Thursday, April 30, 2015

A teaser: Kevin Pollak talks about why he didn't really deal with the darkness that devoured some comedians in his film MISERY LOVES COMEDY

Kevin Pollak meets your correspondent

Back on April 21st I was part of a roundtable interview with comedian Kevin Pollak. We were there to discuss Mr Pollack’s film MISERY LOVES COMEDY about how comedians use comedy to deal with the pain of life. As round table interviews go it was one of the best I’ve ever attended. It was 8 people all on the same page having a conversation together. It’s wonderful dissection of how the film came together and ended up in the form it did. Because Ken helped me prep for the film I sent him a copy of the audio file and he was amazed how well the interview turned out. It’s a great talk.

…but there are problems, first it's very long. We were given 35 minutes, but because I start recording the instant I go through the door and don’t turn it off until I walk out the recording I made runs about 45 minutes. It’s so jam packed with material it’s taking me forever to transcribe it. At the rate I’m going it’s going to be next April before I finish. 

The other problem with the talk is that as good as the talk is to listen to it doesn't read well. There is nothing wrong with the way is sounds or what it said, but much like the Monty Python routine "Nudge Nudge Wink Wink"  it doesn't read as well as it sounds out loud. It reads awkward. Its a problem that has caused me no end of trouble and I ended up asking Ken for help revising and Lesley Coffin for advice as to what to do.

At Lesley's suggestion I'm going to restructure the piece into a cross between a straight transcription and an article reporting on the talk.  Its something that is going to take me a little time to do (I'm tired of fighting it and I'm putting it down for a day or so)

In order to be timely (the film after all is currently in theaters and available on VOD platforms), I’m going to post part of the interview so you can get a taste. 

The piece I'm posting is, selfishly, my first question to Mr Pollack. As funny as the film is I was curious why the film didn’t delve deeper into the dark places that many comedians find themselves in. The question was the result of the appearance of Mitch Hedberg's widow in the film. Hedberg had died as the result of a drug overdose and I found it odd that a potential poster boy for misery and comedy didn’t have his story explored more deeply. It was a question I really wanted answered because as the film ended it's revealed that the film was dedicated to Robin Williams, another tragic loss. 

What follows is the exchange between Mr Pollak and myself. It’s a wonderful statement of what Pollack was going for with his film and why it took the course it did.

Steve: It's a very funny movie, but there's this edge of tragedy there, and it's dedicated to Robin Williams. Did you interview him?

Kevin Pollak: No. If I had interviewed him for the film, he would have been in the film. No, here was a case like with many people...We had four consecutive five-day weeks to shoot and he wasn't available, he was shooting his TV show. Shooting those exact same four weeks, five 12-14 hours on a single camera show, and those four weeks he just wasn't available.

We spoke on the phone twice during those four weeks, almost an hour each time, because he didn't want to get off the phone. He wanted to keep talking on the subject matter, what it meant to him, what it meant to me, what he thought this film could be.

You know he had been a mentor to me since I was twenty. He had been a friend. So when I was editing the film he passed away...and my producers asked if I wanted to get a little crew together and go out and interview some more comedians, maybe (some) already in the film and just ask them how they feel about this passing and include it in the film because it seems germane to the subject and conversation. I felt that was too manipulative, too taking advantage of a horrific situation. Dedicating the the film just became an obvious choice, not only because of his tragic passing but more because of what he meant to me and what he's meant to comedy and what he meant to fans of comedy, which is ultimately what the center of the film is and hopes to be.

Steve: You have Mitch Hedberg's widow in the film and I'm surprised that the film doesn't deal with how dark some comedians can get when they are on the edge of the tragedy....

Kevin Pollak: So the question is why didn't it deal more with that?

Steve: Yes. It's a funny film, but the passing of Hedberg was so tragic and the passing of Robin Williams...

Kevin Pollak: I had to make sure it wasn't a bio-pic. I had to make sure it wasn't about any one individual's tragedy. I had to make sure it wasn't the journey into darkness for any one famous performer or any small group of famous performers. Rather make it about the pursuit of comedy and the articulating of misery. Which to me is a more interesting story than what caused someone to become addicted to drugs and die. I would rather speak to and listen to incredibly funny people talk about their experiences of misery, and their path to finding out a way to articulate it and entertain people with it.

So that while I wanted to include Richard Jeni, his family, or the family member who controls his story, wouldn't allow me to...while I wanted to include Mitch Hedberg...people who had passed based Richard Jeni's case depression, or Mitch Hedbergs's case addiction, which could be connected to depression...that to me is part of the film that to me wasn't what the film should focus on. So I felt like there was more interest and entertaining and even my ability to articulate truth of all performers by not spending too much time on any one performer or one cause of death.

So if you have Jim Jeffries talking and being ridiculously funny...his talking about the family of basketball spinning's my's not my FAVORITE but it's my funniest moment in the film. When he says that's gotta to be one person's passion, there's no way the rest of the family went "Yeah, me too!" And I asked him is that a bit from your act. He said no. Then afterwards when I was editing I said (to Jeffries), this moment was still in the film, you SURE that wasn't a bit from your act. He said no. I said well it should be, you should put that in your act, it's crazy funny and he said no, I said it just there in the moment and it's in your movie, that's fine. But it was him being honest about the weirdness of family that created this incredibly funny moment.

And later in the film, in the third act when we really deal with "do you have to be miserable to be funny", he talks about being on antidepressants for ten years on and off and being a (potential) suicide.

So now we've experienced the journey with him. We've seen him being funny, we've seen him talk about his influences, we have an emotional connection to him now so that when he me it's so much more powerful when he talks about being clinically depressed and when talks about having suicidal feelings because now we have a connection to him as a person as opposed to just focusing on that. So I think that bigger picture to me was much more fascinating

More from the round table interview is coming shortly.  I want to thank Ken Fries for checking over what I typed out and Lesley Coffin for making suggestions 

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