Comics on film

As Funny People is released, Jay Richardson examines the relationship between stand-up and cinema

Comedians love cinema. For most stand-ups, films offer a welcome distraction on the road, they inspire material and they dangle the prospect of a more lucrative career if you could only get in with the right people. Richard Curtis say. Or Eric Cantona.

Take Junior Simpson. He saw Notting Hill, wrote a scathing routine about the special effects erasing every black face in the affluent London area, then jumped at the chance to play a wedding DJ in Love Actually. Why? Because he lacks shame. And because cinema likes to see comedians suffer. Even now, Steve Martin owes the devil at least one more Inspector Clouseau remake and two banjo albums before he’s paid off his stand-up career.

Granted, you can point to the careers of comics who’ve become huge movie stars from Jamie Foxx to Norman Wisdom to illustrate what a broad, embracing church the film industry is. Ricky Gervais, Rhys Darby and Russell Brand are only some of the more recent stand-ups to stretch their talents to the big screen

It’s an oft-quoted pearl of wisdom, especially in America, that stand-up is one of the few artforms you get in to in order to get out of – to land a sitcom, a chat show or to voice an animated rodent. For Gervais, it’s a coda to projecting his movie trailers onto Edinburgh Castle.

There are no comedies about stand-up, just god-awful, early star vehicles such as Down To Earth (Chris Rock), Rubberface (Jim Carrey) or Going Overboard (Adam Sandler) garishly packaged to resemble them. In reality, there are only tragedies disguised as comedies, with laughter elicited from comedians’ misfortune. Tears of a clown tempered by occasional rictus grins.

In the recent low-budget Scottish film Crying With Laughter, Stephen McCole’s character became a comic out of a deep-rooted need to suppress a childhood memory. In Funny People, success has turned Adam Sandler’s George Simmons into a desperately lonely arsehole.

Of course, there are biopics of massively successful comedy legends. But Chaplin, Lenny, Man In The Moon, and even loosely autobiographical tales like Richard Pryor’s Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling and Funny People, were all prompted as much by their subject’s demons as their comedy genius. No one’s champing at the bit to make Seinfeld: The Microsoft Years. The narrative arc would simply trace the upwards curve of Jerry’s bank balance.

Whenever fictional comedians are portrayed in movies, they follow three strict archetypes: male, female and supporting cast of oddballs.

Female comics are middle-aged mothers-of-two with problems at home (Sally Field in Punchline; Julie ‘Voice of Marge Simpson’ Kavner in This Is My Life and Brenda Blethyn in Clubland). They try, fail and then compromise to juggle the night job with looking after their brood, who in turn squabble over whether to support her dream, or which of them gets to scream: ‘You’re tearing this family apart!’

Funny People departs from this somewhat by having Leslie Mann playing a (comically inept) actress who gave up her career and Aubrey Plaza as the kooky female stand-up (beautiful, but wearing spectacles), with distinctive material, zero hang-ups about who she sleeps with and zero reason to be in the film except as the love interest. Incidentally, I am prepared to modify this stereotype if anyone can find me a copy of the lost masterpiece Does This Mean We're Married? (Les Époux Ripoux) about an American comedian in Paris. Played by Patsy Kensit.

Supporting casts of comedians are drawn from and reflect the rich variety of the stand-up circuit. Tellingly, there are only three varieties: freaks, jealous backstabbing arseholes, and real life stand-ups appearing in cameos, either to tickle the spectator or to reinforce the notion that only comics know what it’s like to be a comic.

Funny People has many brilliant examples of these, the best involving Eminem yelling at Ray Romano, something we can all empathise with. Although Hacks and the recent, ultra low-budget Peacock Season have a strong claim, the quintessential freak roll-call takes place in Funny Bones, with Oliver Platt auditioning a succession of hopeless variety acts in Blackpool in order to appropriate their material. Peter Kay did something similar with Phoenix Nights a few years later, but innovatively lifted his scenes to Bolton.

The jealous arsehole par excellence is probably Taylor Negron in Punchline, previewing the disdainful curl of the lip he would later direct towards Courtney Cox in Friends, though there’s a slim possibility he was acting. Actor turned comedian Stephen McCole and who created the stand-up character of Joey Frisk for Crying With Laughter, now actually gigs as the straight-talking, fucked-up comedy bruiser. He maintains that “the world of comedy is no different to anywhere else. There’s a hierarchy, there are people bitching about other people, there’s a lot of fun to be had. I found it fascinating.’

