The Business of Being Funny

by MARYANN JOHANSON & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & W & lt;/span & e forget that it's a job. We go see people in movies or in concert or we stay at home and watch them on TV and they make us laugh or they make us cry or they make us dance and when they're good they make it look so effortless... but it's a job. A fun job, maybe, and certainly nothing to be complaining about when so many people are out of work or underemployed or doing actually physically demanding and dangerous work, but still...

It's good to be reminded of that once in a while, that the people who entertain us are people too, and Vince Vaughn's Wild West Comedy Show: 30 Days and 30 Nights -- Hollywood to the Heartland does that with a sharp poignancy that I was so completely not expecting from it. I figured: It's a bunch of goofballs on a bus doing a roving comedy show. There will be raucous boy humor, naughty language, very probably some public drunkenness, blatant horndogginess and a good time will be had by all. What else could there be?

A couple of years ago, Vince Vaughn, movie star and uber Guy, took four handpicked, up-and-coming Los Angeles stand-up comics on a marathon road trip. As the title suggests, they did 30 shows in 30 consecutive nights, traveling 6,000 miles by bus through the Southwest, the South and the Midwest, stopping in civic arenas in industrial cities and small theaters in college towns and everywhere that was not anywhere in particular. Vaughn hosted each evening's show, and sometimes there were guest appearances by his almost-famous friends, like Justin Long -- the "I'm a Mac" guy, and also a sweetly appealing comic actor on the verge of stardom -- and Peter Billingsley -- child star of A Christmas Story, now all grown up and no longer an actor -- in funny, self-deprecating sketches about the creative life. (The clip from the Afterschool Special Billingsley and Vaughn starred in the 1980s, which the two pals riff on, may be worth the price of admission alone. Or maybe Long's hilarious impersonation of Vaughn is.)

But this isn't just a concert film, though there are plenty of outrageous bits from the comics on stage: Ahmed Ahmed, John Caparulo, Bret Ernst, and Sebastian Maniscalco, each of whom has his own unique vibe and outlook on the usual stuff of stand-up. They're seriously funny guys, each at quite different stages of the game -- there's a shocking revelation late in the film about what one of these talented performers is doing to pay the bills that will stun anyone who thinks anyone who's on stage or in a movie must be rich.

That's the kind of stuff that lends Wild West Comedy Show -- directed by Ari Sandel, an Oscar winner last year for his short film, "West Bank Story" -- its surprising substance. This isn't about the comedy as much as it's about the men who make the comedy, about how they're driven by vulnerabilities and insecurities that they barely hint at in their acts. It's about dealing with mean hecklers and coping with poor concert facilities and living the unglamorous life of long bus rides and soulless hotel rooms. It's about connecting with fans in a more down-to-earth way than out from across a stage, as when the guys -- who embarked on their tour in the terrible weather summer of 2005 -- decide to turn some of their concerts into benefits for Katrina refugees, and make a sobering visit to a refugee camp to give out free tickets to that night's show. This isn't just about we fans being reminded that the people who entertain us are people too, but about the people who entertain us being reminded that so are we the fans.

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