When I went to watch Punching the Clown, a new film from folk musician, comedian Henry Phillips, there was plenty to distract me from enjoying the it. The theater was fairly old with a whiff of mold and bed bugs, and I was largely unfamiliar with Henry Phillips’ work—plus I’m typically a bit skeptical of musical comedy acts. Moreover, I went to see the film alone in a fairly uncrowded theater. For anyone who’s partaken in anything comedic, we can agree: numbers help. Yet somehow, none of this mattered.
After just one scene, I was at ease – the laughs it delivered were smart and well-earned, the songs were clever and rewarding, and though bearing some detracting marks of an independent film, the quality of the acting, writing and production were typically very good. It’s easy to say then that the tremendous amount I enjoyed the film and the consistent laughs it delivered were no matter of circumstance or crowd mentality, but rather a product of the film’s skilled writing, subtle humor and honesty.
Punching the Clown is a series of semi-autobiographical vignettes, all united by a loose narrative told by way of a late night radio interview. It’s equal parts a tale of a struggling comedian and a satire of the LA music scene, as well as a collection of life-inspired conversations, misunderstandings and musings on comedy.
Funny in a dry and understated way, the film is a lot like Phillips’ comedy –intelligent and slow paced (though never dull), rewarding for the observant, and never cheap. But it’s no fan service for those already familiar with his work; it’s a film inspired by Phillips’ life and comedy that takes no previous knowledge to enjoy. Though the film is diverse in it’s makeup, going from awkward flirting at a bar to playing a bat-like hero (but legally in no way Batman) at a kid’s birthday party to being protested for misquoted neo-Nazi propaganda, it flows comfortably and despite its hilarious detours, rarely loses focus.
The film is a comedy above all, but beyond the laughs what left the most lasting impression on me was its honesty. Phillips bares himself (perhaps even too critically) as an awkward and irrevocably self-conscious social dimwit. He lies to please people, is dull and weak-willed in conversation, and except when on stage, struggles to really assert himself. Quiet and shy, he’s the antithesis of how comedians are typically represented.
Most comedy movies and even documentaries often portray the wise-ass, quick-with-the-quips, life-of-the-party comedian, who’s always “on” and rarely stumbles. But there’s something that rings truer about this awkwardness and timid people pleasing that, though it doesn’t stock the movie with lasting quotes or hilarious one-liners, builds funny, candid scenes. The movie, thus, doesn’t have any huge climax or truly gut wrenching laughs, but the ones it instead delivers are genuine.
Phillips chatted with me about the response the film has received: “I’m really happy with the reception so far. Among fans, I suppose it’s received well because it holds true to the understated approach that I try to keep in my act. The comedy community has been extremely supportive, presumably because it rings true in a lot of cases, and hopefully, if nothing else, delivers some genuine laughs.”
Though the film hasn’t received any wide distribution yet, those interested can buy the movie from filmbaby.com or punchingtheclownmovie.com, and by early next year it should be available on iTunes and Netflix (adding it to your queue may help expedite this a bit!).
The flick is also taking a small tour through the Midwest, appearing next in Marion, Iowa on Dec. 7.