Stand up comedy is an art form. It can’t be quantified. It can’t be judged. Oh, wait. It can, and it is all the time. Deep in the heart of Texas that means the annual Funniest Person in Austin contest, featured in the new documentary Funniest.
The film follows six contestants as they navigate the stresses and strains of competing for real, legitimate cash and prizes. Of course, winning $3000 pales in comparison to that ultimate goal: feeling you’ve made it. The world of stand up is brutal, even in a smaller (though growing) scene like Austin’s, and each of the comedians featured in Funniest is still trying to prove to the world (and often to themselves) that they’ve got what it takes. No shaky egos allowed.
Each of the comedians is very easy to root for. By the end of the movie, the audience wants them all to find success in this hardest of callings. Alas, that’s not the nature of this world. On the other hand, a movie about stand up comedy has a built-in killer feature: It gets to show stand up comedy!
An hour and a half of enjoying the comedic stylings of our six players would be enough, but in Funniest, there’s also the built-in conflict of the contest itself. It is problematic in many ways. Who are these judges, and what do they know? And why are women and people of color forever coming in second place behind “white dudes with beards?” All of this is true, but it doesn’t stop these contenders from aspiring to wear the hokey crimson crown and cape.
Directors Katie Pengra and Dustin Svehlak did a masterful job casting as well as showing us life behind the scenes for these characters. We’re first introduced to Montgomery Wayne, a man who loves his weed as much as he loves telling jokes, but his backstory is anything but funny. Several years ago, his wife was in a car accident, and now needs someone to care for her full time. Monty takes this on, but keeps getting up on stage as well.
San Antonio native Avery Moore is young, nerdy, and maybe a genius. Regardless, she’s funny as heck, and brings loads of quirks to the table. Lashonda Lester moved to Austin from Detroit, and pulls no punches. She aims to kill every time she performs and is just a delight to watch.
Carina Magyar (performing under the name Maggie in the film) has been performing in Austin for years but has recently come out as trans. She now lives and does stand up as a woman and brings loads of empathy to accompany the ha-has.
Two men facing down some demons round out the cast. Danny Palumbo loves comedy, but the stress of it has given him the extra burden of dealing with panic attacks. Still, he is committed to making it and powers through. Norman Wilkerson has a different problem: age. Approaching 50, he exemplifies the deliberations of a struggling comedian in deciding “How far should I take this?” He’s so genuine and kind that it’s natural for the audience to want the best for him, even if he sometimes plays the character of Satan on stage.
Former winners of FPIA (and even some runners-up) share their experiences, too. Matt Bearden, the 2002 winner, plays the role of “wizened sage,” trying to make sense of what the contest means for those involved. Ultimately, it’s a competition with some pretty hefty rewards in terms of furthering one’s career in comedy, but as Funniest shows, there are lot of funny people out there telling jokes, whether they take home the crown or not.