In September 2005, Vince Vaughn called up a couple of his comedian buddies to join him for a month-long tour of what some people call "The Sticks" and others affectionately refer to as America's heartland. The Swingers star set his sights on mostly smallish venues in states like Indiana, Alabama, Oklahoma, Arizona and Kentucky, declaring at the outset of Vince Vaughn's Wild West Comedy Show: 30 Days and 30 Nights that the objective was simply to "bring a great comedy show into people's backyards."
Given a few more moments to reflect, though, Vaughn comes up with a somewhat loftier notion of what his little show is all about. "I hope they come out of this more honest," he muses over an opening freeze frame of an appreciative audience, "more knowing of themselves."
Now, it's unclear if by "they" Vaughn means the audience members or the performers who were actually part of this grueling, 30-day road trip, but either way, it's tough to swallow a line like "more knowing of themselves." Especially when that high-flown turn of phrase is sandwiched between a couple of Vaughn's pals discussing their bathroom habits in excruciating detail, and a comedian cheerfully declaring he doesn't do political humor because "I don't know shit."
It shouldn't come as much of a surprise that Vince Vaughn's Wild West Comedy Show is really more about having a laugh than it is about elevating our degree of knowingness, so let's just take the brief detour into psychobabble with a grain of salt. The four comedians who make up the meat and potatoes of Vaughn's traveling sideshow are anything but cerebral, but they're all funny enough guys, each in his own way. Maybe more importantly, they're all relative unknowns — self-described "comics in the trenches," working day jobs as waiters and fast-food drones while suffering the ignominies of "headliner purgatory."
At a moment when the stand-up comedy biz, like so much else in the American marketplace, is on life support, Vaughn performed a public service simply by giving these guys some exposure. And one of the perks of Vince Vaughn's Wild West Comedy Show is watching the comedians bloom as they strut their stuff night after night, from venue to venue.
That said, these guys aren't really innovators, and the only one of them who even does anything approaching topical humor is Ahmed Ahmed (his real name), an Egyptian-born comic who, against all odds, manages to find some fairly funny things to say about being a Muslim and an Arab in post-9/11 America.
Sebastian Maniscalco and Bret Ernst perform a more traditional sort of stand-up, with the former mining his neat-freak phobias for laughs, and the later a self-described "Guido" coming up with some amusingly physical takes on ethnic-based, blue-collar humor. At the far end of the spectrum is potty-mouthed John Caparulo, the "I don't know shit" guy, whose nasal twang and relentlessly annoying real-life personality becomes the basis for routines pitched somewhere between comedy and pain.
The comedians all get their share of time in the spotlight, but Vince Vaughn's Wild West Comedy Show is really as much about the behind-the-scenes moments as it is about what happens on stage, with much of the documentary feeling like a series of barely connected snippets. We get several minutes devoted to one comic's post-show insecurities, bent out of shape backstage over an audience member's comment he has misconstrued as heckling. We get another comic freaking when an on-stage gag about flip-flops causes a California audience to turn on him. And then there's Vaughn himself, emceeing the whole shebang, chatting with fans, gushing over the glories of Buck Owens, teaming up for a truly terrible duet with Dwight Yoakam.
Many of these scenes are so short they barely register (although the movie itself feels overlong at nearly two hours), but as scattershot as some of the material comes across, Wild West Comedy Show eventually manages to give us a fairly decent feel for what the tour must have felt like — both from the perspective of those watching it and those living it. Besides the four unknown comics, several of Vaughn's more famous friends come along for the ride, including Elf director Jon Favreau and actors Justin Long and Keir O'Donnell (or, as one adolescent audience member happily blurts out, "the gay guy" from Wedding Crashers), and we're presented with fragments of their on-stage skits and their boys-gone-wild cutting up on the tour bus. Long functions here as a quirkily deadpan foil for the other performers, while O'Donnell mainly sits on stage looking like a watered-down Crispin Glover, drawing bizarre, vaguely homoerotic sketches suggested by various audience members.
Much like the tour it chronicles, the film's approach is mildly irreverent but basically conventional, and Wild West Comedy Show gradually slides into a warm-and-fuzzy zone during its final half hour, spending an inordinate amount of screen time on an unscheduled, last-minute tour stop where the comedians do a benefit show and hand out free tickets to the victims of Hurricane Katrina.
From there, it's a short stop to a stream of glowing testimonials from the comedians' friends and family members, all designed to make the comics more appealingly human and show us that even someone as irritating as John Caparulo has a mother who loves him.
These comedians aren't the funniest guys on the block or the most fascinating human beings you'll ever meet, but the movie works overtime getting us inside their skin, while peppering the process with some decent gags. Each of the comics eventually has his own triumph — that first standing ovation or that moment when an audience finally gets them — and in the end, it feels kind of good when an epilogue tells us Caparulo finally found a girlfriend and that one of the guys was actually able to quit his day job.
Come to think of it, maybe Vaughn wasn't being such a douche with all that knowingness stuff after all.