Last February, Matt Ruby filmed I Need Laughs, documenting a typical week for him as an underground comic. Through performances at booked shows and open mics, Ruby allows viewers a glimpse into a world to which outsiders are rarely exposed.
Filmed in a conspiratorial style with low contrast, shrouded profiles, and the documentarian's face either obscured by darkness or cut off altogether in many of his solo confessional scenes, I Need Laughs blurs the line of demarcation separating performer and audience. Performance scenes shot from the backs of rooms, flanked by silhouetted audience members or from behind half-empty glasses of booze give the viewer a sense of being let in on a secret.
Matt Ruby's documentation of the comic lifestyle doesn't end with I Need Laughs. On his blog, Sandpaper Suit, he writes about how the comedy sausage is made, and he also hosts the monthly podcast We're All Friends Here with comedian Mark Normand. To an outsider like myself, the blog, podcast, and documentary are entertaining, but Ruby's fellow comics seem to find his creations invaluable. A quick glance at the site's comments section reveals discourses on a diverse array of topics like hecklers, women in comedy, the life cycle of a bit, and scores of comedians, industry insiders, and fans engaging on often polemical issues in constructive ways. E.B. White once suggested that "analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it," but in the case of Ruby's blog, not only does the frog live, he seems of a more stout constitution for the blog's existence.
In I Need Laughs and on his blog, Ruby chooses to not only showcase his successes, but also his shortcomings – and doesn't shy away from cringe-worthy moments. We get to see, from inception to its seminal form on stage, the development of a bit about Ruby trying to rebel against his mother by acting as the straight-laced foil to her unconventional nature and the evolution of a fleeting thought about spills on the subway to a successful joke. We get a peek inside an analytical mind as it dissects a subjective art form.
Sandpaper Suit often features Ruby's hand-scrawled notes and graphs deconstructing his opinions on comedians' annoying habits, or the success ratio of new material to old. Matt also documents his struggle between the comic he is and the one he aspires to be: a comic who dresses in suits like the influential but markedly un-alternative Steve Martin, while emulating the honest and intimate style of comics like Richard Pryor and Louis CK.
Many of the comics featured in I Need Laughs, among them grizzled, unsung veterans and 20- and 30-something open micers, have achieved a number of successes since the documentary was filmed. Mike Lawrence was a New Face this year at the Just For Laughs Festival in Montreal; Jared Logan, Mark Normand, and Jamie Lee were each semifinalists on the most recent season of Last Comic Standing; and Josh Comers ("How do you know when you're no longer paying your dues and you're just failing?") now writes for Conan. I Need Laughs never glamorizes the life of comedians, so it's nice to know that the work they do isn't unrewarded.
Before ever contacting Matt Ruby, I lurked on his blog for months, reading posts without commenting, feeling presumptuous for even thinking to offer my opinions or submit them as equal to those of his other commenters, a group including comedians whose work I've long or newly enjoyed. I quickly found that not only on his blog, but in I Need Laughs, and on his often awkwardly confessional We're All Friends Here, Matt Ruby fosters an atmosphere of insular inclusivity – which may seem oxymoronic — where readers are invited with open arms into a subculture long notorious for being less than welcoming. For a comedy nerd like me, and I imagine many others, it's been an entertaining education.
Recommended comedian documentaries: Lenny Bruce Without Tears (which, ironically, made me cry), Comedians of Comedy, When Stand Up Stood Out, Jerry Seinfield's Comedian, I Am Comic, David Cross — Let America Laugh, Joan Rivers' A Piece of Work, Why We Laugh, American Scream: The Bill Hicks Story, PBS' Make ‘Em Laugh, Welcome to the Stage… and tons more.
Rebecca V. O'Neal is a Chicago-based comedy nerd and internet addict, the latter of which she feels facilitates her increasingly sedentary lifestyle. Do not enable her obsession by visiting her vintage fashion, comic book, literary, or comedy blogs or by following her on Twitter. She spends her time as a freelance writer, thrift store and estate sale frequenter, and depressed homebody who knows not the joy of smoke and drink. No known photographs exist of Rebecca, as it's purported that she is, in fact, a series of sophisticated holograms. She makes viral videos (1,2) in her spare time, because she has nothing else to do.