In Rick Alverson’s film “Entertainment,” stand-up comedian and actor Gregg Turkington plays The Comedian, an aging comic on a dark existential journey through the Mojave desert to meet his estranged daughter. The actor lends his own stand-up persona, “Neil Hamburger,” to the role in an unsettling portrayal of a broken performer trying to revive a dwindling career.
Films about comedians often have an autobiographical dimension, as stand-up comedy provides a perfect embodiment of the constant rejection and struggle for approval that defines show business. These films are often explorations of the dark psychological interior that so often paradoxically haunts performers who make an occupation of making people laugh. Here are seven films about stand-up comedians that hit hard.
Director Joel Potrykus drew on his own experience as a struggling stand-up comedian in New York for his debut feature “Ape,” a story of a comic who bombs as hard in his personal life as he does on stage. Joshau Burge is borderline sociopathic as Trevor Newandyke, playing a variation of the twisted loner loser he plays in Potrykus’s later film “Buzzard.” Rather than taking his frustrations with life out on stage, Trevor takes his frustrations with failure on stage into his everyday life as a mean, edgy pyromaniac. Trevor’s dysfunction escalates to the point of madness throughout the film, and Burge’s expressively deadpan performance convincingly portrays a performer at his breaking point.
In 1982, the defining films in Martin Scorsese’s body of work were violent, gritty dramas in the vein of “Mean Streets” and “Taxi Driver,” and so many viewers weren’t sure how to handle the dark interior exploration of “The King of Comedy.” As Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis) tells aspiring late-night host Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro), “You’ve got to start at the bottom,” and start at the bottom he does. Rupert hosts a talk show with an audience of none in his mother’s basement with dreams of making it into show business for real some day. He does this in the only way that seems logical: He stalks his TV idol, Jerry Langford. This film is the blackest of comedies, and De Niro is the textbook definition of pathetic as the naive, celebrity worshiping Pupkin.
“Man on the Moon” (1999)
It’s hard to imagine anyone more suited to play the legendary Andy Kaufman than Jim Carrey, who in 1999 was arguably at the peak in his comedic career and had proved his dramatic chops the year earlier with “The Truman Show.” Milos Forman directs this biopic of a famously strange performance artist who maintained he was not a “comedian” throughout his career. Some of the performer’s most memorable stunts are depicted in the film, including his “Mighty Mouse” routine in which he would stand awkwardly on stage and lip sync only one line of the cartoon’s theme song, and the “Fridays” incident in which in the middle of a scene he refused to “act stoned” and ended up in a fistfight with the director on live television. Follow the performer’s career from his rough start in the nightclubs of New York up to his death in 1985 (which many people maintain is an elaborate hoax) in “Man on the Moon.”
Judd Apatow has never been afraid to dig into a serious subject, but no premise has been as dark as that in “Funny People,” where former stand-up comedian George Simmons (Adam Sandler) returns to the craft after he is diagnosed with terminal cancer. A deep list of comedic actors, including Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill and Aziz Ansari, take turns at more dramatic performances as Simmons’ friends try to help him cope with his traumatic diagnosis. Simmons himself finds an outlet with stand-up, where the opportunity to take the stage and speak about his experiences offers a morbid catharsis. Along the way he tries to mend friendships and build new ones with a fresh perspective in what may be the final chapter of his life.
Gillian Robespierre’s debut feature has been playfully called an “abortion comedy,” as its main story is about a twenty-something whose one night stand becomes an existential crisis when she gets pregnant. Jenny Slate plays Donna, who is a stand-up comic by night and simply unemployed by day. She’s reasonably unsure if she’s up to the task of motherhood and turns to her friends and family for guidance in weighing her options. While her career certainly isn’t booming, going on stage is a form of self expression for the young comic; it’s a safe space where she knows she will always have an audience. Donna uses her comedy as a platform to vent her frustrations and to help her work through one of the most difficult decisions she might ever make. “Obvious Child” is sincere, authentic and most importantly, funny.
“Sleepwalk with Me” is the title of both a book and a film from stand-up comedian Mike Birbiglia, whose deeply personal one-man shows often shake our expectations of comedy as he bravely talks about uncomfortable and important emotional topics on stage. “Sleepwalk with Me” is no less personal as Birbiglia plays “Mike Pandamiglio,” a struggling comic whose frustrations with the stagnancy in his career, his relationship and his life in general manifest as a severe case of sleepwalking. Viewers see Mike’s journey through the lens of his comic career and follow him on the road where he sometimes drives hundreds of miles just to do one set. The film is as melancholy as it is funny, and Birbiglia’s distinct and off-kilter voice are present both stylistically and in the film’s representation of its protagonist and the people around him. Like its writer/director’s own stand-up, the film allows him to tell his own story of life as a performer.
“Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling” (1986)
Richard Pryor’s first an only film as a director is almost chillingly autobiographical. The film begins with Jo Jo Dancer (Pryor), a comedy superstar whose insistence that he’s quitting his cocaine use doesn’t stop him from doing it one last time. A scene later, he’s in the hospital with severe burns. This is pulled from a real life incident in which Pryor was hospitalized after freebasing cocaine, dousing himself in 151 proof rum and lighting himself on fire; initially this was reported to be an accident, but later Pryor responded to a question about that night by saying, “I tried to commit suicide. Next question.” This incident causes the protagonist to do a serious reexamining of his life, and the film takes the viewer back through Jo Jo’s early days as a small town comic all the way to his comeback show after his recovery. Pryor bares his soul in making this film, as no viewer will miss the fact that Jo Jo is his own alter ego. This film is an important autobiographical document in the history of one of the all time greatest stand-up comics.