Standing Up: All Joking Aside (2020)-Reviewed

From the Ben Schwartz starring vehicle Standing Up, Falling Down to the Steve Byrne directed The Opening Act, 2020 has seen a surprising number of films centered around stand-up. It makes a bit of sense as an extended comedy boom has been taking place for well over a decade. Between YouTube, Twitter and Instagram, it’s never been easier to get your material out into the world and entering the scene is the most accessible it’s ever been. Joining that growing list of films is All Joking Aside. 

From director Shannon Kohli and writer James Pickering, All Joking Aside follows Charlene (Raylene Harewood) as she attempts to become a stand-up comedian. We meet her just as she’s being welcomed onstage at an open mic night, clearly nervous. Less than 10 seconds in, she’s immediately heckled by an obnoxious drunk man who bullies her off stage. She soon finds out that the man is a former stand-up himself named Bob Carpenter (Brian Markinson). Bob, a stand out in the scene years ago, fizzled out and disappeared after struggling with alcoholism and marital problems. After a series of antagonistic encounters, the two eventually strike up a deal wherein Bob will show Charlene the ropes and maybe, just maybe, the two might end up being the father/daughter each has been respectively yearning for. 


Despite sharing quite a few similarities to Standing Up, Falling Down-a young, struggling comic forms an unlikely friendship with an aged, bitter drunk-All Joking Aside manages to set itself apart by focusing on topics of the day. From the outset, Charlene faces sexism in wildly different forms, most frequently from a fellow comic who constantly harasses her. The commentary within the film is fairly easy and nothing other films haven’t hit on much better (see Eva Vibes’ incredible All About Nina) but the fact is, these problems aren’t going away. As unsubtle as the points being made are, they’re topics that will likely continue to be broached as long as men continue to be pigs. It’s just a shame the general thesis of the film is, for lack of a better term, a little hacky. 

It’s extremely difficult to write fake stand up material for a film, few films can capture the authenticity and electricity of live comedy. In this particular parameter, All Joking Aside fails on two fronts in that the material just isn’t that funny and Harewood is not an engaging presence. It’s such a shame because she’s largely very good throughout the rest of the film but she seems to lose all of her naturalness once she steps on stage. You buy it at first, she is just starting out after all, but by the time she finds herself and her craft and it still doesn’t work? That’s a problem. It’s hard not to cringe when incredibly weak jokes are being met with such voracious laughter. It comes off as disingenuous and uncomfortable. 

The blame shouldn’t be placed on Harewood, however. It’s the Pickering’s script that fails her. As representation in front of and behind the camera continues to be an ongoing battle, this absolutely feels like something should’ve been written by a woman. And a comedian at that. Pickering is neither and it shows. Everything in her set revolving around being a woman sounds like something a man would come up with for what he thinks a woman sounds like. It’s jarring and unnatural. He gives Harewood nothing to work with and the jokes end up feeling so stale and unfunny. In a film centered around stand up, it’s baffling that there wasn’t anyone brought on to punch up the script. It almost sinks the entire film. 


Thankfully the relationship between Charlene and Bob is so touching and lovely. Both meet each other at difficult times in their lives. Charlene is struggling with who she is on a fundamental level and health issues that are constantly at the forefront of her mind. Not to mention her father has passed and her mother is estranged. Bob has thrown everything away and his family wants nothing to do with him. You get the sense that his heckling of Charlene is less mean spirited and comes as more of a cry for help. 

It sounds a bit confusing to say this but the fact that Charlene’s material just isn’t very good kind of doesn’t matter. These two are so warm together, enlivening a film in desperate need of just that. Does it hit all of the beats of a young up-and-comer meets bitter, grizzled vet we expect? Of course. Does that matter? Not particularly. The two’s interactions overpower you and after a certain point, you don’t care that you’ve seen this before and you happily enjoy their shared journey of redemption. 

Harewood is so charming and watchable as Charlene, exuding a quiet sense of purpose. She’s so easy to root for, her tenacity and innate likability propelling her through. The real standout, however, is Markinson as Bob. His portrayal of this kind of broken, lost man is heartbreaking and is full of intense truth. For every Marc Maron that powers through years of obscurity to become a superstar, there’s a hundred guys like Bob. Guys who toil in local comedy scenes never quite breaking out only to disappear. Guys that other comics will often talk about with reverent sadness, “so and so could’ve had it all if he kept it together.” Markinson is keyed all the way in never falling too far into bitterness or overdoing it as a drunk. Like Harewood, he approaches his role with a quiet resolve. They’re two lonely people existing on the margins, finding each other at their lowest and pulling themselves out, together. It’s lovely. 

Despite major, often frustrating setbacks when it comes to the naturalism of the stand up, All Joking Aside powers through on the strength of two strong performances. The temptation to eye roll some of the comedy is quickly dispelled by a wonderful examination of two people in crisis and their paths out. It’s rare that a film can survive a struggle as deep as this has but the fact that it does and leaves you smiling by the end is a testament to just how good Harewood and Markinson are. 

-Brandon Streussnig