His first feature-length documentary, Open Your Mouth And Say … Mr. Chi Pig, chronicled the life of legendary punk-rocker Ken Chinn’s mental illness, battle with addiction and influence on the rock world.
After enduring such a dark and disturbing ride, Shaul longed to examine the lighter side of entertainment. The world of stand-up comedy seemed a logical next stop; his second film, Alone Up There, premiered last month at Vancouver’s Olio Film Festival. What he actually came to find, much like his experience with punk rock, was an insider’s view of a difficult and unforgiving industry, teeming with misfits and broken souls.
The litany of films about stand up that preceded Shaul’s project, have focused on a specific time, place and scene, like When Stand Up Stood Out, or chronicled the life of a specific performer, like like Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedian. On the contrary, Alone Up There centers on the creative process, which transcends any individual person or place, culminating in a wild ending in which Shaul himself overcomes crippling stage fright and performs a set of his own at a comedy club in Los Angeles. He ultimately admits that it “went terribly.”
Shaul’s film avoids redundancies and common clichés by wandering off the beaten path of the comedy scenes of New York and Los Angeles, and gaining the perspective of a wide — and often lesser-known — cast of characters.
AmericasComedy.com spoke with Shaul about this indie filmmaker’s furious and never-ending scramble for financing, his own journey into the very exclusive circle of professional stand-up comedy and what he discovered along the way.
AmericasComedy.Com: Your last documentary was about punk rock music. What steered you toward stand-up comedy?
Sean Patrick Shaul: Well the punk rock one was about the leader of this punk rock band and he has a lot of mental illness and drug problems so I thought, you know, I should do something a little more lighthearted. I spent a year and a half with some pretty dark material.
AC: In a lot of ways, stand-up comics are the punk rockers of the theater and stage world — the outsiders — and punk rockers by design are the outsiders of the music world. Is there some parallel that drew you toward both scenes?
SPS: Absolutely. After I started the film, I definitely noticed a lot of parallels. For example, stand-up comedians tour with just a car and themselves. There’s a lot of touring involved and it’s the same thing for the punk scene as well.
AC: You examined the dark side of a mind that has produced some of the best punk rock. There’s a stereotype that comics are broken, damaged people. Did you find that to be true?
SPS: I’d say about 80 percent. 80 percent true for sure. I thought starting the film out that I would be completely steering away from that, but it turns out a lot of comedians are pretty fucked up themselves. But like the punk world, they channel it into great art.
AC: There have been a few really good documentaries based on stand-up. Most of them focus on a specific performer or on a specific scene. Yours seems to focus on the art form, the creative process.
SPS: Yeah, it kind of focuses more on the mechanics and what it takes to be a comedian — the sacrifices one has to make and all the hard work that goes into it behind the curtain that you don’t really get to see.
AC: You actually did a stand-up set for the documentary; how did it go?
SPS: It went terribly. I have horrible stage fright, crippling stage fright. The longer I did production, trying to understand comedy, the more comedians I talked to who kept saying, you know, you can talk about it all day, but to actually understand stand-up comedy you have to feel it. You have to have all those eyes on you in the spotlight, and I convinced myself — against my own will basically — to do it.
AC: Are you glad you did it?
SPS: I am totally glad I did it and I will never do it again.
AC: The New York and LA scenes have been covered so many times. You dealt with a lot of comics from outside of those bubbles. Was that by design?
SPS: Yeah, it was definitely an intentional decision to talk to some local guys in Vancouver and then spread out as much as we could, and also to talk to people at different points in their careers. Like, we talked to some people who have been doing it for 30-plus years and other comedians who had only been doing it for a couple of years. That was really important for me to cover all that. If you talk to nothing but pros, then you only get that side of the story. You don’t get that fresh, sort of hungry feel that the start-up comedians have.
AC: Is there any common thread you saw between all of these different levels, different ages, different styles, different backgrounds?
SPS: The love of it. It’s one of those things where you just have to keep doing it to get good at it, you know what I mean, and you have to eat so much shit for so many years before you’re comfortable doing it. It takes a lot of dedication, you really have to love it, and across the board, they did.
AC: The film feels almost like you’re discouraging people from getting into comedy. Like you’re telling that person who’s always been the funniest guy at the barbecue, and dreams about doing this, maybe to keep his job at the post office.
SPS: That was intentional, too. I think less people should do stand-up comedy. I meet a lot of people who say, “I used to do stand-up comedy. I did it for three months, I did it for four months.” There’s a part in the film where Joe Matarese says, “anyone can get on stage and do it, but you might suck at it.” So it’s a matter of weeding out those people.
AC: Guys like you make movies for the love of making movies, I’m sure. How much of being an indie filmmaker comes down to chasing investors, chasing that dollar, making phone calls you don’t want to make, to get enough funding to keep the project alive?
SPS: Oh, it’s a nightmare. I’ve been waiting for the day that someone writes me a check at the start of my production that will pay for the end of it. The production took two years. I would say that if I had all the money in my pocket at the start, I could have banged it out in six months. You shoot until the money runs out, then you stop completely, raise more money, shoot until the money runs out, then stop completely. It’s tough.
AC: During that process do you have a core crew that you work with or do new people come and go as the money comes and goes?
SPS: Every single person that worked on this movie worked for free. There wasn’t a single check written. I have lots of friends who work in the industry, and I’d call around and say, “Hey, I’ll pay for your flight to LA and a hotel if you’ll come with me.” So it was kind of like half a vacation, half work for them. Once I had a little bit of cash and I was able to shoot, I’d start making calls and see who was with me.
AC: It’s not unlike stand-up comedy in that respect. The dream being to find a way to get paid for something you would do for free anyway.
SPS: Exactly. This was my second film and I haven’t made a profit off anything yet, but it’s like a disease and I can’t stop so I just keep doing it.
Alone Up There is the first stand-up documentary film to be distributed exclusively through digital means without any DVDs or other hardcopies. The film can be purchased at www.thestandupcomedians.com, which also offers stand-up comedy specials for digital download.
About the Author: Andrew Lisa is a stand-up comedian and writer living in Los Angeles. Originally from the East Coast, he has performed at virtually every major club in and around New York City, and was one of the youngest syndicated columnists at the largest newspaper syndicate in the country. He's currently a finalist in the Funniest Comic in LA contest, as well as a regular at the Garrett Morris All-Star Show at the Downtown Comedy Club.