Dying Is Easy
All Joking Aside is streaming on Prime
When it comes to the arts, there’s nothing harder than stand-up comedy. Don’t get me wrong; to play principal cello for the Boston Pops is an undeniable achievement. To create a magnificent sculpture is a feat that most people will never accomplish. Hell, writing a novel or screenplay is still a pretty big deal, considering the legions of people who talk about it but never do it.
Stand-up is different for a few reasons. First, most people aren’t consistently funny. Your mom or co-worker might drop a wicked bon mot from time to time. Doing that for a solid three minutes, or five, or longer? That’s a rarified skill that few possess. More importantly, stand-up is just you. A cowardly writer like myself has the luxury of hiding behind a computer screen. If you’re making with the funny, though, you only have a stage, a microphone, and a light that exposes everything.
Can you imagine it? Your name is called, and you step onto the stage. Job one is to make it to the mike without tripping or otherwise looking like a jackass. Once that’s done, there will ideally be a smattering of applause after your introduction. You’ll nod, smile, and then? Strangers in the darkness. Looking at you with one singleminded expectation. Make us laugh. That’s no request, it’s a command. And by the way? You don’t get to be sort of funny.
And yet, people do it! Richard Pryor, Lily Tomlin, George Carlin, Bill Hicks, Chris Rock, Robin Williams, Ali Wong, Amy Schumer, Tig Notaro, John Mulaney, Maria Bamford, Patton Oswalt, Jerry Seinfeld…they did it, and the journey, for the most part, sucked. The majority of stand-up comedy movies are Human Hand Grenade movies,* in which the protagonist is profoundly screwed up and uses comedy as some form of catharsis. While there haven’t been many movies that examined the agonies and ecstacies of stand-up, and even fewer good ones. We are lucky to have All Joking Aside, a well-directed indie with a star-making performance.
The first time Charlie (Raylene Harewood) steps onstage at The Laughing Hyena comedy club, things do not go well. You’d expect a comedian to be funny. She isn’t. Her jokes limp away like survivors of the battle of Normandy, and the worst part is, she knows it. Scratch that, the real worst part is the heckler. He’s not going to give her a break. His plan is to break her.
Maybe she’s not cut out for this? It’s tough enough considering Charlie is estranged from her mother, had a bout with skin cancer, and is living in a New York apartment that’s roughly the size of a walk-in closet. Her friend Kim (Tanya Jade) believes in her and encourages her to pick herself back up. During a conversation about Charlie’s next move, the two women spot the heckler in a coffee shop.
It turns out he’s some broken-down guy who swims in whiskey at the bar of the Laughing Hyena. After talking with the manager, Dennis (Richard Lett), Charlie learns the heckler is more than that. He’s Bob Carpenter (Brian Markinson), one of those comics that others talk about in tones of hushed awe. Bob was never going to sell out Madison Square Garden or get a sitcom. He was one of those guys who, back in the day, did 200-plus shows per year; one of those comedians with a fiendishly original sensibility. Bob put everything into his comedy, and if his relationship with his wife and daughter had to burn on the altar of his ambition, then them’s the breaks.
Charlie can see that Bob knows a thing or two about a thing or two. She sets into motion a plan, which is to convince this mean son of a bitch to become her mentor. It won’t be easy, and as the two of them get to know each other, they’ll bond over trauma, family ties that have frayed and broken, as well as a healthy love for sarcasm.
Director Shannon Kohli shows us that the process of crafting and executing an act takes an inhuman level of focus, and the costs can be brutal. I appreciated her examination of that process and the sacrifices it requires. There are scenes of Bob trying in vain to repair his shattered marriage and re-enter the life of his daughter. It bears mentioning that the tone of the film isn’t a mega-bummer of a drama. As things progress, we see Charlie dealing with her own issues in a more positive and considered way, then using that material for her act. Sometimes it works, other times it doesn’t, but she improves by putting in the work. There’s no montage wherein she gets better in 55 seconds. It takes time, and Kohli’s eye for detail makes Charlie’s journey rewarding.
During the first 10-15 minutes, I remember thinking, “This screenplay isn’t very good.” It’s nice to be wrong because while James Pickering’s script occasionally features some on the nose dialogue, it has strong characterization and excellent structure. Plot threads introduced early on always pay off in a way that’s emotionally satisfying, and characters like the plucky young novice and the cynical mentor never feel like walking cliches. Instead, they feel like people who have made good and bad decisions and have to live with them. The screenplay isn’t reinventing the wheel and feels a little familiar at times. I’m good with that, and I’ll take something well-crafted and reliable over something that’s likely to fall apart.
In a film like this that’s essentially a two-hander, it’s critical to cast two strong actors. While the rest of the cast is good, the film rests on the shoulders of Raylene Harewood and Brian Markinson. As Bob, Markinson plays one of those guys who uses comedy as a weapon. Nothing new there, yet Markinson shows us that above all, Bob is tired. He’s exhausted from sifting through the wreckage of his life, fatigued by the struggle to find redemption for his behavior when he doesn’t really deserve it. Markinson plays Bob with sympathy and never lets him off the hook.
Raylene Harewood hasn’t done a huge amount of acting. You’ve likely seen her here and there on TV. If there’s any justice in the world,** she’ll become a massive star after having played Charlie. Her Charlie is smart, determined, and flawed. She’s not a walking collection of tics and neuroses, she just has some stuff to work out. I also liked that, offstage, Charlie has a razor-sharp sense of humor. Yet her first few attempts onstage contain barely anything recognizable as funny. I loved watching her work things out and gradually figure out how to be funny instead of trying to be funny.
Becoming a comedian is serious business. All Joking Aside knows that it doesn’t have to feel like an endurance test and that the long journey up to the stage is unique for everyone. This scrappy independent film is one that deserves to be on everyone’s radar
*I’m not saying they’re bad, but when you watch The King of Comedy, Man on the Moon, Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling, and Funny People, you start to notice some similarities.
**Which there isn’t. Have you seen 2020?