A look at some of the comedy-centric films in this year's Hot Docs festival roster, and whether or not they deliver.
We’re watching our way through the Hot Docs festival roster and telling you which films to see and which you might want to pass on. Today, we round up some of the fest’s most highly anticipated comedy-centric film offerings.
Directed by Robert Cohen
Bloor Hot Docs Cinema – Sat, Apr 25, 9:45 p.m.
Hart House Theatre – Sun, Apr 26 3:30 p.m.
Comedy writer Robert Cohen has spent the majority of his career in the United States, working on shows like Big Bang Theory and The Simpsons, where he says he’s tired of always being the butt of his American colleagues’ jokes. So, what does he do but go on a road trip across his homeland and…turn it into the butt of his own joke.
Being Canadian might be interesting for anyone who’s not Canadian, since Cohen superficially explores all of the typical queries and insecurities that we’ve experienced directly for decades like “What’s with the weather?” and “Why do Canadians apologize all the time?” The answers from the celebrity guest interviews—from Kim Campbell to Martin Short—are entertaining enough, but do little more than acknowledge these quirks to be real. Cohen’s cheesy jokes in his voice-overs (for instance, his claim of finding spiritual guidance from Wayne Gretzky) don’t help to reveal any deep truths about Canadian identity throughout his very made-up timeline, which involves travelling through a wintry Ottawa before making it to Vancouver for Canada Day a couple days later. In the end, Cohen discovers what the viewer likely suspects all along: we deserve better than this.
– Carly Maga
Live from New York!
Directed by Bao Nguyen
Bloor Hot Docs Cinema – Wed, Apr 29, 9:30 p.m.
TIFF Bell Lightbox 2 – Thu, Apr 30, 7:15 p.m.
Coming so soon after February’s three-hour Saturday Night Live anniversary special satisfied (and perhaps exhausted) the appetite for SNL nostalgia, a documentary about the show’s history and legacy is going to feel a little redundant. But even if Live from New York! had come out earlier, it would still be telling a story that was already chronicled in two doorstop bestsellers (Doug Hill and Jeff Weingrad’s Saturday Night and Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller’s Live from New York), several documentaries (a trio of decade-by-decade NBC docs from 2006, and James Franco’s recent Saturday Night), and a million “Best Of…” shows.
Even in this company, Bao Nguyen’s documentary feels the most like an “official” history, and not always in a good way. The Lorne Michaels–free years of 1980-1985 are dismissed in about two minutes (meaning the biggest breakout star in the show’s history—Eddie Murphy—is relegated to a few seconds). Time is made to address the show’s historic lack of diversity and “boys’ club” atmosphere, but with one eye towards brand management (did you know the show now has four black cast members?). Attention is rightly given to the show’s political satire (Chevy Chase’s Gerald Ford, Dana Carvey’s George H.W. Bush, Darrell Hammond’s Al Gore, and Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin), but it’s hard to take this too seriously when we are also shown a clip of Carvey/Bush rapping. Plenty of alumni (Chase, Carvey, Will Ferrell, Jimmy Fallon, and Chris Rock, to name five) are on hand to attest to the show’s importance, but the absences (Murphy, Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Mike Myers, and Norm Macdonald, to name five) are at least as noticeable. There is also practically no mention of the druggy debauchery that has defined the early years in the popular imagination.
As a quick introduction to SNL’s enormous legacy, Live from New York! gets the job done. But when you can easily read the more thorough and outrageous Shales/Miller book, why settle for this?
– Will Sloan
Monty Python: The Meaning of Live
Directed by Roger Graef, James Rogan
Bloor Hot Docs Cinema – Mon, Apr 27, 6:30 p.m.
Isabel Bader Theatre – Tue, Apr 28, 11:30 a.m.
Fox Theatre – Sat, May 2, 9 p.m.
Bloor Hot Docs Cinema – Sun, May 3, 4 p.m.
The five surviving members of the Monty Python troupe, 34 years removed from their last live performance together and currently in their 70s, are holding a press conference. Would you rather see them: a) dust off their 45-year-old comedy routines for 10 performances at a cavernous arena, or b) hang out?
Those who saw their blockbuster reunion show last summer—either at London’s 02 Arena or via live broadcast—have already seen the first option. The Meaning of Live thankfully provides the second.
Co-directed by longtime Python documentarian Roger Graef (Pleasure at Her Majesty’s), the film follows the group as they conceive, rehearse, and perform the stage revue to pay off debts from an unsuccessful lawsuit. Graef and James Rogan give a strong sense of the personalities at play: Eric Idle, in charge of corralling the production, and (we infer) the neediest of the bunch; Michael Palin, “the nice one,” and the key Python utility player; Terry Jones, vaguely detached as he struggles to remember his lines; Terry Gilliam, now an acclaimed filmmaker, struggling to re-enter the group dynamic; and John Cleese, who remains “the key man in the group.” Python fans tend to be obsessives, and for those of us who grew up committing all the cheeses from the “Cheese Shop” sketch to memory, these five men are like members of the family.
More than 100,000 people attended the reunion concerts, and Graef/Rogan’s camera captures some of them. We see Python fans silly-walking their way to the 02 with their “Knights of Ni” costumes and fake British accents. This, and what we see of the Pythons’ performances, is a melancholy sight. There was a time when the Pythons were on the bleeding edge of comedy, when every TV episode yielded a surprise, and when a mysterious, intangible energy permeated their work. The time has passed. You can still feel the energy in their original materials, but it’s sometimes disheartening seeing the Pythons resurrect their material outside its original context (Gilliam and Palin seem shocked when the “Camp Judges” bit is described as homophobic). What remains, however, is the easy chemistry of men who have known each other for over four decades. Whether you’re a Python fan or not, it’s nice to be allowed into the group for a bit.
– Will Sloan
Directed by Kristina Goolsby, Ashley York
TIFF Bell Lightbox – Sun, May 3, 7 p.m.
After years under the radar, comedian Tig Notaro’s career exploded when her life was at a low ebb. At an instantly legendary performance at the Largo club in Los Angeles, she improvised a painfully funny set about her breast cancer diagnosis, which topped a year marked by a Clostridium difficile infection, her mother’s death, and a breakup. Kristina Goolsby and Ashley York’s candid documentary catches up with Notaro in the immediate aftermath of her recovery, struggling to adjust to the intensity of her new fame.
Those familiar with Notaro only through her dry, deadpan talk show/standup persona might be surprised by the intimacy of this portrait: the film shows the birth and intensification of her relationship with Stephanie Allynne, and follows her struggle to conceive a child (there’s even a camera on Notaro as she learns if a surrogate pregnancy has taken). Those interested in the art of standup comedy will relish the film’s access to Notaro’s creative life: we see her struggle to build a new act from the ground up, and see the many factors that can make a single joke live or die. And for all the drama of Notaro’s recent life, the key pleasure of Tig comes from simply being able to spend time with funny people being funny.
– Will Sloan