No line better describes G.B. Shannon’s Show Business Is My Life, But I Can’t Prove It than one given early on in the documentary: “Gary Mule Deer, you were my favorite comedian. I forgot all about you.” This is among many anecdotes that set the tone as it explores the life of eccentric comedian Gary Miller, better known by his stage name Gary Mule Deer. It is an overall engaging tale, much of it recounted by the comedian himself.
A bevy of well-known comedians is also on hand to provide their memories of the now sage-like Miller and his unique humor. Conan O’Brien, David Letterman, Steve Martin, Jay Leno, and more all share their appreciation of the man. This gives the impression that Miller sits firmly inside the parameters of your favorite comedian’s favorite comedian. Their stories are often delivered with the respect of an apprentice speaking of a master. Yet the stories are always wild and indescribably bygone, like when Miller met Willie Nelson and Frank Sinatra on the same night.
“…the life of eccentric comedian Gary Miller, better known by his stage name Gary Mule Deer.”
Fittingly, then, the documentary itself is a ride through history, and its greatest strength is that it takes you along. From his humble beginnings in North Dakota to the neon glitz of Las Vegas, the film accompanies its narrative with visual re-enactments of Miller’s most important moments, supplemented by actual footage of his stand-up routines. It all works together to paint the portrait of a man who was a pioneer in his field. But as the film’s title proposes, he was never recognized as he should have been. The film consistently suggests Miller as a sort of ghostly figure — appearing for a moment on the stage to delight all, then disappearing just as quickly.
But when Show Business Is My Life, But I Can’t Prove It finally delves into Miller’s demons, it stops short of mining the most intimate veins of emotion. The narrative in these sections begs for a deeper revelation of his character, an apprehension of who the man truly was behind the façade. Shannon should’ve further explored the comedian’s struggle with fatherhood and the ever-ubiquitous tales of cocaine and addiction that were so common in the 1970s. Instead, the film glosses over it. Greater intimacy is drawn from Gary Miller’s wife and son than from his own words, which is unfortunate, as it is this precise insight that would have elevated the film to a more genuine place.
As the documentary rounds its final bend, there is a fleeting injection of sentimentality — a consideration for mortality that is sudden and oddly juxtaposed, considering how streamlined the rest of the running time endeavours to be. As a whole, the biggest strength of Show Business Is My Life, But I Can’t Prove It is it makes you feel as though you know Gary Miller/ Gary Mule Deer. But, its core setback is that you never know him personally. What is left by the end is simply the adventure of it all: the sepia glow of the 70s, the comic’s mad genius, and his ease of generating laughs. But those laughs would be more meaningful had we been allowed to truly understand the man behind the ghost.
"…delivered with the respect of an apprentice speaking of a master."