Stand-up is a uniquely American institution, or at least it was for a long time. Even today, it’s much more of an institution here than in, say, continental Europe. German Netflix, for example, is not constantly flooded with brand-new stand-up from German comedians. And here’s a clip of Eddie Izzard, in the 1990s, talking about how they don’t have stand-up in France. If for the rest of the world, stand-up is associated with the US, here it’s essentially connected to New York. The New York stand-up scene of the 1970s and ‘80s, where modern stand-up comedy was born, is the stuff of legend. The problem is, the comedians know it.
Where Have You Gone, Lou DiMaggio is a documentary directed by Brad Kuhlman but produced by its titular subject. It concerns DiMaggio’s return to comedy after a two-decade hiatus (during which he continued working in television). Beginning with a history of the stand-up scene in the 1980s, accentuated with testimony from various recognizable comedians and comediennes, it gradually morphs into a part of DiMaggio’s comeback push, with DiMaggio narrating as he visits his many famous friends to ask their advice.
DiMaggio seems like a nice enough guy, all things considered. I suppose I wish him well on his journey to recapture his glory days, something few of us will have such a clear path to, come our midlife yearnings. But the movie about his prospective return ultimately seems like little more than an attempt to reintroduce himself and to instruct us to associate his name with established figures like Larry David, Joy Behar, Ray Romano, Jeff Garlin, and Howie Mandel -- to name a few celebrity friends who show up here.
If you don’t begrudge DiMaggio for using his famous friends to give him a boost—it’s an inspired career move, after all—you might resent the insipidity of this documentary. Like Jerry Seinfeld’s milquetoast high-concept talk show, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, the film is convinced that one’s admiration for stand-up comedy means you are as nostalgic for the bonhomie of the New York stand-up community as the comedians themselves are.
Its essentially romantic attitude toward the days and personages of yesteryear makes it a deeply incurious film. There is no deeper reflection on what drives Lou, or any of his peers, to make comedy; no serious searching for the kernel of dissatisfaction that drives his attempted return; no actual reckoning with the past. Clearly premeditated debates between DiMaggio and his wife substitute for the conflict his story needs; his old tin of drug paraphernalia suffices as the film’s discussion of the comedy’s drug scene; a few lines of voice-over, a Great Gatsby quote, and some sweeping chords at the end attempt to retroactively remake the film into one about adversity, perseverance, and triumph.
Despite leaving in a rather offensive and inexcusable joke he seems to improvise at his first show back, the movie feels protective of both DiMaggio and the institution of stand-up (a tack that is, by the way, the precisely wrong historical moment to take). It’s insular both in that it focuses intently on a group of ‘80s comedians, and in that it keeps itself warm and fuzzy throughout.
That said, Where Have You Gone, Lou DiMaggio happens across some interesting moments. At times early in the film, one can be engaged enough to wish it were a more thoroughgoing history of the stand-up scene circa 1970-1990, perhaps with a little more of a critical or aesthetic edge. There are also moments when comedians like Richard Belzer or Colin Quinn say something insightful about the art of comedy, the practices and theories of this American art form. The most fascinating scene with DiMaggio himself has him dig through, edit, and redevelop joke notes he’s made over the course of his 20 years off. But such moments are subordinate to the film’s overriding lack of ambition to do much more than serve as a potential pilot for a show that could be titled "Comedians in Empty Restaurants Reminiscing."