How does one relatively unknown comedian rise above the pack? And what does his story of struggle have to do with the rest of the stand-up comedy world? Salty Language, Peppered Morals, the little comedy documentary that could, tries to get some answers.
The film’s title alone is enough to spring the mind to an immediate, rapt state of attention. Salty language. Peppered morals. Yes, it reads like the sort of clever-ish proverb you might expect to encounter on a menu at an uptown Chinese restaurant – the product of an individual with creative and insightful intentions, but a stunningly poor command of the English language.
This, however, is no bungled printing; no raw slab of suspicious advice to a reader only seeking out more sweet-and-sour sauce. Indeed, Salty Language, Peppered Morals is rather, here, a compelling, brilliant look into the secret life of the American stand-up comedian. “Originally the goal was to make a film about the entire Chicago stand-up comedy scene,” says Andrew Zeiter, the film’s director. The point was to show how underrated, yet brilliant many of the comics here are, but how they often get overlooked by improv. Which is really not the same thing at all as stand-up comedy.”
Instead, the premise was soon narrowed down to a smaller, more intimate focus: namely, upon the blossoming career of Chicago-based comedian Mike Stanley, and his ongoing efforts to rise to the cream of the crop by creaming the competition at the 2009 Boston Comedy Festival, a world-renowned symposium for all things stand-up. “I had just met Mike Stanley, and was blown away by how funny he is, and yet could be relatively unknown,” says Zeiter. “I realized Mike could come to stand for and represent the Chicago comedy scene as a whole, and that instead of having to tell the story of dozens of comics to illustrate the beautiful and rich comedy scene in Chicago, Mike’s story alone could drive that same point to audiences.”
As promised, the story unfolds over the course of the brief, 45-minute film delivers an incredible cinematic punch that more than compensates for its abbreviated running time. Painted here is an intimate portrait of a young comedian hungry for that first big break – a wit-spitting David harping against the Goliath of the entertainment industry. As a comic, Stanley’s style is, as Zeiter points out, a natural embodiment of the gruff, gritty Chicago scene, combining blue linguistics with a questionable morality played off for laughs. (Hence, the film’s atypical title.)
Having already taken on the Chicago comedy scene and built up enough of a reputation to have been voted in the top 10 of the best comedians in Chicago by the website Comedy.com, the film finds Stanley and co. journeying off to far-distant Boston for a chance to compete in the Boston Comedy Festival. And here, we are treated to a very inside, deeply personal look at the upward battle one takes to find a stable foothold in the world of modern, American comedy.
“I think Salty Language provides some interesting insights into a lot of areas of stand up comedy, that the average person might not think about or realize,” says Zeiter. “The film is definitely stripped of any shine or glamour, or Hollywood perception someone might have about the life of a working comic. Mike goes out and drinks with us, he drives the car, he pays for hotels, anywhere he goes, he’s treated just like anyone else, in some cases maybe worse than most people. I think the film illustrates a lot of the anxieties comics have about their jokes, worrying about the crowd reaction, the judges opinion, going over their time limit, being too explicit or dirty, trying to remember jokes, and make sure it all flows together and makes sense.”
Sailing under the tagline “laughing is easy, comedy is hard” has proved auspicious, too, for the most peppered moral that the filmmakers hope to hammer home to any perceived audiences. “I think a lot of people think of stand-up comedy as improv, or that it’s easy, and not rehearsed,” Zeiter points out. “When the truth is the exact opposite for most comics. Real stand-up comedy is performance art, and deserves to be treated that way. Real comics expose themselves on stage the way Jack White does with a guitar and lyrics, or the way Jackson Pollock did on a canvas. I think SLPM provides an audience the reasoning that great stand-up comedy seems so effortless, only because they are in the hands of a truly brilliant and calculated performer who is a professional and an artist.”
So where, then, is this film to be found? Online, for one thing (in trailer form, at least). A quick pop over to slpmmovie.com can show interested parties the technical ins and outs of piecing the film together. It has already played in Chicago (at the dearly departed Lakeshore Theater) and in Traverse City, Michigan, with chatter of film festival entries abounding amidst members of the Salty Language camp.
What’s more, a DVD release with Stand Up! Records is planned – a coupling of the film with Stanley’s stand-up special, Tough Luck, Chump. The film will soon be surfacing on iTunes and Netflix, too; providing a wide-scale release for this little, low-budget film project that holds within itself the definite potential to uncork the mysterious inner-workings of no-holds-bar, balls-out comedy.
“I hope SLPM can become sort of a fan favorite film among people who really like comedy, hopefully for cinema fans in general too,” Zeiter says hopefully. “There are so many brilliant hard working comedians (and artists) out there who are not seen because they don’t have a name like Dane Cook, or Dave Chappelle, but deserve to be heard and seen. I hope SLPM can be one more piece of motivation for consumers to try and dig a little deeper.”
Salty Language, Peppered Morals is being screened at the Peach Tree International Film Festival in Atlanta, GA Aug. 21. (Details here) To learn more about the film, Mike Stanley, be sure to check out the film’s official site slpmmovie.com.