It’s no secret that sometimes comedy is taken a bit too seriously. Comedy obsessives love not just the jokes, but the mechanics and emotions of the comedy world. There are a raft of comedy documentaries exploring comedy and comedians, but do they really have anything significant to add to the discussion? This series looks at comedy documentaries and whether they’re interesting, insightful, and possibly even…funny?
There are two things to know when watching the The Unbookables: this is a look at a side of the comedy world that’s not often shown, and it’s not going to be particularly pleasant.
The Unbookables Tour is the punk rock version of a comedy tour, founded by Doug Stanhope (an executive producer on the film). The documentary follows the current lineup of James Inman, Andy Andrist, Sean Rouse, Brendon Walsh, Norm Wilkerson, Travis Lipski, Brett Erickson and Kristine Levine on a van tour of Texas, Kansas, and Illinois.
The shows are bad, the lifestyle is crazy, and the comics aren’t particularly sympathetic. Watching the film the first time, my notes include the phrase “unequivocally terrible human beings.”
If there’s a somewhat accidental protagonist of the story, it’s Inman. At the beginning of the film, he’s stealing hydrocodone from a gout-ridden one-night stand. Half an hour later, he’s the grown-up of the group, as they get in trouble with a club owner for their material and their behavior.
The movie has a gritty, fly-on-the-wall-style, but the film has a subtle narrative. The beginning seems like over-stressed people yelling at each other for no reason, but a genuine and compelling drama builds between the comics as the tour continues.
As the title suggests, these aren’t your mainstream comics — the jokes are dirty, sick, and mean. But even if this isn’t your style of comedy (and it’s definitely not meant for everyone), it’s interesting to watch the behind the scenes dirt as it spills on-stage.
Visually, the movie is gorgeous, though it never glamorizes the experience. By the end, I found I respected the cast, and particularly Inman, for choosing this brutal world at their own peril. And amazingly enough, I kind of liked them.
And so, in conclusion…
Is it interesting? Yes. Anyone with a genuine interest in comedy will like this different perspective, where comedy is a dirty, drunk, drug-addled blur of small crowds in crappy rooms.
What does it have to say about comedy? It’s an old question in stand-up — should comedy be just about making people laugh, or should it be about pushing boundaries and exploring dark areas? The movie doesn’t offer any answers, but shows the comics dealing with that issue not in an existential way, but as a day-to-day, paycheck affecting choice.
Is it funny? In a sick way, yeah. The footage of the comics off stage, constantly drunk and messing with each other, has it’s own weird charm. Needless to say, it’s not for the easily offended.
There’s logic behind Hollywood fighting piracy, especially before and during blockbuster releases. After all, if those watching the film at home for free would have bought a ticket, that’s money lost. But there’s another way to think about the value of those illicit views. If you thought of pre-screen pirates as new-age movie critics, suddenly there’s a really good reason to leak the movie yourself.
Consider Jeff Pearson, director of the new movie The Unbookables. Well, “new” isn’t exactly right. It’s a movie that has been in post-production for several years, because it had a very special kind of problem: it captured its subject amazingly well.
“Unbookables” is a group of comedians who had all the talent and potential of the biggest comics you know today. They once shared stages with Louis CK, Dave Atell, Lisa Lampanelli and several other current bright lights of comedy. And in subject and tone, they’re not so wildly different. But as their more famous counterparts toe the line of appropriateness, the members of the Unbookables blow the line up.
For Pearson, it was that storyline — what happens to comedians who refuse to tone it down for a complicated list of reasons? — that compelled him to make the movie. He follows the group on a tour of the Midwest in a well-worn camp van, as they play everything from tiny bars in bigger towns to bigger bars in tiny towns to, finally, a club in suburban Kansas City where they stand to make some headway … and much needed money. But the question is, can they keep that week-long gig without giving in a little? Ironically, one of the most raw comics of the group, James Inman, makes a case for leaving out the most offensive material. While the one who arguably came closest to gaining mass appeal, Andy Andrist, refuses to budge. (Doug Stanhope, considered a member, was a producer of the film but doesn’t appear.)
“The movie itself is an inkblot test — it is many things to many people,” Pearson says. “Without interviews, or voice over, you’re forced to watch the movie through your own — perhaps bent — moral compass. For every person who sees the movie through the eyes of the club owner, and says ‘What is with these guys, this is a business!” There’s another who sees it though the eyes of comic Andy Andrist and thinks, ‘Real comedy is truth and sometimes it stings.’ So I’m excited that some are repulsed while others compelled by the antics of the comics — that’s really the central tension of the movie.”
