Comedy Movie

I Used to Be Funny

On stage, comedians use their words to make their audience laugh, gasp, or think—sometimes simultaneously. But what happens when a joke is used against a comedian? It’s one of the many thorny ideas Ally Pankiw’s bold feature debut “I Used to Be Funny” wrestles with over the course of its emotional story. 

When we first meet Sam (Rachel Sennott), she’s in a very serious funk, barely making it to the shower, withdrawn from the limelight of her local comedy club, and her good friends and concerned roommates Paige (Sabrina Jalees) and Philip (Caleb Hearon) are covering her rent. Why she is in such a state is revealed through a breadcrumb trail of flashbacks and passing conversations. We learn that Sam was also once an au pair for a troubled young teen named Brooke (Olga Petsa), whose mother is dying, her aunt Jill (Dani Kind) can only help so much, and her father Cameron (Jason Jones) is tied up with work. Sam steps into her life as a kind of supportive older sister, but that too is talked about in the past tense. Sam used to be funny, but no longer. What happened to her? 

Written and directed by Pankiw, Sam’s story weaves between her present emotional turmoil and the outgoing version of herself who’s funny and caring. Pankiw carefully constructs her narrative, doling out just enough morsels of information to keep the audience intrigued in the mystery without getting in its characters’ way. We see Sam and Brooke grow close then apart in Pankiw’s fractured timeline, which lends further meaning to each previous interaction when seen together. Their shared moments together are the highlight of “I Used to Be Funny,” so the contrasts in their dynamic before and after an unspoken incident make the loss of their camaraderie feel even more pronounced. 

Pankiw’s movie does more than just follow the adventures of a babysitter/stand-up comedian and her young but troubled charge. It soon becomes an exploration of trauma and its effect on one’s creativity and their relationships. As this mystery seeps into every aspect of Sam’s life, like water flooding a home, it leaves behind both visible and invisible damage in its wake. The violence she experiences ripples out to affect those she cares for in unintentional ways. Pankiw explores the issue of Sam’s words being used against her, with her own jokes becoming weapons against their creator in a court, a reminder that the conversations sparked by #MeToo are still far from over. In trying to reclaim her own narrative, Sam must work even harder to hold onto her comedic self and the relationships that matter most to her lest they too are destroyed. 

To bring Sam’s arc to life, Sennott essentially plays two characters, one before and one after the event. In one portion of the movie, she’s bright, energetic, and unafraid to deliver raunchy punchlines onstage or argue over Team Jacob or Edward to make a teenager smile. In the other half of the movie, Sennot looks worn down by the world; her shoulders are shrugged as if to protect herself, and she walks the apartment like a ghost of the outgoing personality we see in brief flashbacks. Although her previous roles in movies like “Shiva Baby,” “Bodies Bodies Bodies,” and “Bottoms” showcased her comedic chops, Sennott proves herself every bit as sharp as a dramatic actress. 

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