Actor Kevin Pollak tells Francine Wolfisz about his documentary – featuring some 50 comedic legends – which questions whether misery is a forerunner to comedy
There are plenty of moments in life that are no laughing matter – but they can certainly provide some of the best comic material, according to a wry documentary released in cinemas this week.
Misery Loves Comedy is the directorial feature debut from actor and impressionist Kevin Pollak, whose acting credits include The Usual Suspects and Casino.
More than 50 comedy legends lend their wit and wisdom, including Tom Hanks, Jimmy Fallon, Lisa Kudrow, Amy Schumer, Whoopi Goldberg and Steve Coogan, to explore their greatest inspirations, epic fails and that most important of questions: do you really have to be miserable to be funny?
Speaking from his home in California, the 57-year-old reveals he is proud, but was initially “daunted” by the sheer scale of the project.
“I reached out to pretty much every funny person I knew. The hardest and yet most rewarding part was the editing. I had 60 hours of interviews with no script and no narrative. I had to create a story – and reduce it into 94 minutes.”
Many of the interviewees hark back to their younger years and consider what inspired them to pursue a career in stand-up. Some cited a close relative as their comedy muse.
I ask Pollak if the same applied to him. “No, nobody in my house made me laugh,” he quips with deadpan humour.
“I do remember being mesmerised by comedians at a very young age and for some reason I was completely fascinated. My mother brought home a comedy album. Watching my parents laugh uncontrollably from this voice coming out of the stereo hi-fi, was as unnerving as seeing my parents cry for the first time. They were laughing so hard that I knew I just wanted to be that person, to make others laugh.”
Growing up in a Jewish family was equally important in developing Pollak’s appreciation of humour. He recalls “many wildly funny relatives around for Passover dinner,” who provided a “wealth of material” for his comedy routines. “The great art of complaining – not that the Jews reinvented the wheel of complaining – is not just a stereotype. My earliest routines were inspired by that round table of complaint that I witnessed in our home.”
With a flair for entertaining, Pollak performed his first stand-up routines at the tender age of 10 and began touring professionally at 20. As he proudly tells me: “I was a natural-born ham. I don’t remember any fear, just a sense of excitement. There was always this feeling that the stage was like home.”
Those sentiments are echoed by some of his fellow comedians featured in the film, but others freely admit to being overcome by hecklers, stage nerves or the fear of “completely bombing”.
Actor and writer William H Macy admits: “I wouldn’t do stand-up, even with a gun to my head,” while Lewis Black starkly warns: “In order to become a comic, you have to love watching yourself die.”
For some, the best comedy has even been pulled out, not just from fear, but from situations that would otherwise be deemed devoid of humour, including drug and alcohol abuse, depression and suicide. But, as Pollak points out, that doesn’t mean to say all comedians have to suffer true misery before getting the audience rolling in the aisles. Apparently, as many great comedy legends will advise, it’s all to do with the way you “tell ‘em”.
“You can still be a glass half-full person and do comedy, but you have to know how to articulate,” says Pollak. “A songwriter would take misery and make it into something moving. We take misery and make it funny. By doing that, we can survive misery, we can live with it, perhaps even laugh at it.”
• Misery Loves Comedy is in selected cinemas from tomorrow and is available to pre-order now on iTunes