A couple months ago, I tried to watch Peacock Season, which is a movie about a depressing standup comic trying to make it at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Having seen the bleakness of the comedy industry portrayed in films before (i.e. Funny People), I thought the idea had potential. Unfortunately, despite cameos and bit parts from familiar faces of the British comedy world, the budget was so low that it seemed they couldn’t even afford light bulbs (not helped by half the characters being backlit by sunny windows).
The Comedian’s Guide to Survival attempts a similar story, but these guys nail it.
James Mullinger (a real-life comedian and co-writer of the film but played by James Buckley in the movie) is surprised to find himself in L.A. in the presence of some of his greatest comedy heroes. How did he get here? It wasn’t because he’s a kick-ass reporter: his boss hates him. It wasn’t for being a swell guy: even his wife is at tether’s end with him. And it certainly wasn’t because he’s such a funny standup comic…unless you count pissing your pants on stage. But what James does know is that if he screws up in L.A., he’s coming home to no job, no wife, and no comedy career. Will he be able to snag the biggest comedian in L.A. for the cover of the magazine? Will he be able to avoid the temptations of squeezing in just one more comedy gig? Will he be able to hitch a lift without losing his pants?
The Comedian’s Guide to Survival is everything Peacock Season wanted to be. It looks like a high budget film with superb editing tricks and an intelligent narrative that allows the plot to progress emotionally rather than chronologically. This format sees the story told in voice over (which we learn is him talking to his therapist) as well as directly to the camera. The funniest running gag is that other people can hear him talking to us, the viewers. Sometimes this is overt—like his boss complaining that he talks to himself too much—and other times it is subtle—like a waiter glancing behind him to see who he’s talking to.
The second great feature of this film is, like Peacock Season, they pinned down a number of comedy greats. The best performance in the film has to be Paul Kaye as James’ deputy editor at the magazine. He plays a substantial role and is over-the-top cruel, but not so over-the-top that he ever stops being funny. You’ll also be delighted to see Kevin Eldon as the American limo driver who is so clueless about British humor that it inhibits his ability to understand any kind of humor; and Mark Heap doing what he does best—really freaking creepy. The usage of these recognizable names should be noted. If you look at a lot of American comedy films that are designed to wedge in as many cameos as possible, you’ll see that those actors are underused. They pop up and then they pop down, and you go, “Hey isn’t that…oh, they’re gone.” The Comedian’s Guide to Survival doesn’t do that. Instead, scenes are given time to breathe. You spend a lot of time with Kaye, Eldon, and Heap. The script plays to their strengths, and it allows the actors to show their talent. If you’ve been brainwashed by cameo-heavy teen flicks of the White Castle sort, you might see this as “slow,” but I find it refreshing and respectful. The pacing never drags.
A semi-autobiographical film, especially about the depressing realities of the comedy industry, has much potential to flop, so James Mullinger, Mark Murphy, and the whole team behind and in front of The Comedian’s Guide to Survival should be especially proud of their success.