Director: Mark Murphy
Cast: James Buckley, MyAnna Buring, Paul Kaye
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What do you call a comedian who’s not funny? If that sounds like the start of a bad joke, you’re on the right track: The Comedian’s Guide to Survival follows James Mullinger (Buckley), a guy who really, really wants to become a stand-up comedian. The only problem? He’s not very good at it.
Mark Murphy’s film, based on Mullinger’s real-life experiences, sets itself an almost impossible challenge: on the one hand, we have to laugh at a story about someone who, by definition, struggles to make people laugh; on the other hand, we have to feel sorry for him. It never quite fully achieves either.
The film, bravely, doesn’t hold back when it comes to Mullinger’s shortcomings: he spends his nights travelling to gigs in a crowded car-pool with other touring comics, his day-job as a journalist half-asleep, and his time at home generally ignoring his wife. When he does make it on stage, he wets himself due to nerves. And so people heckle him. His boss bullies him. And, to top it all off, his journo work requires him to go around interviewing real comedians about their secret to making it big.
The problem is, though, that the film doesn’t really address his real shortcoming: that he’s not very funny. Comedians tell him he’s not, but the bits of his routine we do see back them up. And, while the film takes commendable care to highlight the effort off-stage, rather than the material on it, he’s not very entertaining there either.
Buckley, who will be known to everyone from The Inbetweeners, is great at the put-upon everyman schtick, but it’s very hard to cheer Mullinger on; it never feels like he deserves it. The fact that he’s already living in a house that looks far too fancy for him to afford on his £10-a-set income only makes the story (despite its real roots) less convincing. Which is a shame, because that’s the whole message of the movie: that succeeding is about working really hard at something, even when you initially fail.
While the inspirational side of the story feels hollow, though, the laughter part often works – although that’s largely due to the other characters. The supporting cast are excellent, from Gilbert Gottfried (“The comedian’s guide to survival is fuck everyone else”) and Jimmy Carr as themselves to Ripper Street’s MyAnna Buring as a no-nonsense US talent agent. The actor Kevin Eldon is superb as a chauffeur – it’s testament to him and director Murphy that you believe the production made it stateside (hint: stay for the end credits) – and Mark Heap is unrecognisable as a truck driver. The best of all, though, is Paul Kaye as Mullinger’s boss, Philip. One of the best scene-stealers around, after his superb turns in Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell and Dave sitcom Zapped, he’s outrageously loathsome and wonderfully rude.
These bit-players can’t just be amusing on their own and Buckley, to his credit, is a generous enough lead to give them the space, and enough of a downbeat foil, to shine. If only Mullinger was funnier in his own right, The Comedian’s Guide to Survival might be less of a slog and more of a success.