Documentary Review: A comic and her peers talk about the “Funny Pains” that make memorable stand-up

About six minutes into “Funny Pain,” a stand-ups-talk-about-stand-up documentary focused on Wendi Starling, I thought — “Wait, did she die? Is that what this is, a tribute?”

The Jorgy Cruz film is slap-dash, and seems locked in on Wendi’s life and work in 2015. She rushes her words, frantic, almost exhausting to listen to off-stage. Another sad clue?

And if you know anything about her, what she’s famous for, it’s the “manic, mentally-ill and in a mental hospital” material, riffed from real life, or it’s the “gang rape story.” So thinking she passed away isn’t mean or completely out of left field. Lot of tragedy in the news. Might have slipped by me.

Hearing her breathlessly patter on about “the first time i was hospitalized” and the “I’m so tired” mantra of people who burn the candle at both ends, then listing what she did the last 36 or 48 hours, mention her “black out” drinking and how cocaine used to be a part of her life and her act, then launch into some semi-vicious hatred for the audience (a stand-up ethos) and acknowledging her bipolar tendencies with what her teachers and parents USED to think — “I just get hyper, sometimes” — you think, “messed up.”

How can anybody be that wired and survive? Perhaps exhaustion got her, or worse. She’s had a few series shown in places, well I couldn’t tell you where they aired. “High Land Parking?” “Recycled Babies?” She’d have to be close to 40 now, right? A lot of comics have psychic damage and this insane drive and some don’t get out of there alive if they fall short of their “make it by 35” dreams.

Then the film shows Starling riffing on suicide, onstage and off, and how using that word impacts your involuntary hospitalization and you figure “Yeah, that’s it. This is going to be like a Bill Hicks thing.”

You check Wikipedia for an obit, and hell, she has no page. Sad.

But no, the morbid thoughts just come from the way she comes off in “Funny Pains.” We see her manic and we see her when she’s down. VERY down.

It’s a relief when the film’s last few minutes catch up with her in 2019, co-hosting a sort of sketch comedy dual act, hitting all the podcasts, writing and co-writing, working hard to never use that dated Every Comedian’s Dream cliche — “I just want to get a pilot.”

Still, Starling does kind of recede into the background of her own “film,” which fills a lot of screen time with the thing everybody from Woody Allen to Seinfeld has taught us that comics live for, the group BS session after a show, in a friend’s living room (Shabby chic and IKEA?) or in an empty New York Comedy Club.

With Nikki Glazer and Rick Vos and Yamaneika Saunders and Mehran Khaghani and Krystyna Hutchinson around, even if one or two of them say, with Starling present, how “real” she is and how “brave it is to do a bit” like her more-chilling-than-funny “rape story,” she gets a lost in the mix.

As some of these sessions have people speaking off-mike, and the film’s organizing principle is feeble and we get the idea that the “2019” material was an afterthought, we come back to “slapdash.”

So my apologies to the artist for thinking she was dead. But entrusting your image to director Jorgy Cruz? Maybe not the safest bet.

The biographical stuff, slipping in here and there, has some interesting anecdotes. There are hints of an unconventional childhood, mother abandonment, then lying her way onto a stage in Boca Raton for the first time (by accident) where she used the little she learned watching “Seinfeld” to good enough effect (recreated in a murky blur) that she realized this was where she belonged.

The analysis of when to trot out “sure thing” openers, how to read the room by the degrees of enthusiasm that “sure thing” generates, when an audience is so touristy (maybe not even native English speakers) that this is when you “try out new bits,” new jokes, because “Who cares about them?” at this point, are all interesting and astute takes on the craft of stand-up.

We hear about her “two day jobs” but never what they are. We don’t see enough of her working to get the sense of how she generates material, but she recognized early on that “When I’m talking about super-real stuff, it works.” Hearing her generic New York vs. LA banalities is enough to make you hope something “real” is coming up soon.

She’s self-aware enough to realize she can’t let the “rape story,” the “mental illness” stuff, her acknowledgement of her “black out drunk” years (We even see her giggling drunk, at one point.) become “gimmicky.” What else ya got?

The film is so all over the place that the comedy seems that way, too. “Funny” gets at her various “issues,” but doesn’t have enough good, solid comedy to make us care.

And since she’s already confessed that “I don’t like crowd work (questioning the audience for bits) “because I don’t give a s— about you guys,” we’re starved for some reason NOT to return the favor.

1half-star

Cast: Wendi Starling, Nikki Glaser, Krystyna Hutchinson, Yamaneika Saunders , Jim Norton, Bonnie McFarlane

Credits: Directed by Jorgy Cruz. A Passion River release.

Running time: 1:30

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