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.