Doing is inevitably harder than dreaming. You can want something, crave something, use positive affirmations to will something into existence, but still not get where you want to be. You may have all the right pieces and still remain far from the goal you’ve placed for yourself. It’s a sad fact, but not everyone gets to be a star, not everyone gets to do the thing they love. That’s why coming-of-age stories like All Joking Aside are so desirable; they present someone putting in the work, willing to roll up their sleeves to earn that place in their dreams. Written by James Pickering, based on his 2014 short Comedienne, and director Shannon Kohli (SYFY’s The Magicians), All Joking Aside has all the hallmarks of a compelling tale: a scrappy underdog and an irate and reluctant mentor join forces so that underdog can succeed in a difficult occupation while learning a little something along the way. What prevents All Joking Aside from being successful aren’t the jokes (many of which land nicely) or the performances (a few being a little too stiff), but the rush to get to the good stuff instead of putting the time in to earn it.
Charlie Murray (Raylene Harewood) wants nothing more than be a comedian. It was something she bonded with her father over before his passing and it’s something she knows he’d love to see her succeed at doing. But when she tries her first set at a comedy club and is met with a heckler, a regular named Bob Carpenter (Brian Markinson), she runs off the stage before she barely has a chance to try any of her material. Struggling with her day job as a grocery clerk, volunteer work with kids, the constant tension of an estranged mother, and concerns over her own health, Charlie decides that she will try doing stand-up again and recruits the stubborn and mostly unwilling Bob, a former star comedian, to help her.
Comedy is hard, folks. It may look easy, but it’s supremely hard. The pros in any field always make their work seem easy, but that’s because they put in the hours to practice, develop, and hone their craft. Could the stars of my childhood — Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, George Carlin, Robin Williams, Billy Crystal, and Whoopi Goldberg — get on stage with little prep and kill it? Probably. But that’s because they were at a level where they knew how to work a crowd and keep them right in the palm of their respective hands. This is one of the truths All Joking Aside nails: anyone can jump on a stage and stand in front of a microphone, but not everyone has the skills to make an audience laugh and keep them laughing nor the temerity to withstand the lifestyle. This is where Pickering’s writing excels, providing honest and authentic advice via Bob that highlights the variety of elements that goes into crafting a set that grabs hold of an audience and doesn’t let them go. Smartly, the script organizes the various elements into smaller portions so that not only does Charlie, as a character, work on things piece by piece until she’s ready for the next, but so that the audience can better grasp the complexity of a comic’s job. It’s not just telling jokes, but processing information at a rapid speed, separating the mundane from the hilarious, and conveying the results to side-splitting effect. There’s evidence that Charlie is capable and intelligent, her smartass on full display when challenged off-stage. The audience can see her potential and is delighted, via Harewood’s performance, to see her succeed, even incrementally, on-stage.
Unfortunately, this is about all the film has going for it as the rest is an overly complicated, trope-filled, and rushed mixture that wants so desperately for you to feel good by the end that it skips over the hard parts to get you there. To make things worse, it doesn’t even follow its own advice: tell the best joke first to snag your audience and keep them.
Let’s break this down a bit for better understanding.
Pickering has developed Charlie to fight multiple battles through the film. In real life, this is completely normal as real people are complex and addressing multiple issues at a time all the time. Here, however, the fronts with which Charlie is confronted don’t come together in any kind of satisfying way. First we learn that she wants to be a comedian because that was her connection to her father, then there’s some kind of health issue teased, then the conflict with Bob as reluctant mentor, and then a conflict with her remaining family. Each one provides fodder for her professional development as many comics mine their pain for humor. Audiences understand the collective nature of pain, but it’s the unique perspective of the comic which makes that pain funny. (Example: Robin Williams discussing changing diapers.) The problem isn’t how Charlie uses her pain in her stand-up, it’s how the film uses her pain to get her where she needs to be. The estrangement with her mother, for instance, is basically over after one conversation with Bob. That’s all the story thinks it takes in order for Charlie to face a complicated series of emotions wrapped up in her own psychosis: one conversation where Bob equates his own failures to her life. It’s a touching scene performed well by Markinson, but there’s no real sharing that takes place beyond broad strokes empathy, so Charlie’s presentation of almost immediate healing makes zero sense. There’s also an entirely unnecessary conflict drawn up between Charlie and Bob once their mentorship is well into development that occurs because the script needed more to juggle, perhaps? The execution is ham-fisted and the resolution is so swift that it leaves the audience to even wonder why it was there in the first place. An apt comparison to the speedy way conflict is presented and resolved is akin to a television show, where emotional arcs are compressed due to broadcast restraints. When one notices that transitions are few, characters appear in familiar spaces for brief periods when a phone call would’ve done the job, and the happy ending matters more than an emotionally satisfying one, the comparison to television becomes all the more appropriate.
What makes for a good comedic set is difficult to quantify, but an audience knows it when they hear it. Such is the same for All Joking Aside. You can see the strengths, like Harewood’s presence coming to life when Charlie’s on stage or Markinson’s delightful presentation of the acerbic mentor, and you root for them, wanting them to break free from the obvious before the script inevitably lands where you expect. It’s like the script gets that comedy should hue close to expectation before throwing out the unexpected, yet is too reluctant, too timid to throw its own curveballs. Harewood and Markinson are clearly game and, when the script works, so are we. But when the script doesn’t, when it clings too hard to present trials without weight, the rest rings hallow and there’s not a laugh in sight.
Available on digital November 13th, 2020.
Final Score: 2.5 out of 5.