Documentary Releases: Funny Pains (2017) - Reviewed

Sometimes the laugh-makers can’t always laugh.  Far too often have we seen talented comedians struggling with substance abuse, illness, and their own mental health, never realizing the severity of the issue until it is too late.  Robin Williams is a classic example of this.  It’s hard to gauge the severity of a comedian’s inner turmoil when the topic becomes fodder for a stand-up routine and audiences are encouraged to laugh about them.  

As contradictory as it seems, Charlie Chaplin once said, “To truly laugh, you must be able to take your pain, and play with it.”  All shrewd comedians understand this, and Wendi Starling – the troubled starlet of Funny Pains – is one of them.  This documentary explores the career of this New York-based comedian, her ongoing struggles with bipolar disorder, and her gutsy discussions of mental health and past trauma during her sets.  She understands her pain, and she “plays with it” well. 

The most fascinating moments of Funny Pains are its most candid ones.  In simple roundtable discussions with famous comedians ranging from Nikki Glaser to Jim Norton, Wendi bares her soul to them, and in turn, the others reveal their own past hardships and mental health challenges.  No subject matter is off the table: racism, drug addiction, sexual assault, suicide – it’s all fair game.  Through stories the comedians share, a kinship grows between them, and they begin to feel more relatable to the viewer.  Despite how somber these discussions might sound, the fast-paced editing and comedians’ resilient natures allow the film to stay upbeat and relaxed, giving the message to anyone watching to eliminate the stigma of these topics.  By “making something giant very small,” as Wendi puts it, the conversation flows more freely, both onstage and off.     

Funny Pains works best in its honesty, but falters when it becomes more fabricated.  We witness several hyper-stylized reenactments of Wendi’s past that feel out of place in the film and seem more suited for eyewitness accounts on Ghost Adventures:  However interesting they are, they’re not suited for this mostly straightforward documentary.  There is also a tendency for the film to lack focus.  While it’s important not to belabor Wendi's bipolar disorder, her mental health is established as a central focus at the beginning of the film, but the topic is never fully explored beyond that, instead shifting gears to a handful of other issues.  The footage could have been assembled in a tighter way to yield more of a cohesive story and tone, rather than heavy-handedly addressing her mental health at the top with dramatic flashbacks, and then abandoning that technique in lieu of nonchalant allusions to it for the rest of the film.

Nevertheless, Funny Pains is a bold, refreshing exploration of a side to comedians we rarely get to see outside of the public eye.  Wendi Starling is a delight to watch, and is able to laugh at her darkness to an almost enviable extent.  “I have more joy than you!” she proclaims at one point, and that might very well be true.  Watch this documentary so that we may all learn from Wendi.

--Andrea Riley