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Film Review: Dying Laughing

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An interesting insight into the psychology behind stand-up comedy, Dying Laughing gathers together an impressive roster of comedians - from both the UK and the US - to speak candidly about the ups and downs of being a professional clown. 

Directed by Lloyd Stanton and Paul Toogood, the documentary sees the likes of Chris Rock, Jerry Seinfeld, Billy Connolly, Steve Coogan, Kevin Hart, Sarah Silverman and Amy Schumer discuss the creative process of their craft.

Through all the jokes, anecdotes and honest, emotional stories offered up throughout the film, it becomes clear that stand-up comedy is a profession that can be as soul-crushing as it can be uplifting for those who dare to take the stage. 

As you might expect, several of the comedians who sit down and speak to the camera do so with a certain amount of jest in everything they say. Ever the jokesters, many of the revelations that come from the film are accompanied by a sense of self-effacing humour than underpins the candid honesty on display. When asked about the profession and how they classify themselves in the world, they answer thoughtfully, and with the rapid response that we have come to expect. 

Chris Rock described comedians as "the only group who say what they want to say", while others agreed that there is a certain power and freedom that comes within the medium of comedy; to talk about things that are otherwise taboo; to "shed light on the human condition" and to be the mouthpiece for other peoples' experiences. Other comedians, such as Billy Connolly, respond more wistfully, describing themselves as "nutters" who do what they do for the sheer thrill of getting a laugh - a feat that we discover is no easy task.

Several of the speakers describe the difficulty of standing before an audience - as Jerry Seinfeld reveals, the buzz of an audience is a thing comedians must work for. At the beginnning, "nothing is happening. You start from a room of unhappy people." From there, you receieve an immediate response to the work you put out - a response measured in laughs, heckles or (in the worst cases) dead silence. For anyone under the misconception that stand-up is easy, the speakers paint a daunting picture of reality.

The art of heckling is an element that receives a lot of ire and bemusement from the speakers, as they share their experiences with rowdy audience members. From a heckler who punched Billy Connolly, to a man who made a short but impactful tut at the back of a Jason Manford gig, some of the anecdotes are admittedly, quite funny. But the documentary also shines a spotlight on some of the more harmful heckles, such as the racist jibes that comedians like Stephen K. Amos and Mike Epps have had to face throughout their careers.

The film also delves into the pain of "bombing" on stage. As Russell Peters says, "it doesn't matter how long you've been doing stand-up comedy, you are never exempt from having a bad night." As the comedians speak from their experience, it becomes clear that this is a profession that demands emotional strength and perseverance. In the discussions, the speakers tell of how bombing can be the "humbler" for young comedians that either pushes them to get better or puts them off altogether. Older comedians can also bomb, using "tricks of the trade" to disguise it.

Throughout the film, several of the comics mention the word "capability." As they share their stories, it becomes clear that stand-up is an inately complex and difficult job that requires a thick skin. Naturally, the subject of mental health arises. The late Victoria Wood suggests that the most interesting comics are the people that aren't well-adjusted, while others agree that the profession attracts those who seek the "safe haven" of approval that can come from the stage. However, it is easy to see how seasoned performers like Robin Williams can succumb to the darker elements of the job. 

Though the film feels a little clunky and lengthy at times, Dying Laughing presents a fascinating insight into the art of stand-up comedy and the resolve that comedians must gain in order to achieve success. As the late Garry Shandling remarks: "there are no shortcuts."

DYING LAUGHING will arrive in UK cinemas and On Demand on 16th June and will premiere at the Prince Charles Cinema on 15th June.

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