In honor of Louie returning to FX tonight, Sean Penn announcing his plans to direct Robert De Niro in The Comedian, the release of documentary Just Like Us, and an in-shock Tracy Morgan apologizing for being Tracy Morgan, this week’s Listicle pays tribute to the Stand Up Comedian.
Stand up comedy is an art form, and an underrated one at that. Comics- the headliners, openers, and middlers who wield the microphone- are true performers and professionals. They have to write all their own material (or steal it, isn’t that right Mencia?) and constantly reinvent an act that must simultaneously make you laugh as well as (at its best) make you think. Stand-up comedy is not about doing a silly skit, but being a lone, humorous storyteller with excellent timing- a resoundingly difficult fete. When a drunken audience member screams out, it’s not to suggest a location or profession; it’s to tell the person on stage how much they suck. And, unlike practically every other performance art, the comedian is required to give back better than they get.
But the interaction portion of stand up comedy goes beyond dealing with hecklers. Comedians must know on the fly what works and what doesn’t, what bit to go to and what bit to drop, and how to be relevant. Name recognition alone usually cannot sustain an act, yet there must be something unique to stand-up comedy that sees many people who earned fame and wealth in other professions return to the stage time and time again. Other debt could be a viable reason.
Stand-up comedians come in many forms, but one of the most amazing elements of the truly good ones is honesty. Few artists are as truthful as a stand-up comedian, and they receive incomparable latitude to rant about life, relationships, society, politics, culture, and any other topic they can think of. Over the past 50 years, some of our greatest satirists have been stand-up comedians- Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Chris Rock- and comedy still remains one of the most potent methods to disarm us and challenge our assumptions and belief systems.
Stand-up comedy films, for that matter, come in many different styles as well. And, like comedians themselves, not all of them are good. We have fictional comics such as Marty Malt (Judd Nelson) in The Dark Backward and Buddy Young Jr. (Billy Crystal) in Mr. Saturday Night, documentaries like Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedian and American: The Bill Hicks Story, concert films ranging from Eddie Murphy’s Raw to The Blue Collar Comedy Tour, and a reality show (Last Comic Standing) that never really reached its potential.
This week’s Listicle looks at works about the unsung performance artist of our time, the Stand-Up Comedian.
The King of Comedy (dir. Martin Scorsese, 1983)
After Martin Scorsese finished Raging Bull, he made a few films that still seem like a departure for the legendary filmmaker, but many of which rank among his best works- 1985’s Kafka-esque New York City nightmare After Hours; 1988’s controversial and humanizing The Last Temptation of Christ; and this one, 1983’s The King of Comedy.
Reuniting Scorsese with Robert De Niro, the disturbing and darkly humorous The King of Comedy tells the tale of hapless loser/wannabe comedian Rupert Pupkin (De Niro, in one of his all-time best performances).
After a chance meeting with Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis, playing the Johnny Carson of the film’s universe) who tells Rupert to “call his people,” Pupkin convinces himself that he had finally earned his big break. After constantly being turned down by Langford’s people, Pupkin stalks and eventually kidnaps Langford with his only demand being a spot on the show to do his act.
In some ways, Pupkin is a complementary character to an earlier De Niro role, Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle. Both characters are obsessive and psychotic, but Pupkin does not want to hurt anyone, he just wants to make people laugh. While Bickle was violent and scary, Pupkin is overall pathetic but with a good heart and stars in his eyes that belie his inner darkness. You sense that he truly believes that he is funny and talented, and, if given one shot, could wow the world.
In one of the film’s greatest moments, Pupkin explains his comedic philosophy (“I look at my whole life, and I see the awful, terrible things in my life … and I turn it into something funny.”) in a way that does not just define the character but describes the driving force behind comedy as a whole.
The movie also serves as one of Scorsese’s most socially relevant films. The cult of celebrity and the desire and willingness to do anything for fame has become more potent in the past decade, though at least Pupkin wanted to give something back to the public.
Seinfeld (Larry David, Jerry Seinfeld, 1989-1998)
Arguably the greatest sitcom of all time, Seinfeld is probably the most iconic show of the 1990s that doesn’t star a cartoon family. There are very few series with so many moments etched into popular culture: the jerk store, a square to spare, Festivus, shrinkage, puffy shirt, a “contest”- these are all things people instantly associate with Seinfeld, years since they first appeared on television. I don’t see Friends or Everybody Loves Raymond responsible for any pop culture taglines.
