One of the more touching scenes in the film for me was when the Swedish doctor, who seems blissfully unaware of the comedy world generally, is unwillingly drawn into George's dark comedy vortex. And Ira makes a choice — he can back away, or he can pile on — and he piles on. Was this a crossroads moment for Ira, or was it just a bunch of mean jokes at a tall Swede's expense?
I was trying to show that sometimes, even at the worst moments, even when you're getting bad news from a doctor, sometimes there's nothing to do but try to find a way to laugh at it. There's just no other choice, or you're just in complete despair. So when George starts getting bad news from the doctor, he just starts insulting him. And then Ira jumps in, because he's his friend — and it's his way of showing support.
But it wasn't necessarily finding the humor of the moment as much as it was . . . trying to find a way to cope with the moment. To me, it was more the brutal dark side of comedy, ganging up on this guy who was an unwilling deliverer of the news. Well, you know, it's a scary moment, and sometimes doctors are insensitive, because they've given bad news so many times, it makes you want to lash out — and most people don't lash out. But a comedian, who is used to dealing with hecklers all day long, a guy telling you you're sick is the worst heckler ever. You have to tear him apart.
Can you talk about the viciousness in comedy?
Comedians are very desensitized — it takes a lot more to make them laugh. Things that are shocking to normal people are not shocking to comedians. They tend to go too far, most of the time. A lot of people say, "They're so filthy how they talk." And I always tell people, "In real life, they talk twice as bad as this. I couldn't even show what most people are like. You couldn't tolerate it." It would be a small indie movie that I'd have to make for 200 grand if I showed what comedians actually speak like.
There's a bunch of religious themes explored in the film, from Judaism to talk of karma and Buddhism and Eastern philosophy — is that just par for the course when there's a movie dealing with terminal illness? Or was there something else you wanted to touch on?
I thought it was important to show that George doesn't have any faith, and so when he gets sick, he has nothing to turn to — he's completely alone, in the grandest sense, and the only thing he can think to do is just go on stage a lot. And he goes into denial — he doesn't want to face what's happening. He has nothing that gives him comfort. And a lot of comedians are atheists, the people that are drawn to comedy for the most part question everything, and they see the ridiculousness in everything, and that may be one reason why a lot of them seem so uncomfortable, and that's why Bill Maher makes Religulous or if you've seen any George Carlin specials. They're predicated on the fact that they think religion is a fairy tale. But that can lead to a very unhappy life if you don't have a spiritual background, especially if you get sick. So I thought it was important that you knew that about George — why he was flailing about.