It’s hard to imagine James Mullinger as anything other than the fully formed comedian that he is today. Some two years ago when he moved to New Brunswick, it was if a bomb had been dropped on the province, like we were suddenly playing host to a British invasion. Propaganda pamphlets littered our streets with little Union Jacks on one side and statements like ‘Your Conservative Overlords have no funny bones!’ on the other. His face seemed to appear in every shop window, he completely dominated the media, and you couldn’t host an event without him making an appearance as a special guest. He’s interviewed the likes of George Clooney and Jerry Seinfeld, which suddenly put me and everyone I know on par with Kevin Bacon. It was kind of a big deal. So now, two years on, seeing ‘The Comedian’s Guide To Survival’, a film based on the painful missteps of Mullinger’s early career, it immediately brings one very big question to mind: who is this wet blanket?
But that’s not James Mullinger – not exactly. This is James Buckley (of Inbetweeners fame) as James Mullinger, or at least a proto-Mullinger who wets his pants on stage. And this isn’t the Comedian’s Guide To Success, but merely Survival. We watch him struggle with his stand-up, desperate to be appreciated as a comic, while also struggling with his day-job as a journalist. Insufferably, his boss forbids Mullinger from performing stand-up while simultaneously assigning him to write about the very comedians he admires. For nearly the full duration of the film we see Mullinger getting stomped from all directions: his wife, his boss, his audience, even other comedians – cajoling, pleading, or otherwise ordering him to stop, all while extolling the necessary virtue of actually being funny to make it as a comedian. But does any of this have an effect on young James? Of course not.
The film quotes that most quotable of figures, Winston Churchill: “Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.” but they might have gone with Einstein’s “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Whether by optimism or compulsion, Mullinger slogs on, despite hecklers, and a tendency to wet himself in front of crowds. He holds some belief that through hard work, perseverance, and closely following the titular guide, that he may just conquer stand-up comedy. He just needs the right opportunity.
But again, The Comedian’s Guide is about survival. It’s a morality play disguised as a comedy; wrought with some hard life lessons, and sprinkled with laughs. There are instances where our hero might have handed us a joke, and instead we’re given a monologue that says, ‘Get out and push.’ Living the dream is easier said than done. The Comedian’s Guide straddles a difficult position of carrying a message while delivering chuckles.
This is a film made by comedians, for comedians, about comedians. As cavalier as they come across about their natural talents, there’s no doubt that every one of them is familiar with that slog. The film seems to recognize that in its unusually egalitarian way, and pushes to eek out screen time for everyone involved. It features a slew of big names likes Gilbert Gottfried, Jimmy Carr, Mike Ward, and MyAnna Buring, and basically half of all the comedians I can recognize. A nearly unrecognizable Paul Kaye (aka Thoros of Myr, perhaps the most durable character in Game of Thrones) does a fantastic job as Mullinger’s coke-fueled, insult-spewing, over the top asshole of a boss, Kevin Eldon plays an overbearingly endearing chauffeur, and Mark Heap plays a backwoods truck driver of questionably sufficient genetic background. The film finds its comedic strength in its characters as Mullinger gets handed off from one oddball to the next, which might be expected from a film full of comedians. As Gottfried’s opening monologue tells us, one way or another, it’s about the people you meet, however you want to handle that. This is the field spotter’s guide to all the hilarious weirdos along the way.
Mullinger himself (the real one, not James Buckley) makes an appearance as Brad Macey, a successful comedian with a swagger much more akin to James’s real life persona, plus a tan. He does get to deliver the biggest zinger of the film though. There’s a curious disconnect between the two characters: naturally there’s a few years between Mullinger and Buckley’s scruffy underdog equivalent, and quite a bit of polish too, but Mullinger is also genuinely funny. That’s something the film doesn’t just take for granted, but actively downplays. There’s a divide which can’t be bridged simply by being allowed to stand in front of a large audience with the explicit purpose of telling them jokes. Obviously comedy isn’t something that can be learned over night, but for all of our hero’s trials, in the moment he’s given to shine we instead fade to black. If survival as a comedian is dependant on being a tireless self-promoter willing to shoehorn yourself into any opportunity and hope for the best, then The Comedian’s Guide nails it. We see the hard work, the long hours, and the sacrifice that goes into just showing up. But for success, we’ll need a sequel.
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