‘Funny People portrays a world in which a comic can omit to mention the writing gig of a lifetime to another, but, unlike the deeply cynical Edinburgh-set Festival, it’s also a film in which the supporting cast of comics are exactly that, rallying around Sandler’s character when he reveals his leukaemia to them. Offering all the emotional support at their command, they tell him dubiously appropriate jokes and generally take the piss.

Male stand-up characters in movies tend to be arrested adolescents with daddy issues, a drink and/or drug habit, a propensity for screwing the waitresses and the poster of a significantly better, significantly deader comedian on the wall of their dingy hovel. There is probably a lovechild or four somewhere. Their set features precious little whimsy and they’re variously saved by the love of a steady woman, by confronting the mistakes in their past or ignoring these first two and simply learning to tell it like it is.

In American films, they’re most likely Jewish and will look inside to their neuroses for inspiration. In British films, there’s a good chance they’re Irish, hungover and will look across the bed at the hound they pulled last night.

No self-respecting, self-loathing comic-turned-film star should ever return to stand-up. Sandler realised as much after hitting the clubs to shoot Funny People, vowing never to repeat the experience. Quite right too. Live comedy audiences retain higher standards than your average Sandler fan. Funny People is one of those honourable exceptions to his oeuvre in which we get to see past the passive-aggressive, semi-simpleton he usually plays and see the complex, emotional semi-simpleton beneath.

As Seinfeld found in the documentary Comedian, a successful, multi-millionaire comic who hasn’t played the circuit in a few years can find himself sorely out of touch. Stand-up audiences give instant feedback, the performers are hungrier and there’s more of a sense of meritocracy because good looks are a positive impairment. ‘Nobody laughs at a physically fit man,’ porky Jonah Hill advises the slimmed down Seth Rogen in Funny People.

‘A comedian is in control of their own destiny,’ maintains McCole. ‘The better your material, the better the delivery, the better you’ll do. Unless you’re a complete prick and people don’t want to work with you. I’m sure the comedy circuit is much better at weeding out the best from the worst, because there are a lot of cases where a bad actor will do a whole string of films.’

Hollywood loathes a single authorial voice because filmmaking is a collaborative process. A distinct, solitary perspective bucks the system, like all good comics. Arguably the best film about comedy, The King Of Comedy, casts notorious wallflower Robert De Niro in the lead. Although Martin Scorsese denies us the chance to see the reaction to his performance in the bar, Rupert Pupkin projects the grim, anti-heroism of the dubiously talented lone wolf willing to do whatever it takes to make it, the certifiable passion of the wannabe set in stark contrast to the superficial professionalism of Jerry Lewis. Pupkin may not have the material to bring him any success beyond the satire of the film but he does have a streak of twisted artistic integrity.

McCole likens it to a drug. His creation, Joey, combining elements of himself and friends, ‘is a very hedonistic, addictive personality and going on stage is a very addictive thing,’ he explains. ‘I think a lot of comedians would agree that once you do it and get a good response, it’s almost impossible not to go back and do it again. Even for really bad comics – and I’ve seen some really terrible ones doing my research at open mic nights. You’d see people that never got a laugh and were ridiculed. Then you’d go to another gig and they’d be there doing exactly the same stuff. That’s an addiction surely.’

Cinema’s portrayal of stand-up suffers from being a hit once removed. It takes an erstwhile stand-up like Woody Allen or Apatow to realise that to properly convey the magic, to convince your audience of the reality of the live situation, you need to use archive footage, as both Annie Hall and Funny People do, or demand that your actors play the scenes for real and find a stand-up persona for themselves.

‘The first gig I did, where I found the horrible side of Joey was at Gramofon in Glasgow and this young girl wouldn’t stop talking,’ McCole recalls. ‘I was fifth on and nobody was doing anything about her, not even the guy running the gig. So I just spent the first five minutes of my set making her cry because I was so pissed off.

‘It was her 21st birthday I think and she ran off to the toilet. The audience loved it, they were onside with me and it wasn’t until the next day it hit me, “OK, that was probably a bit heavy.” She deserved it but I didn’t want Joey to just be this brute who took people apart, I wanted him to be smarter than that. The reason we made him a comedian in the first place was because it was a logical progression from the improvised nature of the revenge drama. I never wrote anything down but improvised all the stand-up the night before in a club, then got on stage the next day and filmed it.

‘You have to believe that everything you’re coming out with is funny. I certainly believed in myself by the time we shot the film. Actors routinely have to subsume their ego for a role, but it’s the ego that stands up as a comedian and it’s the ego that needs to be up there on screen.’

Published: 1 Sep 2009

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