The documentary Misery Loves Comedy is the brainchild of Kevin Pollak, who’s been doing stand-up comedy for nearly 40 years, so him getting a chance to discuss the life of comedians with the likes of Judd Apatow, Tom Hanks, Amy Schumer, Larry David, Lewis Black, Marc Maron and dozens more carries some weight with it.
You might know Pollak best from films like A Few Good Men, Casino and The Usual Suspects, or perhaps from his weekly interview program Kevin Pollak’s Chat Show, or even the podcast Talkin’ Walkin where he does the entire show in his classic Christopher Walken impersonation. We sat down at the Tribeca Film Festival to talk shop about the down and dirty life of a comic, how his interview skills served him in directing his doc, as well as the impact of Robin Williams, for whom the film is dedicated.
Misery Loves Comedy is on VOD/iTunes now (currently the #1 doc on iTunes) and is in theaters starting on April 24.
ComingSoon.net: After you’ve done interviews for long enough one begins to learn not to ask questions of substance right away. It usually takes at least 10-15-minutes for the artifice to drop, for the subject to open up. When you’re interviewing comedians you’re dealing with people who have such carefully curated personalities. How hard is it to get through that guardedness?
Kevin Pollak: Doing my internet chat show five years prior to sitting down with everyone on the film informed an ability to interview. You’re 100% correct, you have to start off easy and get out of your own way at some point. Like when Freddie Prinze Jr. agreed to talk about his dad on camera. I’d known Freddie from his first star-making turn in She’s All That, but I knew this sweet wonderful kid. There was a part of me that knew I had to ask him if he was ready to talk about his dad on camera for the first time, but there was also a big part of me that wanted to protect him while he was doing it. That’s what I mean by, “Get out of your own way.” I think there’s a trust that has to take place. There’s no question you have to ease people into it and know when they’re comfortable.
CS: There’s a lot of knockout quotes in the movie, but for me the most revelatory one came from Lisa Kudrow, who talks about how anyone can be funny but it’s being funny ALL THE TIME, professionally, that’s the trick. How do you relay to the comedic laymen out there that this is a JOB.
Pollak: How hard is it to articulate that to a… civilian? Well that’s the point I make to Lisa in that moment. Her laughter at what I say, not in a narcissistic way, but in the joy and pureness of her laughter is why that beat is in the film because I had 70 hours to choose from to make a 90-minute film – and I cut myself and it was very difficult to make those choices – but her laughter from a point that I had felt strongly about and had said to friends but never in a professional setting, which is that anyone can dabble in comedy. It’s the one thing about the profession that makes me crazy. You’re at a party, someone thinks they have a funny thing to tell, and if it’s your profession and you’ve been writing and editing and performing…
CS: And honing.
Pollak: And honing, and all of that is important to you, then someone dabbling in comedy can be annoying pretty quick. So I make the point in the film, “You don’t see anyone dabbling in dentistry.” It’s the curse of this particular art form. No one thinks they can paint the way they think they can be funny in a situation, or even tell a story. Then she presses through and says, “I meant everyone can be funny at some point.” That also has not been my experience. (laughs)
CS: You cut to the Australian comedian Jim Jefferies a fair amount and I may have only noticed that because I’m not as familiar with him as everyone else. What drew you specifically to shine the spotlight on him?
Pollak: He has my favorite funny moment in the film, where he talks about the family of basketball-spinning unicyclists and how that’s gotta be one person’s passion. “What are the odds someone else in the family said, ‘Oh, me too!'” That killed me, and I asked him, he said it’s not a bit from his act, even though it feels like it from a comedian’s experience. I spoke to him afterwards, after I edited the film and told him that moment was in it. “Have you been doing that in your act since?” He said, “No.” I said, “Well you have to, it’s a great bit!” And he said, “Well it’s in your film, that’s good enough.”
CS: There’s so much truth to it.
Pollak: And then he has that moment of sharing how he himself had been on anti-depressants and had suicidal feelings, and he talks about what he might be remembered for. “I might not be remembered for being a great comic.” He just kept hitting certain beats in such a perfectly articulated way that I had no choice but to circle back. I had 70 hours of material and I had way more than I needed by a ton.
CS: You had some heavy hitters.
Pollak: And some huge heavy hitters, but there’s no script, no narrative, no story. I had to create one. Once those chapters took place, then I had to feed that story, then I had to treat it like a narrative where if it didn’t feed the story and it didn’t move along the story, then it was superfluous and that was difficult. He kept hitting those story beats the best.
CS: Have you read the book “Zombie Spaceship Wasteland” by Patton Oswalt?
CS: Well he has this great story in it called “The Victory Tour” where he talks about one of his earliest stints doing a ten-day headlining road gig in Canada, and it’s nightmarish. Everything that can turn rancid does. It’s the kind of thing you read and then never want to become a comedian, but how important do you think that trial-by-fire of the road is in a stand-up’s life?
Pollak: Well it’s important in that it makes you decide whether or not you want to do it, because you’re right, it isn’t for the faint of heart. It also speaks to the overall suggestion I give to everyone who approaches me and asks about doing it, which is, “Are you ready to turn your life over to it?” That’s the biggest, most important question. If you turn your life over to it that just means when you put in your 10,000 hours you have to suffer the way any profession or endeavor demands, but if you ARE capable of turning your life over to it then those things become notches on a belt. Those things become horrible experiences that you then get to put into a book and make people laugh. Obviously. If there’s anything I learned from the movie it’s that misery is a human condition. It is the comedian, or performer’s responsibility, task, job to find a way to articulate it in an entertaining way. That’s the difference.
