Misery Loves Comedy — An Interview with Kevin Pollak
I’ve always enjoyed Kevin Pollak. He’s an interesting character actor, a great impressionist, and funny stand-up. I once caught him at the Improv in Irvine. It was rather embarrassing when talking to him after the show, my girlfriend at the time told him about how he inspired me to do a Christopher Walken impersonation. He smiled and said, “Let’s hear it.”
I told him I wouldn’t, because not only is his so great, but the girlfriend said mine sounded the same as my Woody Allen impersonation.
Well, not everyone can be funny and that, and a few other topics about what makes a good comedian, are the subjects of the documentary Misery Loves Comedy. It was written, produced, and directed by Pollak and opens today in San Diego.
It turns out the guy that’s so great behind the microphone is equally talented behind the camera.
Here’s the conversation we had about his great documentary.
JOSH BOARD: It was interesting hearing the various comedians talk about whether or not their parents were funny, or their attempts to impress them with jokes. Did you try to make your parents laugh?
KEVIN POLLAK: They brought home comedy albums and I saw them laugh harder at these comedians telling stories, which emitted from the stereo hi-fi, which back then was a 7-foot wide piece of furniture. Compare that to the iPod! Eventually, I wanted to be the one telling the stories, so when no one was around, I stood in front of the stereo and pretended I was the comedian. What I was doing, of course, was lip-syncing, without knowing that it was something people did. I was just playing. My mom came home early one day and caught me doing it and proclaimed, “You’re going to do that at the Zuckers at Passover.” I hadn’t thought prior to that moment that what I was doing was something to be done for an audience. That changed after that first “show” in front of the fireplace at the Zuckers.
JOSH BOARD: Ah, so perhaps that’s how the brick wall behind comedians came to be!
So, the topic of bullies came up in the film. Did you employ the technique of making them laugh so you’d avoid their wrath?
KEVIN POLLAK: Like Jim Norton mentions in my film, I would absolutely make the football player or bully laugh as a way of avoiding an ass beating for being a smart ass.
JOSH BOARD: One of the most interesting things for me was something I hadn’t thought about before. A comedian talked about a joke being ruined by the way a movie was edited. Are there any movies you can recall that happening, or did it make you a bit more conscious on how you edited this documentary?
KEVIN POLLAK: Editing the first 27 versions of this, alone in the vacuum of the editing bay…which was my dining room table…was by far the most educational aspect of directing this film. It was in this 10-month editing process that I learned a new form of honing material that I had been doing for decades as a comedian and writer. I had over 60 hours of interviews, but no script or narrative of any kind. I had to create one in editing. A three-act structure began to take shape after creating chapters that cover the trajectory of a funny person; getting support or not, choosing the profession, putting in the time to learn the trade, bombing. I found that by staving off the original thesis of ‘Do you have to be miserable to be funny’ until the third act, I had an actual story to be told.
JOSH BOARD: Was there anybody you really wanted to speak with that you just couldn’t make happen because of scheduling or whatever?
KEVIN POLLAK: Oh, there were quite a few. We had an actual shooting schedule that lasted four consecutive weeks. I reached out to all the talent I could, and those available we put on the schedule. When we began shooting, we had 25 people and I thought I could get 25 hours of footage from them, and easily cut a 90 minute film. But then people kept saying yes as we were shooting, so we slotted them in and ended up with over 60 interviews. But there were huge disappointments over scheduling of who we couldn’t get. Robin Williams was shooting his TV show during the exact four weeks that we shot and I simply couldn’t steal him away for 10 straight minutes. We got on the phone twice during the shoot, both times lasting about an hour, as he talked at length about how wonderful he thought it was that I was getting this film made. Then there was the time I ran into Dave Chappelle on day one of the shoot in New York. He just happened to be in front of me in line at one of the 7,000 Starbucks in New York, at the exact moment I walked in. Crazy timing. But after he agreed to be in the film, the scheduling ultimately didn’t work out. Seinfeld emailed me to say that he felt “talked out” on the subject of comedy, and given his own documentary [Comedian] as well as his internet show featuring comedians in cars getting coffee, I completely understood. There were more, but I’d say we did pretty well.
JOSH BOARD: Everyone that sees this documentary will love it, but I always wonder if the filmmaker regrets certain decisions they made in editing, or questions you may wish you had asked. Any regrets that you can think of?
KEVIN POLLAK: After cutting the film for 10 months, I’m happy to say that I have no outstanding regrets regarding what ended up in the film or what moment could have gone on further. Having said that, if the Sundance Film Festival submissions deadline hadn’t forced me to lock the print in order to submit, I could have continued cutting and reshaping for another 10 months. There was simply no correct way to tell this story, just the one I took a stab at. And then another stab…and another…and another. Well, you get the picture.
JOSH BOARD: I loved seeing comedians that I liked, but it was also interesting hearing actors like William H. Macy and Sam Rockwell comment. How thrilled were you that you got Tom Hanks? And, were you tempted to tell him how Punchlinewas a horrible depiction of stand-up comedy?
KEVIN POLLAK: It was just insane timing that I was able to book Tom for my internet talk show, Kevin Pollak’s Chat Show, during the four weeks that we were shooting the filming for the movie. So I just set up a Red camera and carved out a section of my Chat Show interview with him for the film. I let him know, of course, that I was double-dipping, and had him sign two release forms; one for the show and one for the film. But again, that was just crazy luck. And yes, Punchline was not an accurate depiction of the real world of stand-up comedy club life.
