Existential Review: Documental.
Amazon’s exclusive comedy survival game is arbitrary, frustrating, and nearly devoid of humor.
It’s time again to talk about a review that was so painful I had to walk away from it. Documental is a Japanese elimination-style competitive show where ten stand-up comedians are put in one room and tasked with not laughing at each other’s antics. It is the brain child of comedian and director Hitoshi Matsumoto, who delighted me with his feature film Big Man Japan. Documental, however, is a mess of arbitrary rules, capricious judgements, and a structure that stifles any spontaneous comedy. I tried to sit through three episodes and wound up shutting it off every time.
Popular comedian Hitoshi Matsumoto wants to know what makes people laugh. To get his answer, he challenges ten comedians to compete for a big cash purse in a comic battle royale. The contest is to be locked into a room with the other comics and get them to laugh. You laugh, you’re out. Last man standing takes the prize.
The first episode is almost completely made up of Hitoshi talking to camera. He feels like he’s auditioning for a Quentin Tarantino film, dressed like Takeshi Kitano in a Yakuza flick and uttering over-blown statements with a dead somber look. It makes me wonder if he’s going to take each of the losers out back and blow their brains out. At least that would have been interesting.
The deadly-serious affect permeates the whole show and comes off as pretentious. It’s almost to the level of Iron Chef, where a dude in a sequined cape is hosting a TV chef death battle…but Iron Chef knows it is being melodramatic. We see the comedians react to the invitations like they’ve been summoned to the Mortal Kombat tournament, not a comedy game show. There’s also the gimmick of the cash entry fee which each comedian has to pay up front. It’s meant to raise the stakes but reeks of fakery. I don’t buy for a second that any of these guys aren’t in on the whole thing.
There are Rules, Smokey.
Once the game begins, it becomes obvious that the premise is fatally flawed. First, it’s easy to cheat. Comedians cram their mouths full of cigarettes or bottled water to prevent a laugh from being seen. Despite the cameras everywhere, there are way too many place to turn away and stifle a giggle. There’s also a kitchenette, locker-room and bathroom where people can plausibly retreat if they feel a fit coming on. It’s an easy system to game…until Matsumoto changes the rules every ten minutes.
Despite the flaws, I found the first part of the game to have promise. Each comedian is distinct, from pratfall artists, gross out comedians, sarcastic word-play masters and even prop comics. As they spar and look for openings, the tension goes up and it seems the pot is going to boil over. Then Matsumoto comes in and wrecks it. He declares that even cracking a smile will count as laughing. Goddamn. After that everyone pretty much zips their lips, and many of the cerebral comics become downright angry and petulant. Nobody wants to tell a joke for fear of violating an unwritten rule.
The Point of No Return.
The episode (which at this point feels infinitely long) bogs down into people just shouting at each other or sulking away from the camera. All the camaraderie and jocular sparring is gone. Finally, one of the prop comics sneaks away long enough to dress up like a giant man baby. It’s actually hilarious and quickly draws a laugh. Here we go! Our first exile!
Nope. Matsumoto changes the fucking rules again to aid the comic who is obviously on good terms with him.
The comic, who seems nice but whose Abbot and Costello routines are dead on arrival since he’s solo, breaks up and gets given a yellow card. What the hell? Nobody said a goddamn thing about a card system or tiers of laughing infractions. It’s obviously a gimmick to save popular comedians from their less popular rivals. It sucks and was the last straw.
I Give Up.
I tried to watch another episode, but it’s just more of the same: only the prop guys have any funny material, the “clean” comics are reduced to bitching about the others playing dirty, and Matsumoto keeps injecting capricious changes that suck the fun and tension out of each segment. If Documental is secretly a meta-joke about the futility of manufactured laughs, it’s working. As a comedy or a survivor-style competition, it’s absolute garbage. I’ll never know which it is trying to be because I can’t stand to watch another minute of it.