A Local Filmmaker Chronicles Comedians
Perhaps the most uniquely human sense is the sense of humor. A local filmmaker has conducted a cinematic study of how comics tweak a funny bone.
Lisa Romagnoli can take a joke. In fact, she’s endured thousands of them in the process of filming her short film “Wicked Funny” and the full-length sequel “Wicked Funny 2.” A native of NH (now living in Brooklyn), she says she was inspired by the “Seven Up” documentary series by Michael Apted, and decided to follow some new comedians’ careers from their first open mic, and see how they change and develop over the years. A successful Kickstarter campaign helped her underwrite the project that she filmed at comedy nights in Manchester bars like the Shaskeen. The movie premiered at Red River Theatres in Concord in July and will open in NYC in September.
What convinced you to undertake this project?
Back in 2008, a good friend of mine, Kevin Cotter, who is featured in the film, would regularly go to the open mic at the Shaskeen in Manchester and I would occasionally film his sets for him. Other comics started requesting that I film their sets as well, and soon I was recording the whole night of comedy every week and became friends with this amazing community of truly hilarious individuals. The open mic was filled with tons of raw talent and was packing the back room of the Shaskeen every Wednesday night. This open mic was an anomaly in comedy and after about six months of filming, I decided to make a short documentary film about the Manchester comedy scene surrounding it. That was the original "Wicked Funny," which was a 20-minute short.
Three years later, I'm still friends with all the comics from the first film, and I saw how their opinions and approaches to comedy had changed. I was really inspired by the "Seven Up" documentary series by Michael Apted and I thought I could do something similar with comedy. I would follow these comedians' careers from their first open mic and see how they change and develop over the years. Also, I don't think people realize how incredibly hard stand up comedy is, and I wanted to showcase the intense struggle that these comics go through and of course how much talent exists in New Hampshire.
I know you have NH roots, but was there another reason for using Manchester as the focus of your movie?
Manchester was the focus because of the incredibly unique comedy community that has developed there over the past five or six years. It has become an incubator for talent, and many comics that started out at the Shaskeen have moved to New York and LA to pursue comedy professionally. It's also been a place for Boston comics to come and workshop material in front of a real audience. In bigger cities, comedy open mics are just comics getting on stage telling jokes to other comics; there are no non-comedians in the audience. Manchester is a place where developing comics can come to see if they have what it takes to make real people laugh.
NH does have a lot of success in generating comedians, but venues for comedy are actually pretty rare here. Any thoughts why?
To support a traditional comedy club, which charges a cover and a two-drink minimum, I think you need to have a much larger population filtering through to support that business model. I don't think NH has any cities large enough to fill a club every night of the week. Also, being within an evening's drive of Boston, which can provide people with that sort of entertainment, I don't think there's enough demand. But there are many small comedy shows that people can go to in NH and judging by how packed the Shaskeen and other open mics can be, there definitely exists a strong appreciation for comedy in this state.
Your second film is an update on some of the comics you filmed in the first "Wicked Funny." Any surprises in how they are doing?
The level to which some people have improved has been impressive. And then there are others that were clearly at the top of the heap three years ago, but who haven't pushed themselves since then. One of the biggest dilemmas that every comedian faces when starting comedy is deciding if he or she is serious about making it a career. It feels like a pipe dream and there's a lot you have to give up to pursue comedy professionally. That's a really scary thing for anyone and a big part of this film focuses on these comics being at that pivotal moment with their comedy.
Joke telling and humor seem like clues to something deep and important about human nature. Any idea what that might be?
I think humor is incredibly important. Telling a joke is a way to connect with another human being. And as the person hearing the joke, it's satisfying to "get" the joke, because that's a signal that you are sharing this human experience with everyone else. We are social creatures and humor has a uniting quality. And beyond that, comedy provides relief from the stress of everyday life. Being able to laugh about the big things (or little things) takes away their power and makes life more bearable. Plus, of course, it's fun to laugh. Laughing makes you smile.
Trite question that has to be asked, what's the funniest thing that happened in the making of the film?
I can't think of anything funny that happened during the making of the film! While the comics are all incredibly funny individuals, the film itself is not comedic. One of the comedians did decide he wanted to do his interview sitting on his tractor. He's very proud of his Cub Cadet Tractor.
What does it take to tell a good joke? It's more than the material, obviously.
Oh, it's so difficult. Beyond the written material, it's timing, pacing, speech cadence, confidence onstage, ability to read and react to a room… there are so many factors that go into the delivery of a joke. Being funny with your friends is completely different than standing onstage, staring at an audience and hitting them with a perfectly crafted joke.
Can you tell a joke?
Nope, I cannot tell a joke in the formal sense. I can be witty, I can be funny in conversation, but that is a completely different beast than stand up comedy.
Got a favorite joke you'd like to share?
I think I should leave that to the professionals.