Review: All Joking Aside

Release Year: 2019
Director: Shannon Kohli
Writer:  James Pickering
Cast: Raylene Harewood, Brian Markinson, Tanya Jade, Richard Lett

By Simon Whitlock

For the last thirty or so years, stand-up comedy has been a massive part of popular culture in the West. On both sides of the Atlantic, comedians transcended their circuits’ clubs and stages and moved into screens both big and small, become household names on a par with the most successful movie stars and television personalities. In all that time though, the biggest names and faces in comedy were rarely women, and even fewer were women of colour; the latter being very much the case to this day, even when female comedians are beginning to get a bigger share of the stage.

Enter “All Joking Aside”, the directorial feature debut of Shannon Kohli, which tells the story of Charlene “Charlie” Murray (Raylene Harewood), a young woman with the ambition to become a professional stand-up comedian, a dream she shares with her late father. The film follows Charlie from her first performance in a small bar in New York, where she is heckled off the stage by Bob Carpenter (Brian Markinson), a former big-shot comedian who, over the course of the film, becomes Charlie’s reluctant mentor, and the two get to work on moulding Charlie into the comedian she aspires to be.

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“All Joking Aside” is a film which feels quietly revolutionary, and it is all the better for it.”

The film’s structure is comparable to that of many underdog movies of years gone by, and indeed there are moments in this story which skirt dangerously close to cliché, but thanks to Kohli’s direction and James Pickering’s superb screenplay, “All Joking Aside” is a joy to watch. The often sarcastic interplay between Harewood and Markinson’s characters feels almost improvisational at times, and although each of the film’s characters could be easily summed up with a one-sentence description, every single person on screen is giving a performance which is about as far removed from broad as it’s possible to be.

It’s especially worth mentioning the performances of Richard Lett and Tanya Jade here, as the gruff but big-hearted bar owner and as Charlie’s best friend respectively, for bringing a low-key warmth and genuine support for Charlie and her path – these roles in other films are so often the ones which are played a little too large, so it was a delight to see something completely different from Lett and Jade.

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“All Joking Aside’s” understated assuredness in all areas allows its central message to speak volumes: that female comedians aren’t as commonly seen in clubs as men are for not being as funny as them, but because they’re not being given the same chances to prove that they can make audiences laugh. Looking back, no other film comes to mind that addresses this disparity in comedy, and it’s testament to Kohli’s direction and Pickering’s writing that despite this message being present, the film never chooses the easy way out with a bold manifesto on women in comedy; instead, “All Joking Aside” is a film which feels quietly revolutionary, and it is all the better for it.

4 stars

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