This review was originally posted on June 10, 2016 as part of our L.A. Film Fest coverage. We're republishing it now because Dying Laughing is currently available in theaters, on demand, and on iTunes.
A poetic, brutally candid examination of stand-up comedy, Dying Laughing features a murder’s row of famous comedians telling honest, genuine stories about the art form they love.
As someone who is borderline obsessed with interviews — listening to them, reading them, watching them, even conducting them — I’m predisposed to like this movie, because it’s comprised almost entirely of conversations with stand-up greats. (There are a handful of shots of the American landscape and a few of the interiors of comedy clubs, but it’s mostly comedians sitting in front of a backdrop addressing the camera.) Fair warning, though: a movie featuring Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, Amy Schumer, Kevin Hart, and a dozen other comedy superstars might come with expectations that you’re going to spend the whole time laughing, and that’s far from the truth here. Instead of a laugh riot, Dying Laughing is basically an instruction manual of all the key moments in a stand-up’s life. It’s a step by step guide of what to expect during your first time on stage, a description of the unique rush of getting laughs, a depressing explanation of life on the road, and a heartbreaking layout of what it feels like when you inevitably bomb.
Those who don’t have any personal desire to be a stand-up may glaze over at times because these stories are extremely specific, and I’m not sure a majority of the messages have applications in other areas of life. If you do happen to have that dream, this movie is a clear roadmap of what to expect; if you’re not really that into comedy, you won’t find much to engage with here.
The movie goes to some unexpectedly dark places, and there’s the sense that talking through what it’s like to be a comedian is a form of therapy for some of the subjects. Many touch upon how comedians are traditionally damaged people, and they comment on the ridiculousness of needing approval from strangers in order to feel good about themselves. The topic of depression comes up more than a few times, and a couple grapple with the existential crisis of how being booed off a stage doesn’t just mean the audience didn’t like their material, it means they didn’t like the comedian since the material reflects the very core of the performer. Some even break down in tears discussing the memory of their worst nights on stage or the joy of finding a community of like-minded people.
Not content with being a breezy fluff piece about what it’s like to be a comedian, Dying Laughing cuts to the core of what these often-iconic performers truly think and feel about their profession. It’s catnip for comedy nerds, and an invaluable resource for those dreaming of standing on stage one day.