JOSH BOARD: When Jon Favreau talked about not wanting a single scene edited in a movie, and after it doesn’t test well with audiences he’s more than happy to…that made me think of the many movies you’ve made. Have you ever been at a screening or in the theatre watching a movie and people didn’t laugh where the joke was, or they laughed at an inappropriate time that wasn’t meant to be funny?
KEVIN POLLAK: Oh hell yes. It’s practically a guarantee.
[Since Pollak and I both rank The In-Laws as one of our favorite comedies of all time, I share with him a story Arkin told me about the famous “serpentine” scene. I hoped he didn’t think I was sharing that with him in an attempt to hear him do his fabulous Arkin impersonation]
JOSH BOARD: You were so low-key doing interviews, yet I laughed hard at a few lines you had. Other times, just hearing you laugh at something the comedians said, made me laugh. That made me wonder…why weren’t you also in front of the camera? Had this been a documentary filmmaker we didn’t know, we wouldn’t need to hear their take on comedy; but you’re a great comedian and actor, and we’d all like to hear your take on some of the questions you’re asking.
KEVIN POLLAK: I told the producers early on that I wouldn’t appear on camera. My reasons were that I felt like if I was seen on camera, it would feel like an interview show. I wanted them to feel like conversations, and by only hearing me on occasion, my hope was that it would feel more intimate. We agreed to mic me, thereby having me on a separate track for every conversation. In editing, I realized that less was more, and that the film, and all of its editing choices, would represent my opinion on each chapter; so there was no need to interject my take on any one question during the conversation.
JOSH BOARD: You make a great point about everyone dabbling in comedy. Jonathan Winters once said on 60 Minutes he often met people that weren’t funny but thought they were. So what do you do if somebody tries to make you laugh and they’re truly horrible at telling a story or joke?
KEVIN POLLAK: I usually let the others present decide the fate of the amateur at the party. Unless of course, they’ve made the mistake of trying to impress me, and then I have no choice. I find it best to respond honestly, so I groan or laugh depending. Fortunately, laughter, or lack there of, is an involuntary response, unless one chooses to do a fake laugh, which I’m no longer capable of.
JOSH BOARD: I want to ask you a few movie questions about some of the films from your career.
When A Few Good Men came out, I interviewed Wolfgang Bodison. He said his mom didn’t believe he was doing a movie with Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson when he first called her. Since that film was relatively early in your film career, did you have friends and family that were excited that you did scenes with these two…and Demi Moore? Or any anecdotes from the film you can share?
KEVIN POLLAK: All of my family and friends were beside themselves with excitement for me and this truly ridiculous life-changing opportunity. I’ve still not had that many requests to visit the set since. As for anecdotes, you’ll have to read my book How I Slept my Way to the Middle, because there’s just too many and there all quite lengthy and detailed. Sorry, I’m not playing coy. I’ve just tried to do the short versions and they don’t do justice.
JOSH BOARD: You did two movies I liked that didn’t get the best reviews – Willowand Miami Rhapsody. Are you surprised by reviews or what people like/dislike, or do you not even bother worrying about it?
KEVIN POLLAK: This new documentary of mine is getting mostly mixed reviews, which is exactly what I predicted. Much like comedy in all forms, it’s completely subjective as to what is funny. The tricky part is that this is the first time I’ve edited a film, and starting with 60 hours of conversations and ultimately finding a narrative and story to tell was an impossible task that I’ve yet to see acknowledged in a single review. Mostly, I find reviews only interesting or helpful if they offer something more than just an opinion, like insight into the subject matter; or if it wouldn’t kill ya, maybe focus 70/30 on what you did like about the film. Everyone has their own, so why would one person whose job it is to be critical, have the opinion that matters more than the person reading the review? That said, thanks for the positive review, if that’s what you’ve given us.
JOSH BOARD: I’m giving the movie a great review and it’s probably going to be on my Top 10 of the year. And that’s not just because I’m interviewing you. I’ve made the mistake of interviewing people (Hi Marisa Tomei), where I told them at the start of the interview I didn’t care for their latest movie.
Did you bone up on a lot of documentaries before heading into this project? I imagine you would’ve seen Comedian or The Aristocrats anyway, but…
KEVIN POLLAK: I didn’t watch any documentaries in prep. I focused more on the questions that I wanted to ask and why and how they may illicit the kind of answers that might ultimately tell a story. It’s the same when I’m acting in a film. I don’t do research outside of the script. The entire story of these characters and their lives is truly only available during the stories that are all in the script. So, what I do each time is to read the script 25 times so that I know every square inch of my character’s journey, and the journeys of all the characters that I encounter.
JOSH BOARD: I’m going to end with this question, relating to Chris Rock’s movie about a comedian – Top Five. He’s always having his friends rattle off their list of favorite Top 5’s. So…who are your top five stand-up comedians of all-time?
KEVIN POLLAK: Albert Brooks, Jonathan Winters, Richard Pryor, George Carlin, and Woody Allen.
JOSH BOARD: And lastly, your top five comedies.
KEVIN POLLAK: The In-Laws, Modern Romance, The Princess Bride, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, and Ghostbusters.
Misery Loves Comedy, the best documentary of the year, opens today at the Digital Gym in North Park.