Why do comedians become comedians? A lot of documentaries have attempted to answer this question. The latest—from actual comedian Kevin Pollak—is Misery Loves Comedy, which aims to answer a more specific question: Do those people who become comedians also have to be miserable to get laughs?
The documentary, which is currently available on iTunes and hits select theaters this Friday, does a decent job of answering that question, thanks to talking-head interviews more than 50 big-name comedians. There’s just one problem: They’re nearly all old-guard white dudes. (There are 48 men and seven women, and two non-white folks by our count.) So either women and racial minorities are funny because they’re happy, or this film is just, as Variety pointed out, “an excuse to hang out with the old boys’ club instead of learning anything revealing about the members.”
Either way, Misery Loves Comedy is just the tip of the funny-doc iceberg; if you’re going to spend 90 minutes or more hanging out with comics, you can likely do a little better. To that end, may we present our list of some of the best comedy documentaries around.
The Original Kings Of Comedy (2000)
Spike Lee had already carved out a niche directing acclaimed documentaries (4 Little Girls) and stage performances (John Leguizamo’s Freak) by the time The Original Kings Of Comedy hit theaters, but no one expected it to become the second highest-grossing comedy concert film ever (just after Eddie Murphy Raw and just before Richard Pryor’s Live On The Sunset Strip). To be fair, Lee didn’t really have to do much, other than let the cameras roll during a two-day stadium performance in Charlotte and capture four standup titans owning a crowd, while splicing in B-roll of tour promotion and backstage banter. MC Steve Harvey was miles away from his Family Feud or Think Like A Man personas—which is to say, actually funny—especially when stealing the coat of a man who got up in the middle of the show. Harvey’s sitcom co-star Cedric The Entertainer continued his meteoric rise that made him a go-to supporting player in ensemble comedies for over a decade. D.L. Hughley, right in the middle of of his WB/UPN sitcom The Hughleys, riffed on family issues and why black people don’t like bungee-jumping. And the late, great Bernie Mac told it “like it is” with such blatant disregard for political correctness that the very next year he got The Bernie Mac Show, which won Nightly Show host Larry Wilmore an Emmy. All the subsequent descriptors-of-comedy tour films—Blue Collar, Queens, Latin Kings, Kims, and Comedians—stem from the success of Lee’s epic moment in time. —K.M. Mcfarland
Comedians of Comedy (2005)
If Jerry Seinfeld, Stephen Wright, and the rest of the 1980s standup explosion are the Baby Boomers of comedy, then the 1990s cohort is the Gen X—and this documentary is its Reality Bites. Maria Bamford, Patton Oswalt, Brian Posehn, and Zach Galifianakis travel the country between tour dates, pissing off Cracker Barrel patrons as they go. (It’s also worth noting that most performances happened not at comedy clubs, but at music venues.) Oswalt was already well-known, but the doc and Comedy Central’s ensuing miniseries of the same name thrust the alt-comedy scene vault into the national spotlight, putting the world on notice that nerds were officially the cool kids of comedy. —Peter Rubin
The Aristocrats (2005)
Want to see comics at their most unvarnished? Watch them trying to make each other laugh with pure depravity. Penn Jillette and Paul Provenza directed this look at a decades-old comedy in-joke that only exists as a vessel for testing the boundaries of profanity—and we mean that in the best way possible. (The premise and punchline of the joke are always the same, but the rest of it varies widely, and depends on the individual joke-teller’s particular flair with filth.) While the doc has just about everyone you can think of, from Phyllis Diller to the Smother Brothers, it joins the pantheon on the strength of two appearances: Gilbert Gottfried, whose rendition of the joke at Hugh Hefner’s roast is the stuff of legend, and Sarah Silverman, who unflinchingly sticks with the conceit that she was a child performer in the titular Aristocrats. It is, as every single comic featured would tell you, fucking brilliant. —Peter Rubin
Why We Laugh: Black Comedians on Black Comedy (2009)
While Misery Loves Comedy looks at the influence sadness has on comedy, Why We Laugh looks at race’s influence on the artform—specifically the use of humor as a coping mechanism when confronting racism. Like Misery Loves, it’s not exactly funny, per se, but it cuts deep on how vital comedy is to the black community, from Redd Foxx to Chris Rock. This doc also brings in valuable insight from non-comedians like Cornel West, who puts everything in historical context, and is narrated by Angela Bassett, who’s an American treasure.—Angela Watercutter
Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work (2010)
By the time she passed away in 2014, most people knew Joan Rivers for her trademark fashion snark during Hollywood’s biggest nights. But before Fashion Police she made her name as one of the greatest stand-ups ever to hold a microphone. This doc looks at just how truly funny she was and also how truly human. (She may have had a lot of work done, but underneath it was the heart and brain of a heroine.) Also, if you’re not awed by her massive index card collection of jokes, you have no soul.—Angela Watercutter