Pearson, a former comedian, created a movie where the camera will not blink when the audience wants to wince. And he found himself with the same problem his subjects have: It’s hard to book the movie in the usual places where independent film find distributors.
“The title really frames the dilemma,” Pearson says. “It’s probably an R-rated movie. It might be an X-rated movie in the right states. And we knew based on the material, this wasn’t going to be any kind of slam dunk with mainstream media methods.”
A decade ago those methods were about the only way to be seen by a mass audience, but it’s a different world today.
“We knew that we were going to have to create an online strategy for making the case to distributors,” Pearson says. “That, plus we knew that audiences who would appreciate this kind of material weren’t getting their needs met by traditional media channels.”
Rather than finding a like-minded mover in the industry, Pearson turned to a protocol: BitTorrent. Often maligned by artists, investigated by the feds and misunderstood by many in the media (it’s not a software created for pirating, it’s an Internet protocol to move massive files that pirates co-opted), BitTorrent proved to be “The Unbookables” best ally.
I’m a firm believer in the equal opportunity offender style of comedy, which is to say that any and everything should be game. It’s only when you start picking and choosing, “this is okay to make fun of” and “this isn’t okay to make fun of” that you walk into the murky waters of discrimination and the like. Because then you’re justifying why something is allowed to happen and something else isn’t, which brings in value judgements, which could be, for example, racist, disturbing or whatever. Overall, for me, any and everything should be game. I don’t mind being offended; it usually gives me something more to think about, what things bother me, than it reflects on the person doing the offending.
Also, when it comes to comedy documentaries, they’re usually not all that funny. Some of them are downright depressing (I’d suggest comedy performance films for those who want to laugh over comedy documentaries almost every time). I liken it to a person who likes back massages marrying a masseuse, only to be pissed when they never get back massages at home; no one wants to do their job at home after spending all day doing it at work. I see the same thing with a lot of comedians in docs; hilarious on stage, but they’re not necessarily cheerful when they step off it; some comedy docs feel like the camera is poised for a suicide intervention. Which is somewhat odd; I know comedians who are no more cheerful or depressed than anyone else. Something about a documentary camera, though…
I tell you the two paragraphs worth of bias above, so that you know where my head starts when I get a comedy documentary for review. I don’t think having preconceived notions about what I’m in for is anything surprising, you watch a slasher flick you expect someone to die, but it’s something to note. I have a specific brand of comedy I dig, and I’m generally more depressed after comedy docs than I am laughing or inspired. That’s the room that The Unbookables is going to be working.
And Jeff Pearson’s documentary finds itself treading some of that familiar ground, but generally less because the comedians appear depressed than because the tour they are on ranges from open mic nights to standing behind fences (so the audience can throw stuff at them) to comedy clubs, with such wide differences in audience and environment that it’d be hard not to find the experience somewhat discouraging. Still, this group of comedians finds their groove, and sticks with it: they fuck with each other the entire time, preferably while getting drunk from bought, or stolen from the club they just worked at, liquor and/or imbibing other illicit substances. If they were unbookable before, probably don’t want any uptight club promoters catching wind of this film.
Or maybe that’s the idea. I question most things I see to begin with, and a documentary about unbookable comedians is not something I would be surprised to find was a bit hyper-real. Sure, maybe they all are really that abrasive and aggressive to each other (often on-stage routines appear to focus on recounting all the shit they’ve been doing to each other on tour), but if so, why are they all still sharing a van and working together? Is it all part of the show and, therefore, is the documentary just an extension of that? Or do they not dislike each other as much as it seems when they’re screaming at each other offstage and interrupting each other on?
While the film gives plenty of play to all the comedians involved (James Inman, Andy Andrist, Brendon Walsh, Sean Rouse, Kristine Levine, Travis Lipski, Brett Erickson, Norm Wilkerson), the guy who winds up becoming the center of the story is James Inman. He’s a combination den mother/whipping post/borderline psychopath. He deals most often with the different club promoters, and is also the quickest to anger (something the crowd, and the comedians, realize and therefore bait incessantly); most offstage pranks are at his expense. He also seems the most conflicted, wanting people to laugh and wanting to be a comedian that gets booked (and paid) consistently, something that flies seemingly in the face of his routine, or the edgier routines of those on the tour with him.
