“Here we go again.”
This is a sentiment expressed throughout directors’ Katie Pengra and Dustin Svehlak’s documentary, Funniest. The film follows six comedians competing in Austin, Texas’ “Funniest Person in Austin” stand-up comedy tournament, an annual event held at the Cap City Comedy Club that – over 32 years – includes past winners like Brendon Walsh, Chip Pope, Chris Fairbanks, and Martha Kelly.
The sense of foreboding that Funniest captures is partly due to the fact that all six of the comics the doc follows are multi-year contenders, and partly due to the contest’s noted lack of diversity – and, of course, general existentialism is inevitable when you’re throwing yourself on stage to be judged. By following a handful of comedians and providing intimate behind the scenes footage of the Funniest Person in Austin (FPIA) competition, Funniest aims its cameras at a story about the struggle of making it in comedy – and making it in a scene that feels plagued with privilege.
The latter focus – diversity – stands in the foreground of the film. The six comedians that Pengra and Svehlak follow are Norman Wilkerson, Carina Magyar, Montgomery (Monty) Wayne, Lashonda Lester, Avery Moore, and Danny Palumbo; all have different backgrounds, whether they are cultural or biographical. Wilkerson, a 49-year-old veteran of the Austin scene, expresses exhaustion from an industry that feels like a scornful lover to him at times. Magyar is a trans woman, who transitioned between the 2014 and 2015 FPIA competitions. Wayne is a husband that uses the stage to express himself after he spends his days caring for his comatose wife. Lester, a former wrestling manager who hails from Detroit, is a woman of color – a combination the doc often calls FPIA out for ignoring over the past few decades. Moore is the young woman who quit her day job to commit to comedy. And Palumbo, as the filmmakers and he himself joke, is the token white guy, the kind that the FPIA contest seems to favor. These six comics all have one thing in common: this isn’t the first time any of them have jumped headfirst into this competition.
As Funniest follows the six stand-ups, there’s never a moment that feels unnecessary to the film’s narrative. Directors Pengra and Svelhak have to cover the historical context of the contest, as well as chronicle the multi-week competition for six people whose stories often feel stratified from one another, until the quarter-final and final rounds. While they certainly have their work cut out for them, the Funniest crew delivers a lean, energetic documentary. The comedians have allowed the filmmakers to fully document their lives, which allows them to capture the most intimate of moments: smoke breaks, chats with bartenders, and hangouts in the comedians’ homes. Because of this, the documentary captures the true humanity of each comedian’s quest. You’d be happy to see any one of them win, because you really get to know them all, as you watch them spend time with friends, drive to pick-up their kids – even perform on Austin public transportation. Wayne’s emotional caring for his wife is especially poignant, and the filmmakers take care to treat these comedians like the vulnerable humans they are. Sadly, we know that by the end of the documentary, there can only be one winner.
Along the six comics’ journey, the issue of diversity is addressed many times over. Can a trans woman win? Can a man approaching 50 win? Can a woman of color win? Rather, can a woman win at all? (As of the 2015 competition, there hadn’t been a female victor since 2000 – for a black victor ever.) Past FPIA winners show up to discuss the competition, and to offer their opinions on its seeming lack of diversity. FPIA judges answer by crowing Danny Palumbo (the self-announced token white guy) as the contest’s 2015 winner, and he immediately addresses the audience on the diversity situation in a victory speech that’s excited but tinged with sobriety. It’s a poignant paradox that comedy basks in.
Then, in a scene that tags Palumbo’s win and feels a bit like 2004’s Fever Pitch (a film whose script assumed the Boston Red Sox would lose in the MLB playoffs, as per usual – and then had scramble to re-shoot after the team won for the first time in 86 years), we see that 2016’s FPIA victor is Lashonda Lester, the first woman in 16 years and the first person of color to ever win. The narrative has its cake, has its cake taken away, and then finds its cake a year later and eats it, too. This final scene capstones the two questions the film first raises: “Can one of these six comedians win?” and “Will there be a victor that is not a white man?” The one-two punch of the Palumbo and Lester wins gives the film a warm, optimistic ending that was never guaranteed when the filmmakers began, and that never could have been anticipated.
Funniest is a wonderful slice-of-life documentary that is as human as it is exciting. The thematic and narrative scopes never reach for more than they can grab, and what results is a thoughtful examination on comedy, competitions, and the diverse perspectives that populate our world. Stand-up comedy has always provided a microphone for diverse voices, and that is exactly what Funniest accomplishes, too.
Funniest is streaming now online.
(Sadly, as a post-script, it should be noted that two of the film’s six subjects have passed since the 2015 contest took place; late that August, news of Montgomery Wayne’s sudden death rocked the Austin comedy scene; and, earlier this year – after finally taking home the title of “Funniest Person in Austin” – Lashonda Lester succumbed to complications from ongoing health issues just two weeks before she was set to tape her very own Comedy Central half hour.)