Our Favourite Films: Dying Laughing

dying laughingRather than subjecting to yourself to getting roasted on the internet, another training ground to help build your resolve is stepping up on the stage to tell jokes and ready to duck just in case an audience member decides to fling an object at you.


I first watched the documentary while flipping through the TV guide. I aim to do a weekly scan on what’s airing as sometimes there are films (or TV shows) that I have been waiting for and it finally gets aired with captions. Then I came across something that simply said: ‘Dying Laughing’. What probably appealed to me was the prospect of a belly laugh. So, I really didn’t have any idea what to expect and what I ended up with was something that was so motivating that I’m looking at quoting chunks of every interview. Curiosity is integral to who I am not only to my work, so I was definitely open to indulge it when there is an opportunity.

Since I struggle to find the kind of blend of comedy I enjoy in specials or stand-up venues, I’ve pretty much given up investing in finding new comics to discover. Not to say I’m no longer open. I just leave it to chance (or insistent friends) that the right ones would find me. Probably my most recent discoveries were Anjelah Johnson and Simon Taylor. Anjelah had one of her specials (‘Not Fancy’) available at the streaming platform I was subscribed to and I caught Simon in one of those ABC specials (he might have had an episode to himself).

Though I would say that the most memorable joke Simon did was when he was in New York, talking about how coolness equates to the number of syllables an American utters. Another thing I did learn about comics (or at least those who are committed to refining their craft) is that they ‘test’ out their jokes in various venues. Simon made me realise that a bad joke can become a good one through development. So, I wasn’t surprised that a lot of the comics in the film talked about how they develop their material. What I enjoyed was hearing the different approaches each one takes in getting a joke from horrible to passable.

Since there are really no spoilers in this film (even if it is a documentary), it’s probably best to talk topics rather than inciting incidents (if there were…it’ll probably have to do with why Lloyd Stanton and Paul Toogood decided to make it):

  • The Importance Of Stand-Up Comedy

  • Discovering The Power Of Making An Audience Collectively Laugh

  • Failure And Bouncing Back

  • Joke Development

  • The Necessity Of Going On The Road

  • Dealing With Aggressive Audience Members

What worked well was the alternating of (seemingly) stock footage to avoid the viewer getting bored (I’m not sure if I would have been – but I guess it just reduced the likelihood of it happening) of just having a closeup and a wide shot. It adds a bit of a fairy-tale aspect to the whole thing (though it could also come across to some as clips of some cheesy corporate video). Maybe deciding not to finish the whole thing wasn’t an option for me because I really am not that sort of viewer who intentionally sought out this kind of content. I do wonder if there’s a reason this one managed to reach me compared to others and the closest answer I can give is: because it does offer something fresh (in addition to being well structured and edited). There’s also the fact that there are more than a hundred interviewees and I get the point of Sean McCarthy that cheers should go in being able to pick the best out of all of them that works with the flow.

My favourite part of the is when Royale Watkins just teared up and even didn’t apologise for it. What’s amazing is that he didn’t even try to wipe off the tears as they were flowing. That’s the next stage of vulnerability that is even braver that stepping up on stage finding the humour within his life. I’m not sure if that is a sign that we are approaching a new era where people don’t apologise anymore for being emotional or bawling in front of another human being. Maybe soon enough tears would be as welcome as laughter in public because there is no longer fear that it would be something that would be taken advantage of.

Comedic Moments:

  • Emo Phillips sharing that the audience who laughs at his jokes has no idea about the suffering that had to happen to get it to that point.

  • Kim Whitley apologising that someone just walked behind the backdrop and as a result was included in the shot.

  • Suli McCullough musing what it would like if there was heckling at the opera.

