The life of comedian is often not as laugh-out-loud funny as his set. “You find material from your life, of course,” explains Jordan Clifford, “but everything else is sad.” And strangely, as Clifford explains this paradox, you can’t help but laugh.
The struggle of the hapless funnyman is at the core of the new movie Joy Kevin, an independent film helmed by first-time feature director Caleb Johnson and starring Clifford as Kevin and Tallie Medel as his wife Joy. The movie screens today, April 10, at a Sarasota Film Festival premiere.
Johnson warns the movie is a slow burner, and that some of the people he has shown it to so far went almost halfway through the film before they started to “get it.” But once audience reach that point, he expects most will fall in love with the tale of Kevin and Joy. “Once the rest of the pieces fall together, it’s rewarding to someone who experiences the entire film.”
Part of that is that the film, while focusing on the struggle of its artistic main characters, is at its heart a funny film. “People might not know it’s a comedy because the characters don’t know it’s a comedy,” Johnson said.
Clifford’s character, like Clifford himself, is a stand-up comedian struggling to perfect his act at open mics in a world of heckles and judgment. Medel’s Joy is also an artist, a dancer working to refine her own performance.
Medel may be familiar to Sarasota Film Festival audiences for her starring role in The Unspeakable Act, which won the Independent Visions award here in 2012. Joy Kevin, as it happens, is also in the running for the same award this year.
Johnson said he ended up enduring many of the struggles comediens face in New York first-hand as he made the film, especially during a tour of open mic nights in the city. Rather than set up scenes artificially, he filmed much of the stand-up scenes for Kevin taking Clifford to clubs and performing in front of a real audience. “It was a truly weird experience,” he said, recounting being heckled sometimes by the comedians on stage and getting reprimanded for filming.
Clifford, meanwhile, was there performing in front of comedians he knew, but not as himself. He was playing a different character, doing a different kind of set and taking the stage under his character’s name. “They didn’t know what I was doing but they kind of knew I wasn’t doing me,” he said.
The story ultimately examines how the artists in different mediums can engulf themselves in the art while maintaining a sense of self and keeping their heads in their own relationships.
Johnson hopes the film’s premiere tonight is the first one in a healthy festival run, and would love someday to see the film streaming to homes on some kind of service. But Sarasota audiences get the chance to see the film on the silver screen.
Joy Kevin screens tonight, April 10, at 6:15pm at the Regal Hollywood 20 and again on Sunday, April 13, at 12:30pm.