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The Pain of Laughter

The Vancouver Just for Laughs Film Festival examines the funny and the absurd. 

By Dorothy Woodend 2 Mar 2018 | TheTyee.ca

Dorothy Woodend writes about film for The Tyee. Find her previous articles here.

There is a line in the New Yorker’s recent profile of actor/comedian Donald Glover that reached up off the page, and gave me a gentle smack across the face.

The article is extensive, tracing Glover’s career from stand-up gigs through the Community years, to Childish Gambino, and finally, Atlanta.

Some of the most curious stuff occurs in Glover’s description of his childhood growing up in Stone Mountain, Georgia with his older brother and an army of foster kids. His process of becoming a comedian is explained thusly: “… life was a bad dream and that laughter was a way to wake yourself up.”

Ouch, and ha ha, or maybe vice versa? I’m not exactly sure which, but the notion that comedy is a means of looking at the world with eyes propped wide open stayed with me. Indeed, what else is there to do sometimes with the human species, except gently shake your head and laugh. And then maybe cry a little.

With that ethos in mind, The Vancouver Just for Laughs Film Festival could not come at a better time. The Festival opens in Vancouver on March 1 with screenings, panels, and master classes at venues across the city.

The opening night film The Death of Stalin is a weird beast. The film was banned in Russia, and other parts east, and to be frank, laughing at Stalin and his stable of cronies is a little uneasy making. The film has come under fire for its historical inaccuracies, but as director Armando Iannucci pointed out in an interview with the Daily Telegraph, some of the more ludicrous and insane details about what really happened the night Stalin died had to be purged, as they were simply too unbelievable. Nothing coming out of Russia surprises me much anymore, and if you need any further convincing in that area, then go and purchase tickets for The Road Movie playing at the Vancity Theatre later this month.

Life has the most insane sense of humour possible. A strong example of this is Josh Greenbaum’s affectionate and very funny documentary Too Funny to Fail that tells the story of the rise and epic fall of The Dana Carvey Show.

If you don’t remember the show, don’t feel bad, outside of a few rabid fans, the production pretty much fell off the face of the planet after only seven episodes. By all rights, The Dana Carvey Show should have vanished into the fog banks of half-remembered television detritus. But thanks to the wonders of documentary filmmaking, the full scope of what happened and why is onscreen for all to enjoy.

A wondrous tale of ego, ambition and just awful timing, Too Funny to Fail is a gentle reminder of what Donald Glover was talking about in his New Yorker profile. Life can lurch from daydream to nightmare in a couple of heartbeats, and comedy is sometimes the only thing you can hang onto when things get rough. But before we take a swan dive into existentialist angst, leavened with a heaping dose of darkest satire, let’s set the scene.

At the time of the show’s genesis, Carvey was riding high. The man had parlayed the success of SNL characters like The Church Lady, and Garth Algar à la Wayne’s World into movie stardom, and the cover of Rolling Stone Magazine. It seemed he could do no wrong.

What to do with such unbridled fame and success, but affix some wax wings to your back and fly straight into the sun.

Carvey made the decision to leave SNL and start his own sketch comedy empire, along with writer Robert Smigel, who was also scaling the heights of comedy success at the time. Together, the pair pitched the notion of a sketch comedy show, modelled on earlier prime time TV shows such as The Colgate Comedy Hour. ABC bought it, and gave Carvey and Smigel a couple of months to assemble a team of writers and performers and get rolling.

With little experience in actually putting a production together, they hired a wild and woolly slew of folk (“Bad Ass Nerd Pirates”) culled from the ranks of Second City and SNL. The original cast reads like a laundry list of super-duper stars: Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert, a painfully young Louis C.K., an unknown Charlie Kaufman, and Robert Carlock, who went on to later fame as a showrunner for 30 Rock and The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.

At the time, however, as the film gently points out, all of these folk were less than nobodies. Steve Carell’s biggest success was acting in a Brown’s Chicken commercial, while Stephen Colbert was living in a one-bedroom apartment with his wife and a new baby, and scraping by as Carell’s understudy. As Carell says, his agent was fond of telling him, “If it doesn’t happen for you soon, it’s probably not going to happen.” So, suffice to say, things were looking grim.

The news that they’d been hired to work on The Dana Carvey Show seemed like manna from heaven, and both men, in their interviews, still seem slightly dazed by the event, bedazzled not only by the catapulting trajectory of fame, but also by the calibre of talent assembled, and the licence to do whatever their comedic minds could dream up.

Herein begins the dream-into-nightmare scenario.

