The documentary “Alone Up There” by Sean Patrick Shaul is described as a “feature-length documentary that explores the contemporary culture of stand-up comedy.” It is a 90-minute documentary available as a $5 download, and follows Shaul’s journey into understanding the world of stand-up comedy.
The film opens with narration from Shaul in which he states that he has always been a huge fan of stand-up comedy and, as a documentary filmmaker, he wanted to explore that world through film. I was immediately hooked. I, too, have been a huge fan of stand-up comedy for at least 25 years. I remember listening to George Carlin albums in my early teens and laughing uncontrollably not only because the material was funny, but also because, at that age, there was an element of listening to something that I was not “supposed” to be listening to.
Shaul then states that stand-up comedy can be traced back to the days of vaudeville, but at the time the focus was more on clowns and slapstick-style humor. Then, early comics focused on “street humor” -- jokes that begin “two guys walk into a bar ….” It was not until folks like Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce came onto the scene that we got the first glimpse into modern day style stand-up comedy. Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce told stories, often personal stories, and were willing to challenge conventional thinking. They, of course, paved the way for comics such as George Carlin and Richard Pryor, and stand-up comedy as we know it today was born.
The balance of the film is pieced together, topic-by-topic, largely through interviews with comics including Bobby Slayton, Eddie Pepitone, The Sklar Brothers, Chris Porter, Darryl Lenox, Alonzo Bodden, Joe Matarese, Jeremy Hotz, Erik Griffin and Moshe Kasher, along with several discussions with Kelly Carlin, the daughter of the late, great George Carlin.
Interestingly, when asked when they knew that they wanted to pursue a career in stand-up comedy, most responded “the moment I did it for the first time.” Yet, despite the fact that most comics said they were hooked immediately and could not imagine doing anything else, they also admitted that the biggest sacrifice one had to make to become a stand-up comic was personal relationships. Since being a comic means working nights and constantly travelling, most admitted to being very alone.
Also of significant note was a segment on the actual “job” of stand-up comedy, and what comics get paid -- which is to say, almost nothing. I think this reality is somewhat contrary to the public perception. Because stand-up comics can be seen on television and are part of the “entertainment world,” I think if you were to ask the average person how much a comic is paid, the answer would be that they are paid quite handsomely. The reality is that during the early phase of a comic’s career, most work for little more than food, perhaps getting enough money to pay for the gasoline needed to get to and from the show. Several comics interviewed stated that an early gig would pay, if they were lucky, about $25 per show.
Although the concept of heckling has been addressed in other documentaries, including the 2007 film “Heckler” by Jamie Kennedy, it is addressed here as well. The notion of heckling is incredibly bizarre, in that it exists only in the world of stand-up comedy. There is no other job, in the arts or otherwise, where you find hecklers. Nobody yells out during a Broadway musical. Nobody stands on set during the filming of a movie and yells “you suck.” It just does not happen. So, why would anyone believe that such behavior is appropriate in the world of stand-up comedy? It is a question that will probably never be adequately answered. The film explores this a bit, and interviews comics such as Joe Matarese. [Note: as an aside, Joe Matarese has an excellent album called “When A Comedian Attacks.” The entire album is pulled together from clips of Matarese dealing with hecklers and putting them in their place. Well worth the purchase.] Personally, I have slightly mixed feelings about hecklers and heckling. On the one hand, I largely find it to be incredibly insulting and offensive to the comics who have worked so hard to put their acts together. It is disruptive to the show and breaks up the comic’s timing. At the same time, a small part of me enjoys watching a comic annihilate the heckler. Who will ever forget Bill Burr’s epic rant in which he destroys a Philadelphia audience for over ten minutes?
The film then takes an interesting turn when Shaul asks the seemingly innocuous question: “what is the best way to understand stand-up comedy?” The answer invariably was “you have to get up on stage and try it yourself.” So, Shaul decides to take a run at it, despite his stage fright. After calling around to every club in or around Los Angeles, he was finally given permission to do a set at the HaHa Cafe in North Hollywood. How did Shaul do? Was his first attempt a stand-up a success? To find out, you will need to watch the film ….
Kidding, of course. No spoiler alert necessary. He bombed. Horribly. His jokes fell flat, he was terrified, and he walked off stage before the emcee had returned. But, it showed what all true fans of stand-up comedy already know -- that is, that stand-up comedy is hard, hard work, and that it takes years to develop an act and a stage presence.
Alone Up There is an enjoyable 90-minute look inside the world of stand-up comedy. While the film is perhaps not quite compelling enough to entertain someone who is not already a fan of the art form, it is definitely worth the price of admission and is something that all stand-up comedy fans should appreciate.