So I Just Watched: “Heckler”

Fifth in a series of disorganized thoughts I am left with immediately after watching something.

A documentary about comedy and criticism (though I think “about” is generous here).  A documentary by, about, and ultimately for Jamie Kennedy.

Apparently I’m not allowed to talk about this movie, because it doesn’t want me to.  But I gotta, I gotta.

It starts off promisingly enough, exploring the relationship between stand-up comedians and hecklers, and features comments from a lot of comedians I enjoy and respect.  Folks like Patton Oswalt, Maria Bamford, Paul F. Tompkins, David Cross, Eugene Mirman and Dave Attell relate their experiences with hecklers and share their thoughts on the dynamic, though early on, cracks appear in the facade as more time seems to be devoted to the comedians’ comebacks to heckles and less about the phenomenon.  Are we just here to join in the catharsis of watching comedians put hecklers in their place?  Some light psychology barely explores the effects of heckling on a performer, and on the motivations of hecklers.

Hecklers are basically bullies and narcissists, and people who have no social filters, usually due to intoxication.  Right?  Duh.

But the movie doesn’t even reach that searingly obvious conclusion.  No digging is really done, the phenomenon is merely surface-brushed.  Hecklers want to interrupt people so, uh, they interrupt people.  Sometimes they’re mad, sometimes they’re bored, but always they are horrible jerks who are mean and also horrible, and jerks, and not funny.  Also they’re jealous.  Plus, female hecklers are almost always trying to flirt with the comedian.  What?

There are so many unexplored aspects of heckling, historically or in other arenas.  Sports?  Politics?  Music?  Maybe a minute-long clip for each is featured.  No grand thesis is achieved.  No enlightening or informative exploration of the topic, its history, the evolution of tactics to deal with heckling, aside from the comedians’ arsenal of comebacks.  The question of “What is heckling?” is essentially answered as fully as the film will ever do so in the opening seconds when the dictionary definition of the word is super’d on-screen.

Oh, we’re only 20 minutes in?  And the movie’s 80 minutes long?  Uh-oh.

Snuck into the middle of that first act, we’re shown the film’s co-producer and eventual focal point, Jamie Kennedy, on the phone with his agent going over what material he shouldn’t use in an upcoming gig at a Catholic school.  Why the hell is Jamie Kennedy doing a gig at a Catholic school?  Obviously, she advises against him using any priest/little boy material, sexual material, or profanity.  “I can’t say ‘fuck’?  I can’t do my Shrek bit if I can’t say ‘fuck’.”  Our loss, I suppose.

Let it be known that I don’t find Jamie Kennedy particularly funny.  Why?  Let’s just reduce it as such: the chemical stew that makes up this nebulous self  called “me” is not triggered into laughter or mirth by the concepts he presents as comedy.  Others might, and that’s fine, they can have him.  But as I alluded to earlier, this is a documentary that is one quarter about hecklers, three quarters about Jamie Kennedy’s sadfeels.  Of course, hecklers are a good jumping-off point, as they have had many an opportunity to make Jamie Kennedy upset.  Due to being duped into what’s essentially “The Jamie Kennedy Experience” from here on, I have lost sympathy that I didn’t even know I had to bring along in the first place.

Who else has made Jamie Kennedy feel bad?  Critics!  Grr!  Critics!  Those guys are JUST LIKE HECKLERS except they get paid!  The film then spends some time trying to build that argument, and peddles in the hollow old trope that all critics are just jealous people who failed to accomplish anything in the realm they’re criticizing.  The film posits that there is no valid criticism, except there is, sometimes, rarely, but most of the people who did valid criticism are dead now.  Here’s a single anecdote about one case where Roger Ebert changed his mind about a movie!  See?  Critics are wrong all the time!  Therefore nobody is allowed to criticize anything, ever.  Except the people in this documentary, who criticize critics and the act of criticism.  Figure that one out.

That’s what’s most frustrating about the movie.  It’s whiny and patronizing, and in contention with basic human nature.  People form opinions of things they’ve been exposed to.  That’s how our brains and bodies work.  Stimulus and response.  Fire is hot, so we move to avoid getting burned.  Apples are sweet and crunchy, so we develop a preference for eating them.  Being told not to form an opinion because we don’t deserve to form one will make us form one anyway, and it’s probably not going to be positive.  As an audience member, I’m the one being criticized here! I’m going to make a movie called “Documentary” and it will be twenty minutes about how documentaries exist, and then the rest will be about how much the particular documentary “Heckler” upset me.  Come along on my journey of self-pity and ego-massaging!

One does not need to have ever cooked an egg in order to decide if they don’t like a particular egg dish or not.  Of course, through wider exposure to a variety of egg dishes, one may find that there are certain preparations of egg one does like, and a more nuanced appreciation can be developed.  One can learn the difference between a quality egg dish and a poor egg dish, and then provide commentary about the dish they have in front of them.

