Humorist Mark Twain famously wrote: “The secret source of humor itself is not joy but sorrow. There is no humor in heaven.” In recent years, stand-up comedy has been disassembled, dissected, and analyzed in an attempt to tap into this secret source. For now, we have specials such as the game-changing Nanette by Australian comic Hannah Gatsby, (who not only psychoanalyzes the painful inspiration of her jokes but her audiences’ reactions while still bringing the humor), to Marc Maron, who transitioned to successful podcaster-slash-therapist to many comedians and celebrities, leading many to bare their souls to his listeners.
Stand-up has often become more of a “lie down” onto a therapist’s sofa. This pain is also the root of the leads in All Joking Aside, from first-time feature director Shannon Kohli and written by James Pickering.
Charlene “Charlie” Murray (Raylene Harewood) is a young New Yorker whose life of bagging groceries and volunteerism is enough to pay the rent but nowhere near fulfilling. She longs to be a stand-up comic. Her father shared those same aspirations but died before they were satisfied, making her all the more determined to prove herself. Her latest open-mic set at a comedy club was over before it began, though, because barfly Bob Carpenter (Brian Markinson) heckles and derails her bit, causing her to exit stage right soon after her first setup.
“…Charlie seeks out tutelage on how to sharpen her skills from the reclusive, bitter comic.”
Charlie later finds that Bob was one of the leading comics of his day, and had even opened for Seinfeld, but a particular set ended with an assault charge and a subsequent dried-up career. Undeterred, Charlie seeks out tutelage on how to sharpen her skills from the reclusive, bitter comic.
There is a quaint simplicity to All Joking Aside that harkens to an earlier era, like a Rodney Dangerfield special on HBO in the 1980s. And while there are several serious topics discussed throughout its runtime (cancer, misogyny within stand-up, fractured families), the film is not interested in digging too deep into them, staying focused on the core relationship between its leads.
Harewood is earnest, but perhaps never genuinely believable once she takes the stage. When she verbally spars with Markinson, the actress brings a bit more of the raw intensity one wishes she used when she grabs the mic. Markinson, however, with his Dave Attell gravel-gargling delivery, seems made for his role. His sadness is etched behind his smug demeanor and is amplified by barbed delivery.
Some may fault the film for not addressing these matters with a more critical eye, but those issues seem marginal under director Kohli’s attentive care. She breathes just as much life into Charlie’s squalid, shoebox-sized apartment as she does the dingy basement comedy clubs in which she performs.
All Joking Aside gives us but a glimpse of the pain behind the smiles, but like an evening at a comedy club, leaves us with a good-natured grin.
"…a glimpse of the pain behind the smiles..."