Be careful what you wish for, because sometimes that’s exactly what you get. So it was with the opening sketch of the ill-fated program, which launched with a bit about Bill Clinton nurturing the world with eight prosthetic teats that actually squirted real milk. Various animals, puppies and kittens, were assembled to suckle on Bill.

And if the image of Bill Clinton breastfeeding live puppies from eight spurting nipples wasn’t enough, the show added on a large feathered duck’s ass with which Mr. Clinton could gently brood eggs.

Therein you have the stuff of nightmares. Really, David Cronenberg could not have conceived of something more profoundly disturbing in an opium dream.

As Greenbaum’s film indicates, the scene had viewers virtually diving for their remotes to switch channels. As ratings fell off a cliff, and the suits at ABC began to circle, the show’s creators doubled down, creating a wealth of semi-horrifying characters, including Grandma the Clown, Skinheads from Maine, and Waiters Who Are Nauseated by Food, which is pretty much exactly like it sounds.

Such is the ornery nature of comedians, that if you tell them, “Don’t do that,” most likely they will do whatever they’re doing 10 times as hard and five times as long. With The Dana Carvey Show, this took the form of insulting the show’s sponsors, which had ranged from Taco Bell for the initial episode to the Chinese restaurant down the street by the show’s end of run. Initially, the plan had been to have a different sponsor for every show, from Pepsi Stuff to Diet Mug Root Beer, but the cast and writers managed to find a way of insulting each one in special and awful ways until they were down to the Szechuan Palace.

This notion gives rise to perhaps the funniest moment in the documentary. Coming hot on the heels of Home Improvement, one of ABC’s hit shows at the time, the idea was to purloin the viewers of that show for the timeslot immediately following. But The Dana Carvey Show’s anarchic blend of surrealism and cheerful filth proved a jarring fit.

By the time ABC executives had had enough and pulled the plug, Louis C.K. was reduced to crying jags in the hallway, and the show’s producer was simply curled up in the fetal position on the office couch. The final episode did not even make it to air, but was instead replaced by re-runs of Coach. As comedian Bill Hader, a zealous and early convert, explains, he spent the next few months watching episodes of Coach, waiting for the return of the show. But, alas, it was not to be.

As a film, Too Funny to Fail is workman-like. It does the job it needs to do, gives the performers room, and assembles the pieces of the story in a clear and coherent fashion. That The Dana Carvey Show was simply in the wrong time and the wrong place is self-evident, but it’s a pointed reminder that in life, like in comedy, timing is everything.

But are there any larger lessons to be derived from this Icarus-like tale?

Perhaps, only that reality is very funny. As Colbert and Carell explain in the film, their silly little sketch about nauseated waiters, in essence, launched their careers. Both were hired on The Daily Show on the basis of one bit about gagging over the chicken special. The rest is, as they say, history.

God had a weird sense of humour. Just ask Joseph Stalin.

There are some other very interesting offerings in the Festival, including the Canadian premiere of Flower and a free screening of Comedian Backstage, a vérité fly-on-the-wall documentary about an almost career-ending moment for comedian Shelley Berman. At the time of the film’s making, Berman was one of the most well-known Borscht Belt comedians, with multiple gold records, sold-out shows, and appearances on Carson et al. Berman later accused the filmmakers of staging the event that practically derailed his career, but the thin skin that separates comedy from pure rage peeled off quickly in the film’s penultimate moment.

Comedian Backstage is a powerful reminder that comedy and the people who make it often work from a place of extremity and darkness. Which becomes painfully evident in the Festival’s closing night film Always Amazing.

The film documents the life, death and sort of resurrection of The Amazing Johnathan, whose unique blend of magic and comedy graced Vegas showrooms and comedy clubs around the globe. In the midst of his career, Johnathan formed an unlikely friendship with a 12-year-old Australian kid named Joel Ozborn. Really, the film is a portrait of their curious relationship, as much as it is a look at the travails of comedy fame. The premiere in Vancouver will be followed by Q&A with filmmaker Steve Byrne and Ozborn himself.

One of the most compelling aspects of Always Amazing is its clear and even-handed look at what fuels funny. It is not always pretty. The contrary oppositional impulse, the need to savage the hand that feeds you, that occurs in many of the films featured in the Festival is replete in Always Amazing. The New Yorker’s profile on Donald Glover is also rife with this same quality. Maybe because what is funny is often what is most true, and painful. As Glover aptly sums it up in The New Yorker: “I’m fucked up, too — and that’s where the good shit comes from.”  [Tyee]

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