And the big question looms large: If comics are routinely heckled when they are on stage, why does it not happen at any of the TED (or TEDx) events?. I think the answer to that is TED speakers aren’t there to entertain (its just a bonus of their talk is) and instead they are stepping on that red dot to talk about ideas (which is sort of the point of the TED brand). Also, people attend willingly because they already like (or at least know that they’re going to like) the speakers. There’s also the fact that people who run in those circles are generally kinder (or maybe imbued with more manners?) than the kind of audiences that frequent stand-up venues that are known for audience heckling performers. For example, it’s unlikely that you’d get a comic heckled when the audience is composed of fellow performers waiting for their own 5 minutes. Which makes me conclude that when you’re a comic…you won’t participate in heckling.

What I didn’t expect during the rewatch (during the ‘bombing’ section) was thinking about some of my disappointing gigs. There was a time when I did an acoustic set just with a djembe (which was a loaner) accompanied by a 12-string guitar. My learning at that time was that natural heads react with the weather, so the deep sound of that lowest open tone was gone because it was pouring rain outside the venue. I was actually looking forward to the sound as it really filled a room well during rehearsal, and all I got was a cheap sounding thump during the performance. There was also the time during a corporate gig that the stage was wood and I assumed that I covered all bases to make sure that my kick stayed in place. What I didn’t know was it wasn’t enough to put something right where the pedal clamps on and I should have put something like a rubber mat that was at least as big as the footprint of the entire assembly (down to the bass drum spurs). What happened? Well, in the middle of the performance, I noticed that the kick was slowly inching itself away from me and the pedal was also coming undone, so…at one point I no longer had access to my bass drum. Maybe because I was playing heel down? Who knows! In the future I did end up going for a big rolled mat that I had to cart to gigs that was about a metre square, then a black puzzle mat, and eventually nine carpet tiles (as I’ve learned that puzzle mats pieces don’t interlock perfectly).

There was also the reminder that musicians are lucky that they get to at least spend time honing their skills, because it isn’t like a specific chord progression would only work to only a specific group of people. Someone yelling out of the audience: “You call that a ‘G’!?”. But then again, it’s a choice of when to take your work out to public right? You can make that one jar after spending 20 days on it, or you can make 40 jars (some which may not looking like jars at all) during that time period and increase your chances that one of them might delight your prospects. I think in a way, I am following the comic’s route by getting my work out so the right people could find them. On the plus side, I have more of an understanding who my listeners are. The challenge is making sure I can tune out input from the wrong people yet also recognise if there’s a tidbit about their feedback that can help my serve my audience better.

After a particularly hurtful experience because I was naïve thinking that a musical bond is enough to overcome personality differences, I realised that philosophy left myself susceptible to betrayal. It didn’t put me off being part of a band or bonding with other musicians. The best lesson (aside from making sure that there’s a personality match with people I work with in the future) came more than a decade later: I can put out an album with the resources I have available. This year I’m aiming for the third one to be finished and released. Looking back at all the lessons I’ve learned during my years of performing live, I agree with Garry Shandling that there are no shortcuts. What I would want to add to that is: it is possible to be wiser in where one spends her time. Shane Snow refers to these approaches as ‘Smartcuts’. As a comic, you could consider balancing out where you do gigs. Maybe even avoid places that would risk your personal safety.

Unfortunately, you may have to wait until your kids are safely tucked in bed before pressing play as the content is definitely ‘MA’. There are no concerning imagery rather than the words used to describe them. It would be a helpful exercise if you’re wanting them to learn which words to avoid and pausing (or pressing the ‘mute’ button) each time one or a slew flows out from potty mouths. There’s also Cedric Kyles (aka ‘Cedric the Entertainer’) sharing how he was quite disappointed that the person that he thinks had his back not only dismisses racial slurs (like the ‘N’ word) but also doesn’t think twice when using it as a way to describe the comic.

If you feel like the project your working on is on its last legs, meditate for 20 minutes, take an hour nap, and watch this. Maybe it might not lead you to finish your manuscript, but pivot to a short story that you can send to your agent for submission to a compilation. Before long, you might find the inspiration you need to inch the story to inch your upcoming novel to completion.

Leigh Lim.
https://twitter.com/LeighLim / https://leighlim.tumblr.com/ /
https://www.instagram.com/laysnotes/

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