck did you go?” He said, “I had to get out.” I said, “You want those laughs.” He said, “eah, yeah.” I said, “You gotta do stand-up. Because a series of talking heads is not a movie. We need a narrative thread. Why don’t we follow you?” I said, “Ritch, you’ve got to go up.” He said, “Okay, you pick the place.”
So, we found the Liquid Zoo, signed him up, and it was just him, the line producer, and myself. We went to the Liquid Zoo, and before he went on, he’s nervous, right? That’s real, that’s all in the movie. I said, “Ritch, if you go up there, and you kill for five minutes, no pressure, it’s going to be great for the documentary. But, if you bomb, it’s going to be a great to the documentary.”
Back in LA, he agreed to go up, and we went to the UCB [Upright Citizens Brigade Theater], and he really did say, “I can’t watch this any more.” Which was perfect [and is seen in the movie]. So, the moment that triggered the idea wasn’t on film, but then it happened again after he’d committed to doing it, and the story kind of fell into place. Ultimately, I think the question of what’s “real” in these kinds of narrative documentaries can be beside the point. I don’t want to show you behind the veil of filmmaking, but when I saw [the heavy metal documentary] Anvil… that was inspirational, because you know some things were staged, versus someone like R.J. Cutler [director of The September Issue among other works], where it’s all verité. I bought a camera to put on Andy Kindler’s head. I looked online to get Ritch Shydner a comedy coach, which I knew would make him boil.
How did you prepare for the interviews, given that you were only going to spend twenty minutes with each comic?
Ritch and I wrote questions together. So, everybody got asked the same couple of questions, and if they wanted to go off and tell a story, they did. Larry Miller is a wonderful storyteller. The Sklar Brothers have a wonderful energy. And, the cool thing about Larry, him and the Sklar Brothers, in editing, you can’t chop them up. Jim Gaffigan, you can take a soundbite here. Dave Attell you can take a bite. But, Larry, you need to let him build, and then he screeches on the brakes and does the funny thing. And, the Sklar Brothers, they start slow and they bubble to a boil. So, you have to let them have their time. As the edit came together, I knew I needed Ahmed Ahmed to talk about minority night.
And, Carlos Mencia was last, so I said, “Carlos, talk about performing for your own audience,” because that section needed it. Then, one guy who is not in it but will be in the DVD, Bobby Collins, he talks about cruise ships.
When Mencia says that he steals material, is he being ironic there? [Note: The Mencia interview – and this conversation about it – took place before his recent series of interviews on Marc Maron’s WTF Podcast.]
That’s a great question, isn’t it?
What were you feeling in the room, at the moment?
Carlos Mencia is a gentleman. And, he’s smart. And, I think his management had mentioned we were not to ask him about that topic. And, we were done, and we turned off the camera, and I said, “You know, Carlos, you’re the last interview.” He was the last interview in the whole thing. He and Lewis Black, who we had four minutes with. So, I said, “Is there anything you want to say? Do you want to have the last word on anything? Because, you know, people think certain things…” And, he said, “I know what you’re saying.” It was never really spoken. But, you know, people think a certain thing about him. I thought it would be funny if he had fake tears coming down his face. I brought in the make-up guy, and he did the bit, the one time, and at first, I thought, “Oh, this is genius,” but then I watched it and I thought he’s not truly copping to it, but he is enough that he’s acknowledging that it’s out there. Some people think it’s a total put on, that he’s not copping to it.
I liked seeing Jeff Foxworthy in the movie. Not only does he really take you inside the mind of a comedian, but his genuine love for the craft wins you over even if you don’t care for his material.
Foxworthy had a few gold medal stories. One’s in the movie. The other is hosting the ESPY Awards. Ray Charles is the next guest. And, the stage manager goes, “Three, two, one…Ray Charles had to go to the bathroom. Stall.” So, Jeff said, “I just had to start talking, but in my mind, I’m wondering, ‘Does Ray Charles go alone? Did he take something to read? Is he going number one or number two? How long will he be?’” But, he started telling a story, and he got big laughs. And, it’s different from Larry, but the same in that there’s always a beginning, a middle, and an end to his stories. So, that one will be on the DVD. How do you actually know when you’ve finished making a documentary like this? At what point does it feel complete? When you run out of money. I was stalking Dave Chappelle.
And, I shot his very first Comedy Central thing ever, and I thought I had an in. Didn’t get him. I had an in for Chris Rock. Didn’t get him. Patton Oswalt said he was all “doc’d” out, because he had done Comedians of Comedy. You know how many managers said no?
Is there anyone you wanted to get but couldn’t?
I wish there were a few more young guys. Sean Patton I interviewed, but the interview wasn’t as funny as he is. Nick Kroll I had to get, because I’d seen him online. Aziz I think was busy being Aziz. I was going to go behind the scenes when he taped his special, but the night before I [heard] it wasn’t going to happen. Have you heard of Jo Koy?
Want some dirt?
Jo Koy was the headliner when I shot Nikki Glaser. Jo Koy didn’t want to be interviewed, wouldn’t let Ritch do a three-minute guest set in Tampa because it might hurt his hour and ten minute show. I don’t think he’s very funny, but I will say this: I saw him get three standing ovations in Tampa. The people got more for their entertainment dollar than I’ve ever seen one person give on stage. “They tell me I’m going too long here for you people. They tell me I have another sold-out show, and I’ve got to get you out of here, but I’ve got more love to give.” But, he refused. Now, I don’t want to sound like an asshole, but I’m proud of the breadth of comedians. There’s something for everyone. It’s not even my personal taste.
What has the reaction been like from those who’ve seen it?
Dana Gould wrote me the nicest note. He said, “Now I have something to say: Watch this, this is what my life was like.” Jeff Foxworthy: “That’s the closest thing to telling the story of my life.” So, I’m very proud of how the comedians have responded to it, but the civilians had to be able to understand it. That’s Shydner’s story. Once Ritch went up at the Laugh Factory, I knew I had an ending. Ritch gives it a human face. Once I had Ritch’s story, I’d edit around Ritch.
Comparing Roseanne saying “It’s the greatest feeling,” then, in that same chunk Janeane [Garofalo] saying, “If I don’t go up for a week, I get rusty,” cut to Ritch, doing stand-up for the first time after thirteen years, going, “Ah…I’m going to die. I can’t remember the bit.”
Has anyone seen it and been unhappy with it?
No one has hated it, no one has not liked it, but Ritch Shydner, early on, said, “I’m not going to be your Orny Adams!” And, Ritch, I think it’s very sane of him, there are parts when he walks out at a screening. My hat is off to him. He’s taken down to the mat in this movie. And, if he wasn’t made uncomfortable, there’d be something wrong with him. When we screened it at Slamdance, it was an indie film crowd, which is the audience I want to get, and a guy afterwards said, “Ritch now doing stand-up feels very much like independent film. He’s not in it for the HBO special or the CBS deal. He’s in it for the love of stand-up.”
And, the film, I made it because it was a low year in commercials, and I’d been trying to get it off the ground for a couple years, and I made it for me and for comedians. If the common man, if the civilian laughs, that’s great. There was certainly an eye towards making it broader than just comedians. If it was just for comedians, the section on merch would’ve made it.
For tickets to the Los Angeles screening, Saturday, June 12th at 7:30pm, visit cinefamily.org. I Am Comic premieres on Showtime on Friday, June 11th at 11:00pm.