"When someone's off balance, that's the best time to hit someone," Jim Gaffigan says in Kevin Pollak's chatty Misery Loves Comedy, a documentary that asks many comics big questions about the dispositions of comics -- but doesn't often enough put anyone off balance, the audience included. Pollak invites comedians to chin-stroke on the truism that people who are funny professionally tend to be more miserable than the rest of us.
Amy Schumer asks, "Why do I want to make people laugh, but then I want to disappear, also?" And Jim Norton offers an inspired gloss on the old comedy-as-defense-mechanism saw: In school, hilarious insults proved one thing he could do to a football player that a football player couldn't do to him.
That theory doesn't quite hold up to anecdotal evidence: If comedians are miserable, how about David Foster Wallace? Might sad-clown-ism be a strain of the more generalized ennui afflicting smart, creative types in a world that favors thoughtlessness? Kathleen Madigan notes that working in bars, as stand-ups must, seeds an unhealthy lifestyle, a point she illustrates by talking about ordering drinks from the stage after fights broke out at Houston's Laugh Stop: "Once people start beating each other up, I'm just another customer."
Misery Loves Comedy does too little to taxonomize its clown-tears. But it at least offers lots of relatively unguarded moments with its clowns: Kevin Nealon recalls the night an amputee chucked an artificial leg onto the stage, and here's Judd Apatow's lament when he learned that Jim Henson liked his ideas but didn't think he had the warmth to be on camera: "This is the guy who taught me how to read."