All that aside, it is a documentary about comedians so… is it funny at all? Yes, there are quite a few funny moments (and I do wish I’d seen more of the sets), but the real fun is what happens off the stage, so we get to spend a lot of time trainwreck-watching from there. Essentially the film is like getting drunk with your best friends and fucking with them, only your best friends probably aren’t as funny as these comedians are. More than likely your friends are the “I’m drunk so I must be funny now” heckling assholes these comedians take down night after night. I don’t like your friends.
The most lasting thing I’ve learned from The Unbookables, if I were to go on a van tour with unbookable comics (or even spend a couple minutes around them)? Never… NEVER… leave your drink alone. If you do, there is no limit to the random substances or bodily fluids that will find their way into your drink while you aren’t paying attention. And no, having a lid on top is NOT ENOUGH.
The Unbookables are a loose band of comedians (emphasis on “loose”) handpicked by Doug Stanhope. This movie documents their 2008 tour of the middle of the country, from my own Austin, Texas through Kansas City, Missouri to Peoria, Illinois. The cast of characters (emphasis on “characters”) includes Brendon Walsh, Sean Rouse, Andy Andrist, Norman Wilkerson, Brett Erickson, Travis Lipski, James Inman, and Kristine Levine. The unfortunate star of the show is James Inman. If nothing else, this film documents how reckless behavior can bring people together as well as single out one of them.
The first gig is at Nasty’s in Austin, and one of my own University of Texas colleagues gets the narrative rolling by leaving drugs around for Inman to find, like an Easter Egg hunt with negative repercussions. I was at Nasty’s that night, and everyone killed. It was proof of both why these guys are The Unbookables and why they’re such revered comedians. Night two was a “chicken wire” show at Beerland during which chicken wire is draped in front of the stage and the crowd throws fruit at the comics while they attempt to tell jokes. True to its heritage, the show was a complete trainwreck with mostly just the comedians pelting each other with fruit. Few jokes were told as everyone just made fun of Inman.
Inman’s shady behavior continued through the gigs in his then-home Kansas City. He almost ditches the others as they get fired from the first show of the weekend there thanks to one of Travis Lipski’s tamest jokes. Tensions mount, Kristine Levine joins the crew, and the plot spirals out of control as our heroes reach Peoria. Luckily Brett Erickson is there to save the day.
There’s obviously a lot more to it than I’ve detailed above, but it’s not all worth mentioning. With that said, The Unbookables is a gruesome glimpse into the world of touring stand-up comedy, and it’s damn worth checking out. Props due to all involved — except Inman, of course.
Man, there really needs to be more documentaries that show the living hell and unbridled joy it is to be a stand up comic. The Unbookables follows the tour of a comedy group established by comedian, destroyer of The Man Show and former Girls Gone Wild host Doug Stanhope. The group is a collection of comedians who’s concerns about making the audience laugh are put on the back-burner as they are more interested in raising hell and the ire of the audience with their dark comedy and getting their drink on.
Arguments, pranks and bad audiences fill the documentary as the group goes from club to club and to dive bar to dive bar. Tempers flare over being fired, tempers flare with the help of booze and drugs and tempers flare because tempers are flaring. This is a documentary for every person who’s come up to me after a show and told me that my life must be a blast being a comic because this documentary perfectly shows that while it’s a fun job, it can be one gigantic fucking headache as well.
The Unbookables focuses more on the comics battling each other as they carve a name for themselves for being intentionally offensive and it would have been nice seeing them battle more with bookers and show producers but what we get is just as good because, let’s face it, people like watching other people fight each other. These guys hurl swears at each other with more energy and creativity than some of the jokes they are telling on stage. The film spends more time as a “fly on the wall” watching the action unfold and there’s little to no confessionals from those among the group, so what you get is completely authentic. The doc likes to throw in clips of the men (and lady) doing their craft on stage but these act more as place settings or “establishing shots” that show where the group is as the main focus is the drama that unfolds when the mic has been turned off, the stage lights dimmed and the audience leaves the room.
The Unbookables is a great glimpse into one of the many facets of stand up comedy that those who sit in the audience drinking expensive watered-down drinks and laughing at the butt and fart jokes don’t get to see. Is every comics’ life like this? Hell no! When my shows are over, my only concern is to get out before some audience member comes up to me and tells me a long, drawn-out story that ultimately leads nowhere before he says something like, “You can use that story in your act.” But this movie gives a person a chance to see how messed up in the head a comic really is in all its raw and ugly bluntness.