Even today, Seinfeld still comes across as a convention-defying show. None of the characters were ever nice or decent, and the four main characters remained self-involved right until the still-argued-about series finale. (“It was good!” angrily proclaims co-creator Larry David during the Seinfeld reunion season of Curb Your Enthusiasm, returning to HBO with new episodes on July 11.) Side characters such as David Puddy (Patrick Warburton), Frank and Estelle Costanza (Jerry Stiller and Estelle Harris), and Uncle Leo (Len Lesser) became instantly popular but never took over the show. Kramer (Michael Richards) was never given a tragic backstory. Newman (Wayne Knight) was never accepted by the group. George (Jason Alexander) never learned his lesson.
The show itself was about a comedian, Jerry Seinfeld playing Jerry Seinfeld. Early seasons started with his comedy bits leading into the plots of the episode and occasionally connecting to the episode itself (e.g. “The Bris”, “The Red Dot”). Another memorable recurring character was hack comedian Kenny Bania (Steve Hytner), who adored Jerry and attempted to crib his style (“what’s the deal with Ovaltine?”) out of admiration rather than malevolence. Although Bania remains one of Seinfeld’s most identifiable elements, he actually appeared in less than 10 episodes over four seasons.
Funny People (dir. Judd Apatow, 2009)
Funny People is … let’s call it interesting. 2/3 of it is probably the best cinematic work Judd Apatow has ever done. 1/3 is probably the worst. So let’s take a look at the film before we have to sit through more of Apatow’s home movies.
Calling the movie Funny People was enough for people to line up against it, since nobody in the film was actually funny. But Funny People was meant to be about the people behind funny people. Comedians aren’t “on” all the time, they’re not always ready with a quick and witty response. They’re struggling artists, they’re open micers, they’re human. The scene in the commercials of Leo Koenig (Jonah Hill) making a crappy Harry Potter joke in front of two girls wasn’t supposed to be a laugh out loud moment, but rather to show a nervous stand-up trying out a nascent line that might end up in his act. Not everything from even the greatest comedic minds is gold.
And that’s what makes Funny People different from the rest of Apatow’s oeuvre. The characters, even the side characters, were the most three dimensional of all his films. Hugely successful studio star/sell out George Simmons (Adam Sandler), his protégé/comedian/joke writer Ira Wright (Seth Rogan), the aforementioned Koenig (Hill), sitcom star/also sell out Mark Taylor Jackson (Jason Schwartzman), the alternative comedienne Daisy (Aubrey Plaza) all attack comedy from a different place and with mostly different styles. None of these “funny people” were used solely as punch lines, and the scenes of them performing their act and hanging out gave the impression of a movie actually about the lives of stand-up comedians and this niche potion of the entertainment industry.
At least that’s what I took away from Funny People. The cancer subplot and the interminable, real-time-feeling period in Marin County really bogged down what could have been a decent character piece. Unless, of course, Apatow’s purpose for that last bit was to make us feel the awkwardness, uncomfortableness, and misery of Wright while watching Simmons reconnect with his ex (Leslie Mann), in which case mission accomplished. But couldn’t he have put it on a second desk like Adam McKay did with Wake Up, Ron Burgundy: The Lost Movie?
South Park (Trey Parker, Matt Stone, 1997-PRESENT)
South Park has a lot of things to offer a lot of people and the long-running animated series also has a stand-up comedian by way of Jimmy Valmer.
Making his first appearance in season 5’s “Cripple Fight” (where he angered the mentally disabled Timmy), the handicapable and stuttering but relentlessly positive Valmer aspires to be a stand-up comic. He often performs his routine for his classmates and regularly answers their questions and gives advice on all matters related to humor. The co-creator of the notorious “fish sticks” joke most recently stopped the Dalekian XJ-212 Funnybot from destroying the world in an attempt to achieve supreme awkwardness.
Lenny (dir. Bob Fosse, 1974)
Bob Fosse, chiefly renowned as a master choreographer to the musical stage, took a rather unusual step in adding Lenny to his list of directorial efforts. On the other hand, musical though it may not be, this version of the Lenny Bruce story emerged from a play written by Julian Barry, and there is every bit as much choreography in the meticulous stylization, pace and presentation of this film.
Dustin Hoffman, a long way from the delightful romping of Tootsie (in my mind the height of his distinguished career), embodies the famed comic with a more than usual degree of aptitude among the ranks of celebrities impersonating celebrities. It is no small feat for an actor so distinctive to disappear this effectively into a role, especially without dressing in drag. But Hoffman’s skillful mimicry of Bruce’s cadence and intensity, coupled with elegantly shot and edited performance scenes, have a powerful transporting effect to the place and time conjured up by Bruce’s acid words.
As for the story – the ups and downs of Bruce’s bold, brash, and ultimately self-destructive career – the world’s diversity of personal tastes and comfort levels leave its message open to any number of judgments and interpretations. Bruce employed shocking obscenity (by the standards of his time) as a means of satire as well as a weapon against established schools of thought. Or did he work “blue” simply to grab people’s attention and take the quick road to notoriety? The incisive wit and underlying wisdom of many things he said suggest otherwise. In general, biopics are not very good because people’s real lives are seldom as interesting as their respective bodies of work (Bob Dylan, for example, or Buddy Holly, or the Doors). Barry’s script and Fosse’s film take the smart way. This film is so carefully focused on the performances themselves that the life history woven around it seems like part of the act.
