Wednesday, November 15, 2017

DOC NYC Spotlight: Standing Up

I’m excited to have been able to screen a few selections from DOC NYC, America’s largest documentary festival, which presents its eighth year in New York City from November 9th-16th.

Standing Up
Directed by Jonathan Miller
Festival Screenings

Introducing this review is best done by using the opening line of the film’s summary: An Egyptian lawyer, a couch-surfing comedian, and an Orthodox Jew walk into a comedy club… and end up in a documentary. While standup comedy is usually funny, the journey to get there is often far more serious, and that’s what this film humorously explores, selecting three unlikely budding comics who are all trying to break into the business. While their stories aren’t all that similar, as juxtaposed here, it’s an insightful and entertaining survey of the stand-up landscape and what it takes to make it in comedy.

David Finklestein is an Orthodox Jew who wears a suit and a black hat all the time, and most of his routines begin by him commenting sarcastically on how well he fits in with the rest of the people in the room. Sara Parks is living paycheck to paycheck, which is why she holds down a job as a custodian and saves her jokes for the comedy clubs after hours. Raafat Toss is a personal injury lawyer who wants to try something new and decides to give comedy a shot despite not having any experience in the format.

These three subjects are all compelling because of what they have going against them and how they try to overcome those obstacles. David’s observance often gets in the way of his comedy life, since he can’t perform in shows on the Sabbath and isn’t accustomed to going to bars or other social scenes because of his religious upbringing. Sara is committed to making this work even though, as she describes in one joke, she often looks at rats in the city eating scavenged food, jealous of the generous portion they’ve been able to procure that she can’t eat. And Raafat, always affable at work, bombs miserably during his first set, leading a subsequent comic to confirm that he shouldn’t quit his day job.

Throughout this exploration of these comedians and their lives, the opportunity to really get to know these three people and what it is about telling jokes that makes them want to do it so much. Their relationships with other people and with themselves are covered in detail, including David’s worry that he is the butt of his own jokes and Raafat’s determination to let his children do what they want rather than feel pressured to go into particular field. It’s a fun and affirming film that doesn’t sugarcoat success but does a fine job of showing the high points and the low points along the way.


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