By: Addison Wylie
Where there’s a Howie Mandel production, Vic Cohen is most likely close by. It’s quite obvious the two comedians are close supportive friends, however audiences are seeing that connection run deeper in the documentary Committed.
For twelve years, Mandel has recorded Cohen with a video camera and chronicled his budding career as a comic and as an outrageous, fearless performer. The documentary has been also been shaped by co-directors Reed Grinsell and Steve Sunshine, both of whom are making their directorial debuts along with the America’s Got Talent judge.
Movie goers watch Cohen search for his voice and find his confidence, to which he then uses to shape his on-stage personality. Committed is an enlightening, hilarious documentary that will often have you in hysterics.
I had the opportunity to talk with Cohen via e-mail about Committed, crafting comedy, and other topics in time for the film’s international premiere at Hot Docs.
Addison Wylie: For Committed, a camera followed you and your blossoming career for twelve years. How is a project like that proposed to you? Or, is it rather imposed on you?
Vic Cohen: Howie Mandel suggested doing a documentary about me while I was writing and acting on his daytime talk show in 1998.
I was flattered and thrilled that Howie found a story in me that he wanted to follow. I had admired Howie for years prior to working with him on his show. So, the idea of working closely with him beyond his talk show was beyond exciting.
I originally thought we’d just be shooting for a year or so. I had nooooo idea we’d keep shooting… and shooting… and shooting. Before I knew it, twelve years had passed. I loved every minute of it!
AW: Are you naturally comfortable in front of the camera? That may be a rhetorical question considering how comfortable you are with public stripteases.
VC: Yes, I am very comfortable in front of the camera. In fact I am sitting in front of one right now. Can you see me?!? I am waving at you. Okay, not true. I am not waving at you or sitting in front of a camera. But let’s Skype!!! No? Okay…
Regarding stripping, hmmm, I don’t think I regularly strip on stage quite as often as the film may suggest. And, I never take it ALL off! But, I will do anything (within the law) for a laugh. When I do take it off… it’s due to my commitment to the comedic premise. If I’m not going to go all out… why do it at all?
AW: What attracted you to comedy?
VC: Growing up, laughter equaled loved. Nothing in the world felt better than getting a laugh out of my mom or dad. When I would get them laughing, I would literally feel a rush of warmth flood my heart. I still get that feeling when I make them (or anyone) laugh. I think those early experiences attracted me to comedy as well as the great feeling I had making my friends laugh. I also received inspiring encouragement from several special teachers including my high school theatre director, Douglas Kornelly. He’s in the documentary in some unforgettable scenes!
As an “adult,” I still find there is no bigger blessing or emotional rush than connecting with someone through a laugh. Regardless of our differences in age, religion, gender, ethnicity, life experience… when I say or do something that elicits an honest laugh in someone, I feel our spirits magically connect as one. The experience makes me feel less alone in the world… more connected. I have a need to connect.
AW: Do you find it’s easy to write material, or does it take a while to craft the perfect joke?
VC: I tend to come up with my favourite material in a natural conversation… or while experiencing real life. The humour is very organic this way. There’s something about being “in-the-moment” while talking with a person, or while telling a story, that motivates me to think fast and get the laugh. A lot of the material in my stand up act is generated this way.
When I am required to write jokes for a specific TV show, where the material can’t really come out of every day conversation or life, I am very comfortable with that process as well.
Regarding your mention of the “perfect joke,” I don’t believe there is such a thing as a “perfect joke.” Since humour is so subjective, one person’s idea of a “perfect joke” may be quite different than another’s. (Just as there really is no such thing as the “perfect marriage” or the “perfect vacation,” etc…)
I don’t shoot for perfection. For me that’s a killer. I do what makes me laugh and go from there.
AW: You prove in Committed that you fearlessly accept improvisation. Do you prefer comedy with risks?
VC: I love comedy that involves risk. As a performer, I thrive on experiential comedy where the audience and I experience life in the moment. And, the more risk… the better! This type of comedy suits my natural personality. It’s where I feel most at home.
AW: I remember a situation on Howie Mandel’s Mobbed where a confrontation between you and a “mark” became heated. In comedy, is there such a thing as “going too far”?
VC: In standup comedy, I never want to emotionally hurt someone. Maliciously making fun of someone is not what I’m about.
However, if a guy is sitting alone at a table in the club, with his hands in his shorts, playing with himself, I AM going to make fun of him! And, if he has hurt feelings – too bad! He shouldn’t be playing pocket pool in the club! (Yes, that really did happen once when I was performing in Reno. And the guy loved when I called him out.)
With the hidden camera situation you are mentioning in your question, I don’t think we went too far. The “mark” loved the episode. You may remember that he reconciled with his estranged brother in a teary-eyed reunion.
AW: Tell me about the first time you watched Committed. How was it watching you grow on screen?
VC: The first time I watched Committed was at the Friars Club Comedy Film Festival in New York, where I was sitting in a theatre with a sold out audience. Before the house lights went down, and the first frame of the film appeared on the screen, I had very little idea what angle Howie, Steve Sunshine, Reed Grinsell, and Rich Thurber were going to take.
I hadn’t seen the film prior to this first premiere, because Howie and the producers wanted to shoot my first reaction to the film at an actual festival.
I think they also wanted to have complete, unencumbered autonomy and creative license in putting the story together, without my editorial input. I was totally on board with that. I trusted them completely.
Some of my friends questioned my sanity in allowing a film to be made about me, without me having any input in how I would be portrayed. But, I wasn’t very concerned. I just wanted to do my best work in whatever they shot.
Sitting in that theatre having not seen most of the footage in over twelve years, I had forgotten many of the outrageous situations/scenes/comedy featured in the film. It was an awesome, surreal experience. We had some crazy times on the road.
Personally, most meaningful to me was hearing for the first time Howie’s kind words and thoughts about me and my work. I have highly respected Howie for years – long before we met on his show in 1998. I have always considered him to be brilliant. I am still moved by what he said in the film.
Regarding your question about watching me grow over the years… I still feel like I’m growing!
AW: What do you hope audiences will pull from Committed? What makes this doc such a crowd pleaser?
VC: It’s kind of hard for me to say what I hope people will pull from Committed because I never thought of doing this film to provide a conscious message. I just wanted to work my hardest to do my best in the footage you see.
But it’s been really touching to talk with audience members who’ve seen the film. Many of them have told me they felt inspired to go after their dreams.
Whether it was singing, doing comedy, starting a new business, or perhaps going back to school, audience members have told me they were motivated to say “yes” to whatever they may have been saying “no” to for years… or even a lifetime.
I am so grateful that I said “yes” to making that cold call back in 1998 to be a writer on Howie’s daytime talk show. I can’t imagine what my life would be like today if I had not dialled those numbers.
Catch Committed at Toronto’s Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival on:
Saturday, April 25 at 6:00 p.m. @ TIFF Bell Lightbox
Sunday, April 26 at 11:00 a.m. @ TIFF Bell Lightbox
Saturday, May 2 at 9:30 p.m. @ Hart House Theatre
Vic Cohen will be in attendance at the April 25 and 26 screenings of Committed, and would be delighted to meet festival goers.
Click here for more festival details and to buy tickets.
Do You Tweet? Follow These Tweeple:
Vic Cohen: @VicCohen
Addison Wylie: @AddisonWylie