In 2005, Vince Vaughn organized a touring comedy show that traveled to 30 cities in a stupefying 30 days. Incorporating music, skits, and stand-up comedy, "The Wild West Comedy Show" was meant as a sort of throwback to Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, although the key objective was to introduce audiences across the country to four struggling stand-up comics. Apparently foreseeing the adventures that would occur behind the scenes, Vaughn recruited director Ari Sandel to film a documentary of the tour, chronicling both the literal and emotional journeys of its participants. Starting out in Los Angeles and making their way through most of the Southwestern and Southern states to Chicago, the group played to regularly sold-out crowds who obviously ate up the comedians' observational, politically incorrect, and somewhat conservative shtick.
Vaughn's lineup of comics is certainly a motley crew, beginning with the uniquely named Ahmed Ahmed, an Egyptian Muslim whose comedy revolves largely around his social interactions and treatment post 9/11. John Caparulo is the foul-mouthed average guy whose interest in porn and nonexistent love life fuel his routine. Bret Ernst is a self-proclaimed "guido," and fellow Italian Sebastian Maniscalco uses his own obsession with cleanliness and good hygiene as fodder for his act. Together, these thirty-something guys offer a little something for just about everyone, and although their stories are frequently based around sex, there is a lot of heart behind them.
The truthfulness of their stories, in fact, is what "Vince Vaughn's Wild West Comedy Show" is really about. For those expecting a straight concert film, this may come as a disappointment. Instead of focusing on the actual stand-up footage, most of the film is spent on the four star comics offstage as they prepare for and reflect on their acts, reveal personal details about their lives, and visit with their families. The stand-up footage is used more as an illustration of how the comics' routines are born from their personal stories. Over the course of the tour, we are given a look at the insecurities and personal flaws that influence both the content of the comedians' acts and their behavior during the show. In an early scene, Caparulo mistakes an excited fan's screaming for an insult and becomes so preoccupied by it that he spends the rest of his act directly addressing it. Ernst seems the most insecure of the bunch, dismissing one of his acts as a failure, even though the audience reaction was extremely positive (humorously, he still rates himself a 6 out of 10). Moments like these help dispel the illusion that these seemingly playful and raucous men are as happy as they appear to be.
Another aspect that shapes the comics is the unpredictability of their travels and their requirement to adapt. This is most evident when they must cancel their trip to New Orleans after the onslaught of Hurricane Katrina. At first having no clue as to how much damage had been done, the comedians initially view the decision to go to a refugee camp and offer free show tickets as an inconvenience. At the camp, the sight of the families left homeless by the disaster and the aid provided by one volunteer worker who just happened to be vacationing in the area inspires the group, opening their eyes (as well as ours) to the power that comedy holds when people are at rock bottom.
It is at this point that the film reveals itself not just as a behind-the-scenes look at a unique comedy tour but as an exploration of the truth and pain beneath the comedy that makes us laugh. In every story, be it Ahmed's account of his time spent in jail for being falsely suspected of terrorism or Ernst's story of being outshone at the skating rink by a childhood rival, there is some element of pain that makes the humor relatable to the audience, and this is what draws a response. While timing, confidence, and stage presence are all important to a stand-up comic's effectiveness, the fundamental component is genuineness. As we see in this film, even at their crudest or most exaggerated, these guys are truly themselves, and their comedy comes from a place that is real and meaningful to them. They do not simply put on an act for the audience but reveal something of themselves, sometimes embarrassing things, but always something that the audience can understand and connect with on some level.
Lest you think this is all self-examination and exploration, there is a fair amount of humor to be found here, including some amusing skits with Vaughn and special guests Jon Favreau, singer Dwight Yoakam, actors Justin Long and Keir O'Donnell, and the film's executive producer Peter Billingsley (whom you may remember as little Ralphie in "A Christmas Story"). These skits paired with the glimpses at the stand-up routines provide many a humorous moment. Of course, the excitement of a live performance cannot be duplicated on film, and at times the acts seem to lack energy. The starring comedians, however, each display their own level of talent, and judging from the crowds' reactions, the live shows proved to be high entertainment.
New Line Home Entertainment presents the film in anamorphic 1.85:1 widescreen. As it was filmed on fairly low-res video, the image quality is by no means mind-blowing, but it looks quite good considering. Expectedly, the picture is not especially sharp, and the frequent low lighting does nothing for details, but this in no way detracts from the film. The quality is more than adequate and probably looks as good as it possibly can.
A Dolby Digital 5.1 track nicely separates the comedians' voices from the crowds' reactions during the stand-up scenes. The crowds' laughter is a bit muted compared to the comedians, but this is apparently due to the source material. Like the image quality, this is as good as it can be and does not really detract from the overall experience. A stereo track is included, as well as English and Spanish subtitles.
Two audio commentary tracks are offered for the film, the first one featuring Vaughn and Peter Billingsley. This is a highly informative track, as the two discuss the overall structure of the film and how they crafted the story out of the nearly 600 hours of footage they had. These guys never stop talking, and their track remains consistently engaging, if surprisingly serious. The second track features director Ari Sandel with comedians Ahmed, Ernst, and Maniscalco. This one, naturally, is far more laid back than the first as the comedians provide lots of humorous recollections and observations.
After this, 54 minutes of bonus footage are offered, including deleted scenes, short interview segments, and extended footage of scenes left in the film. Worth noting is a karaoke rendition of the song "Summer Nights" from "Grease" performed onstage by Vaughn and Justin Long. For those wanting more stand-up footage, there is plenty to be found here by all of the comedians.
Three brief featurettes follow, starting with "The Tour" (6 min.), which looks at how Vaughn came up with the idea for the comedy show in the first place. A six-minute making-of feature concerns the actual filming of the tour, and a 10-minute behind-the-scenes featurette consists mainly of outtakes. A trailer and some sneak peeks round things off.
"Vince Vaughn's Wild West Comedy Show" is a surprisingly insightful meditation on the personal stories that drive comedy. The stories behind these rather ordinary guys make for compelling entertainment simply because they are so relatable, giving their comedy that much more substance. What started out as a seemingly crackpot idea for a road trip generated into a spiritual journey for its participants and a lesson in comedic truth for their audience. While sharing their journey, we come to care for these comedians and appreciate their comedy on a deeper level. Most of all, this is a terrific showcase for a team of dedicated comics who, though perhaps a bit rough around the edges, show that they have the goods to become successful, both on and off the stage.