The King of Comedy (1982)
There’s something so intimate, exposing and ruthless about their artform that standups make perfect symbols for the battle we all wage to assert ourselves against an unappreciative world. So most movies about standup focus on failures rather than successes – none more so than King of Comedy, Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro’s less celebrated follow-up to Taxi Driver and Raging Bull.
Here is a film that spotlights the idea of standups as tormented souls, walking personality disorders in spinning bow ties. De Niro is the gag man in question, whose career frustrations, mental ill-health and obsession with TV talkshow host Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis) lead him to kidnapping and bribery-at-gunpoint. De Niro reportedly powered up for the film by gigging in New York comedy clubs – which is dedication, when you’re obliged only to attain mediocrity. Because Rupert Pupkin (when we finally see him in action) is a very mediocre standup – albeit one whose hunger for fame is oddly heroic (“Better to be king for a night than schmuck for a lifetime!”). The antihero of The King of Comedy is the patron saint of anyone who ever tried to heal their psychic wounds (or book a seat on Graham Norton’s sofa) by picking up the mic.
In the UK at least, the centre of the live comedy world is the Edinburgh fringe – and no one even tried to capture it in a feature film until Annie Griffin made Festival. While it looks at the world’s biggest arts jamboree through a wide-angle lens, this ensemble black comedy – Robert Altman is the usual point of comparison – focuses on comedy, and comedians, in particular. Stephen Mangan is the neurotic star standup, revisiting Edinburgh to judge that year’s comedy awards. Chris O’Dowd is the Irish journeyman who’ll stop at nothing to get nominated. Lucy Punch is the wannabe, given to road-testing her Jewish mother character act at the least opportune moments.
Nothing about the film adds lustre to the comedy profession: it’s a jaundiced take on how the fringe has surrendered to corporate comedy, by a director whose sympathies clearly lie with arty theatre-makers and Canadian improvisers. But there’s no denying the potency – or veracity – of its account of fringe comedy as a viper’s nest of anxiety and cut-throat competition.
Funny Bones (1995)
What does it mean to be funny? Can you inherit, learn or buy it? Peter Chelsom’s cult 1995 curio teases out these questions, and pays eccentric tribute to the halcyon days of British music hall while doing so. The film tells the story of Tommy Fawkes (Oliver Platt) – whom we meet bombing on stage in Vegas in the humiliating presence of his dad, the superstar comic George (Jerry Lewis, again). Tommy duly flees to his childhood home of Blackpool to rediscover his “funny bones” – by hook, crook or (more likely) chequebook.
There follows an eccentric celebration of vaudeville, featuring an array of eccentric cabaret acts, and a movie debut from the young Lee Evans, as Tommy’s long-lost half-brother Jack. Like many cine-standups, Jack is both extraordinarily gifted and deeply troubled. He also has “funny bones”, as per the description advanced by Lewis’s George in the film’s key confrontation. “There are two types of comedian,” he tells his son: “There’s a funny bones comedian and a non-funny bones comedian. They’re both funny. One is funny, the other tells funny.”
Man on the Moon (1999)
I’m arguing for a broad definition of standup by including Milos Forman’s biopic of US comic (or should that be performance artist?) Andy Kaufman. As he says in the film: “I’m not a comedian, I don’t want to go for cheap laughs.” Some – Guardian critic Peter Bradshaw among them – would say I’m overindulging a too-reverent and conventional movie. But from a field that includes Bob Fosse’s Lenny and Richard Pryor’s thinly veiled autobiography Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling, Man on the Moon – starring Jim Carrey as Kaufman – is probably the most successful biopic of a real-life comedian.
And what a comedian! The story of Kaufman’s life can’t help but be interesting, because of the sheer oddity of what he did on and offstage. It’s all represented here: the faux-naive Foreign Man; the obnoxious lounger singer Tony Clifton; the stint as a wrestler. (Fans of Clifton are referred to Rick Alverson’s 2015 movie Entertainment, featuring his anti-comedy inheritor Neil Hamburger.) Every standup movie has a moment when an uncomprehending audience withholds its laughter. But Forman’s film makes a symphony of those awkward silences that soundtracked Kaufman’s career. For a study in comedy as an attritional artform, in how unfunny – when dialled far enough around the scale – can be the funniest thing of all, Man on the Moon has plenty to offer.
Obvious Child (2014)
“What’s so great about you,” the standup heroine of Obvious Child is told, “is that you are unapologetically yourself on stage.” But is that such a great thing? How honest about your emotional life – and those who populate it – is it appropriate to be with a microphone in your hand? Those are hot topics at a time when the comic Louise Reay is being sued by her ex-husband for using material about their marriage in a show. And they’re very much at the heart of director Gillian Robespierre’s indie flick – although the chat surrounding this movie on its release concerned its status as “the abortion romcom”.
Like last year’s Stand Up Girl!, starring the Belgian-Muslim comic Nawell Madani, it’s a rare instance of a film about a female comedian. Lead character Donna is an autobiographical standup who mediates her personal life through the stage. And its star Jenny Slate is herself a standup. From the opening scene, when Donna alienates her boyfriend by broadcasting relationship intimacies from the stage, to the later scene when she announces her planned abortion to a paying audience, here is an unaffected study of how comedy isn’t just a means of reporting your emotional life, but of living it.