The film looks fantastic, as you might expect from the director of Cabaret and All That Jazz. Curiously, it has occasional echoes of Woody Allen’s most bewilderingly clever work (Stardust Memories, anybody?) and it might have been interesting to see that director take a crack at this story as well. Nonetheless, as far as execution goes this film needs little, if any, improvement. What you make of the story and its need to be told relies very much on your personal discretion. But I think it’s a damned fine piece of work.
Bill Cosby: Himself (dir. Bill Cosby, 1983)
On the other side of the coin from Lenny, in almost every sense imaginable, another classic waits in the wings. Bill Cosby, Himself is a reminder that comedy’s number one family man always had an extremely zany wit underlying his warm, friendly legacy. BCH is a no-frills concert film of Cosby performing some of his most celebrated routines. In the tradition of truly great performers, the legendary comic keeps his audience consistently in hysterics.
Though this act is best remembered for meticulously cataloging the pitfalls of child-rearing, Cosby kicks off with a completely wild routine about the paradox of drug and alcohol abuse, specifically the antics of “wasted” people which everyone but they themselves will remember the following morning. From there, he segues into the horrors of a trip to the dentist, with sound effects and grotesque facial distortions galore. Within this gentle man in a plain brown suit there dwells an impish sense of humor. He then proceeds to illustrate “Natural Childbirth” as a delightful slapstick piece, then moves on to a prolonged rumination on children, whose inborn and insurmountable “brain damage” makes them a challenge to raise at the best of times.
For anyone who has cared for children, it is hard to argue with the glib assertion that “all children have brain damage.” Cosby spins a number of lunatic tales drawn from his own experience as a dad, playing all the parts with gusto, especially the damaged (but often precocious) kiddos, and his put-upon wife whose power to discipline and terrify her family reaches supernatural heights on occasion. At times, such as the “chocolate cake for breakfast” incident, Bill himself has more to fear than his spirited kids at the hands of their matriarch.
It is rather a disservice to Cosby’s talent to write at greater length about it. Instead, I recommend you check it out for yourself. The tragedy which befell his family in later years makes his affectionate musing about his young son all the more poignant and sweet in retrospect. This film captures an American original at his finest.
Annie Hall (dir. Woody Allen, 1977)
The role of stand-up comedy in Annie Hall is merely one aspect of a rather complex whole. This is one of those near-perfect films that balances a great script, great performers, and an unpredictable variety of content that manages to form a very cohesive portrait of a relationship in decline. Jumping from monologue to flashback to fourth-wall farce to animated vignette, Annie Hall represents the fragmented attempts of comedian Alvy Singer (Woody Allen) to make sense of years spent with the elusive love of his life, Annie Hall (an award-winning Diane Keaton). For many this is the consummate Allen picture. In many ways I agree, though Love And Death is still my favorite, not least of all because it happens to be the funniest work Keaton has done in her entire career.
Alvy’s work in comedy only surfaces now and then throughout the story, but it serves an implicit role of balancing his morose (or at best sardonic) outlook on most things. Despite the pleadings of friends (carefree pal Tony Roberts) and loved ones (sensitive, giddy Annie) he simply cannot bring himself to enjoy life. Instead, he entertains himself with fantasies of summoning Marshall McLuhan to silence an obnoxious intellectual at the movie theater. Don’t get me wrong – every one who fancies themselves a movie buff would like to do that. But Alvy’s uncanny ability to joke his way though life will only carry him so far in the quest for satisfaction.
We do actually see Alvy doing stand-up a couple of times, parallel to Annie’s rocky road to launching a singing career. He is polished and confident when on stage, but unfortunately those qualities vanish once he steps out into real life again. He would rather sit and be miserable for hours watching The Sorrow And The Pity or reading Death In Venice than try to enjoy life as he sees it before him.
An early scene in the film, in which Alvy tries to work as a writer for a braying, insufferable television host, demonstrates acutely what a gift it is to be funny, and also the alienation that the truly clever may feel when faced with the rest of the world. Some people find this pretentious about Allen, and other consider it the ultimate satire on pretentious people. Nonetheless, the script weaves a leading man whom we may judge, and whom we may pity, but ultimately we have to root for him as well. The closest comparable movie that comes to mind is High Fidelity, in which a likable guy whose brain outweighs his ambition struggles to get out of a similar love rut. They end differently, but the pardonable existential crisis of a person with no real problems remains a cherished jumping off point for modern comedy.