Skip to main content

A Documentarian Walks into a Bar…

By Tamara Krinsky

Paul Provenza (left), recognized in TV, film, theater and stand-up comedy, made his feature directing debut with the award-winning documentary film The Aristocrats

Humor and documentaries are not obvious bedfellows, but in recent years, the pairing has become more and more common as filmmakers realize what a valuable tool humor can be in reeling in audiences. We asked some of our favorite comedians and humorists to weigh in. Participants: Michael Blieden, Tommy Chong, Annabelle Gurwitch, Laura Kightlinger, Jackie Martling, Patton Oswalt and Paul Provenza.

MICHAEL BLIEDEN--Writer/actor/director/editor Blieden directed the Comedy Central series The Comedians of Comedy, and has appeared on tArrested Development, The Late Late Show with Craig Kilborn and The King of Queens, among others. He wrote, edited and starred in the award-winning film Melvin Goes to Dinner, directed by Bob Odenkirk. T

TOMMY CHONG--Comedy/stoner icon Chong enjoyed a major following throughout the ’70s and ’80s as one half of the comedy duo Cheech and Chong. True to his comedy image, Chong and his family ran Nice Dreams Enterprises, an Internet company that sold bongs and pipes. He was arrested in 2003 on federal drug paraphernalia charges and sentenced in September of that year. His arrest was documented in Josh Gilbert’s award-winning documentary a/k/a Tommy Chong.

ANNABELLE GURWITCH--Gurwitch is the author of the book Fired! Tales of the Canned, Cancelled, Downsized and Dismissed, which inspired the documentary Fired!, which she wrote and produced. Gurwitch is best known to television audiences for her numerous years as co-host of the cult favorite Dinner and a Movie on TBS. She is a contributing writer to Day to Day on NPR and has published humor pieces in Los Angeles Magazine, Glamour and Premiere, among others. She frequently performs in theater, film and television.

LAURA KIGHTLINGER--Actress/comedienne Kightlinger began her career as a stand-up comic in Boston. Her subsequent onscreen appearances include Kicking and Screaming, Daddy Day Care, Mr. Show, Lucky Louie and many more. She worked as a writer on Saturday Night Live, Roseanne and Will and Grace, and is the creator, star and executive producer of IFC's comedy series The Minor Accomplishments of Jackie Woodman. She directed the documentary Sixty Spins Around the Sun, about a former stand-up comic struggling with addiction while fighting to repeal the Rockefeller Drug Laws.

JACKIE MARTLING--Stand-up comedian, writer and recording artist Martling was the head writer of the Howard Stern radio and television shows for over 15 years. He currently hosts "Jackie's Joke Hunt," his radio show on Sirius Satellite Radio.

PATTON OSWALT--Stand-up comedian Oswalt has been headlining clubs all over the US since 1996. In 1999, Variety chose him as one of ten "Comedians to Watch," and in 2002 he was Entertainment Weekly's "It" Comedian. Oswalt has filmed stand-up specials for HBO and Comedy Central and works regularly in film and television, both as an actor and a writer. Recently, he executive-produced and starred in Comedians of Comedy, a behind-the-scenes, documentary-style series on Comedy Central.

PAUL PROVENZA--Recognized in TV, film, theater and stand-up comedy for the past decade, Provenza is an accomplished comedian and a classically trained actor. He has written, produced and starred in comedy specials such as Comedy Central’s Pulp Comics, and has toured the world with his stand-up routines. He made his feature directing debut with the award-winning documentary film The Aristocrats, and is currently in production on Everyone Poops, based on the international best-selling children's book.


What are your favorite docs?

PO: American Movie (Chris Smith), Sherman’s March (Ross McElwee), Salesman (Albert and David Maysles, Charlotte Zwerin).

LK: My favorite documentaries are Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer by Nick Broomfield; Fast, Cheap and Out of Control by Errol Morris; and Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky. The Wuornos documentary made a lasting impression on me. I remember thinking it could save the life of this woman who never had any expectation of justice and never received any. And even though it didn't save Wuornos's life, it gave a deeply compelling argument for her side of the story.

PP: Hoop Dreams (Steve James), Spellbound (Jeffrey Blitz), Painted Babies (Jane Treays), Mr. Death (Errol Morris) and Dancing Outlaw (Jacob Young).

TC: I love all documentaries because there is so much to learn. I recently saw Grizzly Man by Werner Herzog. That was a good one...not too much humor in it, though.

AG: In the ’80s when I went to NYU and lived in the Village in New York, there was a cinema on Bleecker Street that showed documentaries and I can remember sitting in the theatre watching Sherman's March, Gates of Heaven and Michael Apted's Up series, and I got hooked on docs. Stephanie Black, one of my fellow students and friends at the time, has become a leading documentary filmmaker whose films have tremendous social and political importance. Her films H2 Worker and Life and Debt have been incredibly inspiring to me in terms of how you can make riveting yet educational docs.

JM: The nine-volume New York by Ric Burns; Martin Scorsese’s Bob Dylan documentary, No Direction Home; Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth (Davis Guggenheim, dir.); Morgan Spurlock’s Super-Size Me; a/k/a Tommy Chong by Josh Gilbert; and (Chris Paine’s) Who Killed The Electric Car?. And, of course, the dirty joke documentary The Aristocrats.