CS: Is the road still an essential part of the toolkit, because you have people who are getting hired for writer’s rooms from Twitter or getting cast from YouTube?
Pollak: It depends on what you want to accomplish. There’s no Beatles without Hamburg. It’s that simple, if you know what that means. If they don’t play that sh*thole seven nights a week for as long as they did with no rest and no real sleep then they don’t become The Beatles. That’s all what putting in the 10,000 hours is about, that’s what going on the road and suffering all that nonsense is about. It’s about finding your voice and finding out if you have what it takes and finding out if you really f*cking need to do this. So if you’re hired for a writer’s room off Twitter you’re going to find that out in the writer’s room, and you’re gonna eat sh*t in front of people who want you to leave. That’s a form of putting in the 10,000 hours. The other annoying or beautifully perfect thing about this is there’s no correct path. It’s just the one you choose, like life.
CS: Like film, like anything. One of your first major roles was in Avalon, which is such an overlooked film. I always tell people, “It’s like ‘The Godfather’ without the mafia.” It’s such an epic family saga.
Pollak: That’s exactly what it is, an epic family saga. Those are the three words that I use in that order. I wonder how you even know about that movie.
CS: All those Baltimore movies that Barry Levinson made are seminal for me. What do you think it would take for people to recognize all those films, not just Diner, as essential cinema? Do they need a Criterion release? Do they need to be canonized by somebody?
Pollak: Yeah, probably. It’s interesting how brilliant those are and he is. How powerful it is. I don’t know how to curate and inform and educate the rest of the world the way you’ve been by his movies. Start a movement, create a festival.
CS: David Krumholtz talked about Liberty Heights with us as well and he said the same thing, he’s so proud of the movie and nobody ever talks about it.
Pollak: Yeah, those are the tough ones.
CS: Do you have any cool stories from your Avalon days?
Pollak: Well, there’s a couple in my book, “How I Slept My Way to the Middle,” that I would recommend. It was my first real acting job. You can’t really count Willow ’cause we were more cartoon characters.
CS: It was a minor role. (*makes small size gesture*)
Pollak: Yeah, nice. We were cartoon characters, we were on a giant bluescreen. They shot the movie in Wales and New Zealand, we’re in San Rafael.
CS: And we don’t count Million Dollar Mystery.
Pollak: No we certainly don’t. It opened on a plane. Only on flights between San Francisco and LA so you won’t have a roundtrip to see the whole film… So getting that opportunity to be in a dramatic film was ridiculous and amazing. No formal training. Fortunately Barry Levinson was a comedian himself, he and Craig T. Nelson were a comedy team.
CS: With Rudy De Luca!
Pollak: Yeah, right! To be on location, away from family, surrounded by brilliant dramatic actors was a constant source of befuddlement and oddity. I remember eating for the first time in a movie was a revelation because we had Thanksgiving for three days. So the first time we shot the Thanksgiving scene I was starving so I ate like I was starving, then I had to match that for three days which is impossible and insane.
CS: That’s when you learned to nibble.
Pollak: That’s when I learned to push food around on the plate with a fork and knife and never actually eat anything. That also turned me on to the most brilliant eater in any film, Jack Nicholson. He devours a bowl of pasta in Prizzi’s Honor that will blow your mind, I think a slice of pizza in another movie. It stole my focus from the film because I knew how difficult it was to eat on camera and what it really meant in terms of a commitment, and he is devouring food! Those are some memories, and also just being in Barry Levinson’s Baltimore.
CS: Misery Loves Comedy is dedicated to Robin Williams. Obviously his story is very pertinent, just as much as Freddie Prinze’s, but what did he mean to you both as a friend and a performer? What did he give to you?
Pollak: When I broke in full-time to the comedy scene in San Francisco at age 20 in 1978 he was already a made man, already on the cover of Time Magazine for “Mork and Mindy.” He had broken into the San Francisco scene just a couple years before and he came back all the time, preferred to be back in San Francisco, mentored a few of us. His giant success, and having access to it at such a young age, and the generosity of his time, you carry that with you a lifetime in terms of that generosity and what it meant. He appeared in one of my HBO specials in an unbelievably selfless way and it was hilarious. When I was doing the documentary I had four consecutive five-day weeks to shoot. Whoever we got is who we got. When we started filming we had twenty-five people. I booked all the talent, didn’t deal with one agent or manager. As we were shooting people kept saying yes and we kept adding them in so at the end we had over sixty. During those four weeks I was on the phone with Robin a couple times, about an hour each time. He was shooting a television series at the time, doing twelve-to-fourteen hours a day, five days a week on the show with no breaks, and he had no time at all. Both those times on the phone he spent almost an hour talking to me and I could tell he was making it clear that he thought the movie was important to do, the subject was as relevant as anything in comedy, but also using the two conversations as kind of a therapy session. I was getting a personal version on the phone, never to be repeated, ultimately, that everyone else was doing on camera, and it was okay that it wasn’t in the movie because he just wasn’t available. While I was editing he passed away so my producers reached out and said, “This is tragic.” Everyone’s kneejerk reaction was, “We need to have him in the movie. Do you want to go back in and interview a few people, ask them how they feel?” I said, “Well that’s a horrible idea, because how they feel is horrible and I didn’t really want to talk to comedians about how they feel about Robin Williams.” Since we don’t have him, what feels appropriate and necessary to me personally is to dedicate the film to him. Not to his condition, I’m not dedicating it to his demise. So that was the impetus.
(Photo Credit: WENN)