Stand-up comedians are perhaps the most vulnerable of performers. Musicians, dancers and thespians may equally pour themselves into their work, but ultimately it’s the work itself (often dressed up in costume or stage dressing) that’s held up for evaluation by the audience. When a comedian takes their place behind the mic, the audience more directly assesses the person standing before them, especially with so much stand-up derived from the most intensely personal spaces of a comic’s psyche. At least, that’s what many of the comedians interviewed in the insightful yet somewhat perplexing documentary Dying Laughing would have you believe.

The impressive roster of interviewees—including such stars as Chris Rock, Jerry Seinfeld, Sarah Silverman, Jamie Foxx, Amy Schumer, Billy Connolly, Jerry Lewis and the late Garry Shandling—run through the highs and lows of life as a stand-up comedian with remarkable candor. Yet it’s the lesser-known comics who are featured in the film’s later stretches that prove the most compelling.

Listening to someone as successful as Jerry Seinfeld discussing the rigors of developing a stand-up career is like hearing Bill Gates lamenting the hardships faced in starting your own business. The successful comedians interviewed reminisce about the loneliness of their early days on comedy tours with obvious nostalgia. But when someone like the far less successful Royale Watkins is moved to tears by recalling the missed opportunity to meet audience member Michael Jordan because he bombed that show, the agony and ecstasy of the struggling comic’s life is more vividly brought to light.

This disparity between the wildly successful comedians reminiscing about taking their hard knocks and the lesser-knowns earnestly sharing their darker moments in the profession is both an asset and liability to the film. The downside is an uneven tone. But just as the interviewees begin to repeat the same sentiments—how brutal honesty about oneself trumps meticulously planned material, or how difficult it can be to hear an audience “boo”—the film shifts direction in interesting ways. Mental illness gets plenty of discussion, with comedians like Dave Chappelle-collaborator Neal Brennan hinging their acts on frank exploration of their own depression. Robin Williams’ tragic suicide is briefly and awkwardly referenced (by Jamie Foxx, of all people, when he’s not bragging about how much money he has), but the film only provides cursory examination of why stand-up draws so many people struggling with their mental health.

Dying Laughing’s dozens of interviews run the gamut from authenticity to pretense. Either way, the interviews end up very revealing, though perhaps not always in the ways their subjects intend. Listening to the pint-sized Kevin Hart express a near-obsession for pointing out the size of venues is as interesting as little-known comedians sounding jaded about their profession. There are exaggerations about the importance of stand-up, but anyone seeking out this film will no doubt share an appreciation for the medium. Dying Laughing doesn’t obscure the difficulties of a stand-up career in onscreen laughs, but instead it presents the sensibilities behind both the standard-bearers and the up-and-coming figures in live comedy, warts and all.

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