MB: I am a recent convert to the work of the Maysles Brothers, more specifically Grey Gardens, Salesman and What’s Happening! The Beatles in the USA. The care they lavish on those subjects came as a revelation to me. Their patience to let the moment play out has been something I strive for constantly. I think doing documentary is a constant exercise in letting go and clearing your mind of any preconceptions about how things are supposed to go down. I also think that Dave Chappelle's Block Party (Michel Gondry) is a perfect film.


What is the role of humor in documentary?

TC: Well, the role of humor in life! As a comedian, I find humor in everything, everywhere, regardless. I believe God has a great sense of humor.

PO: I don't think it has a pre-determined "role." But I think more and more documentary filmmakers are realizing that humor can creep into even the most serious subjects. Sometimes it's the comedy of disbelief—like the stepfather in the Paradise Lost documentaries waltzing onscreen and constantly hinting that he committed the murders. There's something so dark and funny about that. Or how about in Dream Deceivers, where the mother of the barely survived, shotgun-suicide teen has his psychiatric evaluation read to her--and how it completely refutes her bullshit fantasy of his home life?

PP: Humor is both a means of communicating perspectives on serious subjects and a serious subject in its own right. With the impact that comedy and satire are having right now on public discourse, particularly in a time where each and every word in political and journalistic circles is so carefully chosen so as to not offend or to deflect, comedy is becoming an arena in which actual discourse is provoked about risky subjects. The mechanism of humor, and the fact that it goes where legitimate journalism and political discourse fear to tread, is more important now than ever.

MB: The audience writes the jokes in documentaries. I think that what plays as funny is entirely specific to the context in which the film is viewed. A documentary may be filmed as serious propaganda in 1960, but play quite comically in 2006. Similarly, a subject may be earnestly pouring his or her heart out, and yet a theater full of hipsters in New York or LA will be cynically—mercilessly--cracking up at it. To that end, I think that comedy in documentaries has been a manifestation of the rampant irony that became so fashionable in the ’90s and continues today.

AG: It's funny that there is a perception that docs are just beginning to discover humor; this comedic doc pathway was pioneered at least 20 years ago. I remember Les Blank’s short Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, which certainly altered my perception of Werner Herzog, filmmaking and edible footwear. When you take into account that something like 80 percent of people in their 20s get their news from The Daily Show, you have to consider that the best way to reach people on serious issues may be through comedy.


How have documentaries informed your work or affected your material?

PO: I try to be much more aware of the rhythms of people's speech and especially how they hold themselves physically when they talk. This first started cropping up ten years ago when I did bits about the show COPS, which was like watching Wiseman footage every week--before the general public became so media-savvy.

MB: The documentary aesthetic really didn't get through to me until the rise of The Real World. I'm sure that's disheartening to some purists. But when that show started airing, I finally saw the potential not just of filming more "reality" (that word has come to mean its opposite, but I use it here to connote actual reality), but of writing with a documentary aesthetic in mind. Demand for low cost programming seems to be softening the ground for a more widespread acceptance of the stripped-down approach. NBC's The Office is perhaps the most visible symbol of the fact that we now accept the presence of a film crew (fictional or real) anywhere and everywhere. The documentary camera has been transmuted from an instrument of reportage, to a narrative device.

PP: Watching enough good documentaries makes “sentimentalism” more and more apparent in all forms of art. Sentimentalism and emotional manipulation are the hallmarks of bad art and sloppy journalism. Good documentaries throw sentimentalism into stark relief--when I see sentimentalism, I recognize it immediately and cringe. In that way, good documentaries--with intellectual and emotional integrity--have informed much of my perspective on all art, and are a stern warning to avoid [sentimentalism] in my own work.

The best documentaries don't tell us what or how to feel. They present perspectives and allow us to feel whatever we feel--not some pre-planned emotional response.


It's often said that truth is stranger than fiction. Is there anything to which you've been exposed via documentary film that has proved this to be true?

AG: There's that odd nexus of “funny ha-ha” and “funny peculiar.” Ben Stein told me this story: He had been Richard Nixon's speech-writer and when Nixon resigned, he expected to stay on in the Ford White House. He was in his office when his boss, Donald Rumsfeld, came in and said, "So, Ben, what are your plans?" Stein answered, "I thought I'd stay on here." Rumsfeld replied, "What are your other plans?" I can only wonder if that conversation were repeated by George W. and Rummy when Rummy resigned.

Funny ha-ha, funny peculiar, ironic? I'm not sure which it is, but I wish I could have filmed it!

JM: What makes documentaries so fascinating is how often truth is stranger than fiction. My favorite is that the Siamese twins in the classic and long-banned semi-documentary 1932 Todd Browning film Freaks were the Hilton sisters. Daisy and Violet Hilton were international celebrities--and were connected at the butt cheek.

LK: As far as I can tell, truth is stranger and more interesting than fiction. What I still think is strange but true is that I somehow found the money and absence of mind to follow an intensely complex, innately funny bastard around--my old friend, Randy Credico -- for Sixty Spins Around the Sun.

PP: Every time I see any nature documentary, I certainly find that to be true. Many terrific documentaries tell stories that, were they scripted narrative films, would be impossible to believe. The fact that they are true stories and not the product of some writer's imagination is a given that makes these impossible-to-believe stories all the more compelling.


Tamara Krinsky is the associate editor of Documentary magazine and is on the Advisory Board of the Film Program for HBO’s US Comedy Arts Festival.