I couldn't quite pin down who Fran Solomita was until a very old clip popped on the screen, showing Solomita, back sometime around 1983, doing a stand-up bit about Stallone directing Travolta for the film "Staying Alive." Immediately, ears perked, as I recall that as being a particularly well-loved routine from a youth spent soaking up as much of the stand-up comedy boom as a kid possibly could without being old enough to actually go to a club. Thank you, HBO, Showtime, Comedy Channel, and the MTV Half Hour Comedy Hour!
The movie that returned me to my wasted youth is "When Stand-Up Stood Out," a documentary directed and hosted by Solomita that looks back, fondly but not too reverently, on the Boston stand-up scene of the early 80s. We learn that while comedy clubs existed in New York and Los Angeles, it was the sudden rise of stand-up in Boston - with dance clubs quickly closing and comedy clubs replacing them to massive profits - that influenced an entire decade of microphones and brick walls.
Supported by a mountain of archival video, a heavy handful of new interviews with key players, and footage of a recent reunion concert, Solomita takes us through the early days, where the Comedy Connection duked it out for supremacy against the Ding Ho, a Chinese restaurant-turned-nightclub that became the rowdiest place in town, thanks to a boozed up audience and talent with a knack for pissing off anybody that might cross them. (Not only do we get footage of the on-stage antics, but we also get video from backstage, allowing us a glimpse at just how these people deal with a bad crowd.)
Showbiz stories abound, most of them unabashedly dealing with the drug culture of the time; one such tale involves a comic's choice of being paid in cash, coke, or some combination of the two. Solomita and the comics he interviews - among them Lenny Clarke, Kenny Rogerson, Denis Leary, Colin Quinn, Janeane Garofalo, Steven Wright, Paula Poundstone, Kevin Meaney, and Bobcat Goldthwait - are none too shy about admitting how drugs led to a downfall. While there's a giddiness to Clarke's telling of how he once performed nine shows in a single evening, there's also a how-did-I-not-wind-up-dead? feeling that pervades such yarns.
The comics are also quick to admit the pettiness of their jealousies, discussing how the success of Wright and Goldthwait led to a great deal of anger among those not given a "Tonight Show" break. The interviews show an interesting combination here, with the comic community being highly supportive (going so far as to help up-and-comers, rather than steal from them and beat them down) yet highly selfish at the same time.
And then the film turns an odd corner. Looking for a place to wrap up its timeline, Solomita ends in the late 80s, declaring the rise in comedy clubs and TV shows devoted to comedy as the downfall, not proud birth, of the art. It's an interesting perspective: by having so many new outlets to fill, any schmuck could now make it. You no longer had to fight for stage time, work extra hard to prove yourself. The increase in performance opportunities diluted the pool. It's an argument I wasn't expecting, yet it's one that makes perfect sense in its own insider way.
Add in enough archival footage to knock a stand-up fan clean off his/her feet, and you've got a lively look back at a key part of comedy history. The only thing Solomita's film is missing is focus; there's a bit of a rambling nature to this piece that gives more of a friends-reminiscing feel than a steady documentary (it never becomes clear how Garofalo fits into the picture; it's never explained just how Goldthwait hit it so big so quickly; etc.). Also, Solomita's narration needs a little tweaking, as it's a bit too casual to give an impression of distance. The film has to work extra hard to shake the buddy-buddy tone of Solomita's hosting duties and get down to the dark, dirty stuff that's the most fascinating.
Considering the heavy reliance on a variety of archival sources, the video quality here is all over the map. The new interview footage, filmed on digital video between the late 90s and the early 00s, looks pretty darn good, while the rest is understandably not so hot. (The stuff taken from TV broadcasts are fairly decent, while homemade bootlegs of club performances suffer plenty of video interference.) It's all a matter of doing the best with what you have, and keeping that in mind, it's quite acceptable overall. Presented in a full frame (1.33:1) format.
It's the same deal with the (Dolby 2.0 stereo) audio: the newer the better, although even the very worst clips are workable. No subtitles are available, although the disc is closed captioned.
"A Flashback With Comedian Dane Cook" is a cheap way of reeling in younger viewers - look, kids, it's a guy you know talking about these old people! Plus, I loathe Dane Cook, so seven minutes of him talking about anything is highly unappealing. That said, it's actually a decent piece, Cook's take on the Boston scene being worth a quick spin. Go figure.
A random six-minute collection of bonus reunion concert footage from Goldthwait, Rogerson, Don Gavin, Wright, Clarke might be a bit light but it's still (no surprise here) quite funny.
Four minutes of extra "Meaney On the Street" (in which Meaney takes a camera outside the club and wings it with passers-by) will delight any fan of the guy - I had forgotten just how great he could be.
"The Making of When Stand-Up Stood Out" is little more than video of Solomita sitting around a club and chatting with his producers, mixed with on-set outtakes and random behind-the-scenes shots. There are some pretty nifty stories to be found here.
Rounding out the disc are the film's trailer and previews for "Awesome! I F*ing Shot That," "The Zodiac," and "The Aristocrats." (Those three also automatically play as the disc starts up; you can skip past them if you prefer.)
"When Stand-Up Stood Out" is enough to make any stand-up nut happy. But there's more: it also features the notorious footage of angry comic Kenny Moore beating a heckler with a guitar. Now that's worth catching, right? Recommended.