Jamie Kennedy felt bad that people (by which reality evidences is the vast majority of people who saw them) didn’t like some movies he made, specifically “Malibu’s Most Wanted” and “Son of the Mask“.  Let us now spend time with Jamie Kennedy as he confronts some hecklers and critics face-to-face, and let’s all get really uncomfortable when it becomes apparent that we’re only going to be hearing from the bully end of the criticism spectrum.  It would serve not only the film overall but Kennedy’s central role in it if he would have provided some examples of criticism he did find valuable, instead of just parading a cavalcade of meanies for the audience to hopefully be annoyed at and take Kennedy’s side.  At the very least, said meanies are pretty mean and their statements juvenile and indefensible, but after all that’s how propaganda works, isn’t it?

Anyway, I think bringing to life the crass revenge fantasy posited humorously by Kevin Smith in “Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back” is about the least effective way of dealing with these barbs of the least-trained and ruthlessly acerbic critics.  Let us quote the poet George Herbert (1593 – 1633): “Living well is the best revenge.”

I did find it rather illuminating to interpret all the talking head comments as though they were directed at Kennedy himself, and not we the audience.  It didn’t make it any more satisfying or informative, but at least it took on a morbid tone of trespass, like I had snuck into the brain of somebody whom I was not supposed to.

We’re also expected to empathize with people who are, even within the comedy world, not particularly highly regarded.  Tom Green, Andrew Dice Clay and Carrot Top all get a chance to try and make us feel bad that people don’t like them.  I could understand if the film devoted some attention to more evenly divisive performers, or people under-appreciated in their own time, but the consensus of these folks even among their peers and contemporaries is low.

There’s a fundamental and unaddressed hypocrisy here, too, for comedians to complain about strangers being critical of them.  What is a comedian?  A person who uses humor to criticize things!  Very often, they criticize strangers!  Celebrities, politicians, that guy on the freeway who cut them off, etc.!  Where’s their documentary?  It’s a good thing airline food isn’t sentient, otherwise we’d have to put up with a documentary called “Comedian” that spends twenty minutes summarizing the fact that jokes about airline food exist.  Then the next hour would be us going back and forth between brief snippets from interviews, and one particular bag of peanuts getting depressed in a grey room, listening to all these jokes about it.  Then peanut bag would confront some comedians and ask them, just why do they hate airline food so much?  They can’t understand.  They have no right.  They’ve never been airline food so what do they know?

So, who else is mean to Jamie Kennedy?  Why, people on the internet of course!  Wait, what was this movie called again?  “Heckler”?  They’re stretching the concept pretty thin at this point.

Tangent time!  Maybe it’s just because I grew up online, but I put no stock in ‘net trolls.  The simplest opinion to have is “no”, and the internet makes providing lazy commentary extraordinarily easy.  Irony and disdain are unsatisfying modes of expression to me.  Yes, things of low quality exist, but there are ways to talk about them that are interesting.  Is post-modernism the movement I’m rebelling against?  Does this movement have a name yet?  I’ve heard “new sincerity” tossed around a bit and I kinda like that.  Good art is great, but bad art can at least be fun.  So let’s find joy in liking things, not satisfaction in hating things.

Furthermore, there is a generation of untrained critics online thinking that all you need for critical legitimacy is to be outstanding in relating how much you hate something.  Emotion over logic.  Never mind the underlying reasons for why, the only thing of value you can add to the conversation is a creative  (or at least wordy) description of how much a thing sucks and why the person who made it should go die.

“Exhibit A makes me want to vomit my spine out of my eyeballs” can only take you so far.  I’d rather read something of the perspective that “It’s amazing that something like Exhibit A exists!  How did that happen?  What can we learn from it?”  At the very least, I’m trying to expound upon what is bothering me about this film, for example, and not just about how much Jamie Kennedy is a butt wizard from suck space who radiates a mile-wide aura of sad gas and makes otherwise joyful and pure children eviscerate themselves in anger.

Oh, internet!  You are a cesspool of hate and vitriol, which is freely directed at anyone and everything.  For the filmmakers to place  it alongside legitimate criticism is a mistake.  Look, internet opinions are like hornets.  If you spend too much time around them, you might get hurt, but you can avoid them pretty easily.  Or maybe you see one once in a while, and be all, “fuck, that was a hornet, that was close,” but don’t be like, “oh, a hornet, I wonder what will happen if I follow it.”  Down that path lies pain, and Uwe Boll arranging boxing matches with his online critics (the film spends a disappointing amount of time on that farce, which is to say, more than 0 seconds).

Where to go from here?  I suppose I could crack open a new egg and watch “Son of the Mask”, starring Jamie Kennedy.  Somebody uploaded the full film to YouTube.  That’s not a good sign, is it?  So unconcerned is the studio about missing profits from the film, they haven’t even tried to get it taken down as a copyright violation!

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2 responses to “So I Just Watched: “Heckler”

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