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Movie chronicles a path that keeps getting close to fame

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 8, 2010 - For a documentarian covering a single individual, nothing is ultimately as important as the inter-related need for access and honesty. From the start of the production of the work-in-progress, "Close But No Cigar: Bob Zany," local filmmaker Jay Kanzler had a clear path to the time of Zany; after all, the two had known each other since 2002, when Kanzler first submitted jokes to the veteran comedian. But Kanzler admits that it took almost an entire year to find Zany truly opening up to the camera.

"We started out talking about regular stuff," Kanzler admits. "We had to establish some trust. And that took time."

It's not that Zany is afraid of the camera or the media in general. In fact, the comedian's been in some level of the public eye since he was a teenager, when he bombed on "The Gong Show" to semi-hilarious effect.

Since then, Zany's been involved in literally hundreds of televised events, from roasts to telethons, and he's scored a few minor film roles along the way. Radio's been good to him, too, with a weekly segment on the popular "Bob and Tom Show." But it's his never-ending concert tour that's introduced him to most fans, as his relentless live comedy work takes his from coast-to-coast, with a long-standing emphasis on dates in the Midwest.

"I think he really loves the Midwest," Kanzler says. "He spends more time here than in LA. In St. Louis, they love Bob Zany. He should move to the Midwest. But he grew up in LA, and that's his world."

Shooting on the film began locally, in 2008, when Kanzler caught a live act of Zany's at the Argosy Alton Belle Casino. Over time, he'd shoot a few scenes around town, including visits to the statue of Alton Giant Robert Wadlow and to the studios of KMOX for a visit with comic-loving host John Carney. To that degree, the film ha some definite local touches. But Kanzler also logged time in spots like Galesburg and Decatur, Ill., Indianapolis, LA and Las Vegas. Thousands of miles and 70 hours of tape later, he figured he had a film, all of which reinforces the essential truth of the film's title: Zany's been close to fame, he's even tasted it a bit, but there's still a lot of unfinished business in his career.

"It's a long process," Kanzler says of any comedian, as much as Zany. "It can be very frustrating. But he keeps going. That's not every performer's story. He keeps pressing on. But deep down, he really enjoys it."

And yet, that certain sense of dissatisfaction within Zany lies at the heart of the film.

Says Kanzler, "I think one of the things he's wanted has been a sitcom. And yet if he got a sitcom what he'd say 'what I really want is...', or 'what I really meant is...' But in some places, he can fill a 700 or 800 seat house. So, yeah, at that point you've made it."

The film really strikes a human chord when Zany sits down for a rarity in the film, a two-subject shot. Whereas most of the scenes feature Zany or many of his contemporaries solo, this one has Zany across from Neil Lieberman, a famed comic coach. Zany asks what Lieberman believes are the keys to his not breaking through on a larger, national scale.

Lieberman's analysis is to the point and insightful, but Zany reacts as if an arrow's been shot through his heart. It's maybe the film's most poignant, most real and most painful moment.

"That's when you know you've hit a nerve, as we all have a right to do when we hear criticism," offers Kanzler. "Nine out of 10 comics are insecure. Many of them incredibly insecure. Zany plays along, but that was a very honest moment. I didn't get involved and just let the camera run."

These clips help define the film, but much of it is also what you'd expect from a comic documentary, with Zany cracking wise on-stage, or doing the same in other settings, from a elderly home to radio stations.

The process to narrow it all down required some canny editing and Kanzler's able to keep the pace moving at a fairly brisk clip, while introducing everyone from Zany's mom to Carrot Top. Most impressive, perhaps, is that the fact that Zany's an executive producer of the film, but resisted the urge to pressure Kanzler for a certain mood, or feel.

Kanzler says Zany asked for only one edit, cutting what Kanzler calls an otherwise-inconsequential moment from the film.

"When we started this, we simply took cameras and starting rolling," Kanzler says of the project's genesis. "And there's clearly not that filmmaker-subject wall between Bob and me. That can be helpful. Others would say it's not helpful. But Bob ultimately deferred to my vision for the film."

The version of that film showing at the St. Louis International Film Festival is one that Kanzler wants to stress as a work-in-progress. A new score is being worked up for the 82-minute version, and there's still a chance for edits, if events dictate.

"During editing, we knew we had to let people know him," says Kanzler of his friend and subject. "Otherwise, why would people care?"

Thomas Crone is a freelance writer.