There are a lot of comedy documentaries out there in the world. Some of them are endlessly fascinating and offer a behind the scenes look at what comedians think about a topic. Others focus on one comedian’s origin story/search/climb/obstacle overcoming something. While others sometimes are just fun because a bunch of your favorite comedians talk about favorite things.
With that being said, we decided to come up with a list of comedy documentaries that specifically focus on a comedian instead of a topic in comedy. You can find Nine of these documentaries on on Netflix, one, you will not find (but its freely available on the internet). They’re worth putting in your queue and watching the next time you’d like to dive into comedian history.
Topic: Jerry Seinfeld, Orny Adams
When Jerry Seinfeld’s sitcom ended in 1998, he did the only thing a comedian knew how to, he went back to stand-up comedy and built another act. That’s right, one of the most popular comedians of all time went back to the little clubs to work on new material. Comedian follows Seinfeld’s trek developing his new act in these clubs. Showing that no matter how big a comedian you are, you have to get in front of people and find out what works. The B-story of Comedian follows rising comedian Orny Adams as he’s trying to reach the top (a Letterman set), sometimes coming off as self-centered and unable to take advice as he makes his run for to the top. This documentary also includes plenty of conversation at the Comedy Cellar table as Seinfeld gets advice from his peers, even travelling to meet up with the one and only Bill Cosby for a conversation.
Looking for Lenny
Topic: Lenny Bruce
Lenny Bruce pretty much wrote the playbook that every comedian you like takes from. There’s also a good chance that the average person might know little about Bruce’s trailblazing efforts. Bruce was an early pioneer of stand-up comedy in the 1950s and he paid the price as one of the first comedians through the door as he fought censorship head on and fought for freedom of speech. Because of this, he became a lightning rod for authorities who would often arrest him during performances and label his act as obscene. Because of this, Bruce pushed social boundaries. However, it also opened the window for his descent into paranoia, self-destructive behavior, and eventual early death.
Topic: Penn Jillette, Paul Provenza, et al.
If you aren’t familiar with “The Aristocrats” joke. It’s a favorite amongst comedians because it’s one they use strictly to make other comedians laugh. Usually the punchline of a joke is what makes comedians laugh, in “The Aristocrats” it’s all about the setup of the joke, and comedians get dirty with it… really, really dirty with it. Penn Jillette and Paul Povenza set out to talk to all (and we mean all) of their comedian friends to tell their version of the joke and it’s hilarious! Highlights include Doug Stanhope telling the joke to a child, Sarah Silverman coming to terms with a harrowing childhood trauma, and Bob Saget stealing the entire movie by completely shedding the Danny Tanner persona and crossing all boundaries of good taste in the most profane ways possible.
Mr Warmth: The Don Rickles Project
Topic: Don Rickles
Like Lenny Bruce, Don Rickles was another character who just didn’t care what people thought of him and nothing is off limits to him when he’s on stage. Rickles is a legend and this documentary, directed by John Landis, takes a look at Mr. Warmth and his long career in in show business. If you like funny stories from a comedy icon who hung with the Rat Pack, picked on Ronald Readon on National television, and went toe-to-toe with Johnny Carson, this is one to watch.
Back From Hell: A Tribute to Sam Kinison
Topic: Sam Kinison
This film is part tribute, party documentary. Many of Sam Kinison’s comedy peers gather at The Comedy Store to talk about the stand-up icon who was notorious for his midnight shows at the venue. From deconstructing his primal scream to his life and times, the doc interweaves archival footage of Kinison performing as the likes of Jay Leno, Ron White, Kathy Griffin, Lewis Black, and Denis Leary talk about his stand-up and offer perspective on one of the most fearless stand-up comedians the world has ever seen. Leaving Chris Rock to declare, “I miss my dad, and I miss Sam Kinison.”
Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work
Topic: Joan Rivers
The documentary that inspired this list. With the recent passing of Joan Rivers, revisiting this documentary is a must. Joan was the queen and leader for nearly all the female comics out there and now she is gone. This award-winning documentary is an unfiltered look at the long career of Joan Rivers – The ups, the downs, and everything in between. It also provides an honest look at the fickle beast known as show business and how un-glamorous it really can be.
American: The Bill Hicks Story
Topic: Bill Hicks
A few documentaries have been made about the counterculture comedian known as Bill Hicks. While 1994’s doc It’s Just A Ride took the more traditional documentary form of interviewing other comedians, American focused a lot more on supplementing a the narrative with testimonies from his close friends and family narrated over archival footage, 3D visual effects, and using animation to tell the life story of Bill Hicks from his youth as a young comic, through his evolution into one of the most important minds in stand-up comedy. Hicks developed a huge European following since his name was first spoken on stage, so it should be no surprise that this loving doc about his life was the brainchild of a few Brits.
Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop
Topic: Conan O’Brien
This documentary is interesting because at the time it was filmed, it was pretty much right as Conan was going through one of the worst moments of his life. He’d just quite publicly lost his dream job as the new host of The Tonight Show to, of all people, the old host. He wasn’t allowed to really talk about the situation and had no outlet to do so. So Conan grew out his beard (important) and took to the road with his Legally Prohibited From Being Funny On Television traveling road show. It was a cathartic moment for the late night TV host. Along the way he performed stand-up, music, dance numbers, had celeb friends stop by, and generally just interacting with his loving and adoring fans. The tour and press over the firing exhausted Conan, but at the same time re-invigorated his love for entertaining and proved that his mantra of being nice and ditching the cynicism gets you far in life.
A Week To Kill
Topic: Hannibal Buress
A Week To Kill is a probably the shortest doc on the list clocking in a 40 minutes. It was directed by Ryan Ferguson who follows Hannibal Buress around for the week leading up to the taping of his first-ever stand-up special for Comedy Central, Animal Furnace. This documentary (which is the one you can find online) was filmed just at the right time in Hannibal’s career, he was just about to break through in a big way and he returned home to the Chicago comedy clubs to get spots and work out material before they’d be taped forever on his special back in New York. Much of the documentary is Buress on the streets of Chicago, jumping between promotional engagements, stand-up spots, hanging with friends, new outfit shopping, playing voicemail advice from Chris Rock, and even getting robbed resulting in his rental car being towed (with all his possessions inside) just hours before he was to depart to New York for one of the biggest moments in his stand-up career. Oh, and when he got to NYC to tape the special, security gave him a hard time about letting him into the building for his own taping because they didn’t recognize him.
Comedians Of Comedy: The Movie
Topic: Patton Oswalt, Brian Posehn, Maria Bamford, and Zach Galifiankis
Comedians of Comedy focuses on a tour of alternative rooms across the US. It was spearheaded by Patton Oswalt as he took his friends Brian Posehn, Maria Bamford, and Zach Galifianakis along with him. The documentary was shot during the fall of 2004, and these comedians weren’t well known and people were still routinely butchering Galifianakis’ last name. It was one of the first films to be financed/and distributed by the Netflix. Showing that this new renaissance of Netflix and comedy has really been 10 years in the making. The Comedians of Comedy Tour is important because it allowed for the rise of alt rooms in comedy as Oswalt and co. bucked the trend of touring comedy clubs with higher ticket costs and drink minimums. Opting to perform stand-up DIY style in rock clubs and non-traditional venues, charging cheaper ticket prices in the process. Comedy Central later commission a six-episode series of the tour and 2 years later Oswalt would do another run under the moniker, this time with Posehn, Morgan Murphy, and Eugene Mirman along for the ride. After the series, a special was taped at The Troubador in LA that featured stand-up from the COC crew and a bunch of their friends including, David Cross, Sarah Silverman, Jon Benjamin, Andy Kindler, Bob Odenkirk, Doug Benson, and Dana Gould.