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Bitter Jester

Bitter Jester

Show type: Edinburgh Fringe 2003

Legendary American stand-up, author and actor Richard Belzer (National Lampoon, Homicide, Law and Order) stars with numerous US comedy icons in the Fringe's most unusual and entertaining documentary. Q&A after 15.30 showing.

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Original Review:

As a comedian, Maija DiGiorgio was a successful nobody; headlining clubs across the States and gathering a respectable list of TV appearances to her name - but with no realistic hope of truly breaking into the big time

Then she had a crisis of confidence, spectacularly losing her cool with an audience at the career-making Aspen Comedy Festival, and questioning the very basis of what she does. "I don't think I'm funny any more," she wails.

With her stand-up in tatters, she decided to record a video diary to try to get to the root of the problem, footage which has wound up as this 90-minute documentary now doing the festival rounds.

As she seeks advice from her contemporaries, Maija offers a candid insight into the closed world of the stand-up, introducing a screwed-up procession of bitter, attention-seeking, self-deluded, self-loathing control-freak misfits, the likes of which you're unlikely to have witnessed outside a specialist unit.

With such a cast of characters, it's little surprise that the film soon swiftly veers away from any idea of being a 'how-to' guide to comedy. In doing so, of course, it also widens its appeal to those who aren't comedy anoraks and into the realms of that perennial favourite, the 'pain behind the laughter' story.

The main cause of the sharp detour is one of the less appealing comics, a pig-ignorant, foul-mouthed bruiser of a man called Kenny Simmons, who makes Joe Pesci's characters look like a mild-mannered choirboy. When we first meet him, he is physically laying into a heckler, fists and tables everywhere. Later, he threatens to hospitalise Jerry Seinfeld, painted as the villain of the piece for no other reason than his success.

Such a dreadful man is clearly the last thing the depressed Maija needs in her life so she immediately starts dating him. Simmons, meanwhile, has dreams of making Maija's personal video footage into a movie - and this is where things spiral out of her control.

Enlisting the help of stand-up hero Richard Belzer, now a straight actor in the likes of Homicide and Law And Order, comedy's A-list is soon lining up to be interviewed for the film, though many seem uncertain what film it is they are making. As indeed do its makers.

The film couldn't fail to be a laugh with a credit list that reads like a Who's Who of comedians - and Barry Manilow. It's funny when the participants try to be - but even funnier when they don't.

Simmons may be a dreadful man, but he proves a fantastic larger-than-life character - a painfully inept interviewer with a shockingly short temper and a grotesquely inflated opinion of himself - and much of the film's plentiful, painful humour comes from watching this human train wreck bluster though life.

Maija's wry and witty directorial style helps lift things, too, with jaunty editing and a sly soundtrack.

The film loses its way about an hour in, though, as its lack of purpose becomes a hindrance rather than a help. Being based on a navel-gazing video diary never intended as a movie, and with so many hands on the rudder, it's perhaps little surprise that things start to drift.

Simmons outstays his screen welcome, and the inclusion of interview snippets from every interviewee they secured becomes repetitive and tiresome. The 'star' subjects - a great many of whom you will never have heard of - were kept in, one suspects, for the sole reason of providing an impressive list of participants for the movie's poster.

Just as the film becomes in serious danger of drifting away into nothingness, September 11 provides an uncomfortably convenient full stop and the film ends with Simmons organising a self-aggrandising benefit, complete with crocodile-teared tribute to America, freedom and his Mom.

It is here than Maija returns to the stage after her two-year absence - but whether she learned anything during the making of the film remains a mystery, as we never see her perform.

But the irony is that a film about Maija failure is likely to make her a bigger success than her stand-up ever could.

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