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10 April 2020updated 14 Sep 2021 2:15pm

Joking a part: the shaky tradition of stand-up comedy in movies

From The Big Sick to Standing Up, Falling Down, fictional comedians are rarely as funny as their real-life counterparts.

By Ryan Gilbey

There was a period in the 1970s and 1980s when filmed versions of live comedy – Richard Pryor in Live in Concert and Live on the Sunset Strip, Eddie Murphy in Raw, Bette Midler in Divine Madness – could draw large, loud cinema audiences. Fictional stand-up comedians have never enjoyed an equivalent golden phase, though that hasn’t dulled the allure of such characters for established actors: Robert De Niro in The King of Comedy, Tom Hanks and Sally Field in Punchline, Maxine Peake in Funny Cow.

But stand-up roles can also provide a stepping stone into film acting for comics not yet ready to stray too far from their comfort zone, such as Kumail Nanjiani, who played a lightly fictionalised version of himself as a jobbing stand-up in The Big Sick. When Pryor played himself by another name in his own autobiographical drama, Jo-Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling, he was already an established actor whereas for Nanjiani the close-to-home character provided a gentle induction into the demands of being a leading man for a comic whose CV was littered with characters such as Statistician, Delivery Guy and Pakistani Chef. Jerry Seinfeld largely steered clear of playing anyone other than himself (though part of the joke of Seinfeld was how stiff he was as an actor) but Mae Martin was so impressive recently in the Channel 4 sitcom Feel Good, based on her own life as a stand-up and an addict, that it was tempting to think: give up the night-job.

In the new comedy-drama Standing Up, Falling Down, it’s the turn of Ben Schwartz, best known as one of the obnoxiously entitled Saperstein twins in the sitcom Parks and Recreation, to use a fictional stand-up character as a springboard into a major acting career. (Though technically, Schwartz already has one box-office smash under his belt: he was recently the voice of Sonic the Hedgehog.) In Standing Up, Falling Down, he plays Scott, a failed comic who moves back in with his parents in Long Island and strikes up a friendship with a lonely dermatologist named Marty (Billy Crystal, who had his own stab at playing a movie stand-up in the sentimental Mr Saturday Night).

The patterning is nothing if not calculated: Scott has an unresponsive father, while Marty is estranged from his son, so it’s to be expected that each man ends up plugging the emotional gap in the other’s life. But what we see of the stand-up circuit feels born of experience. In the first scene of Scott wise-cracking, his act is partially drowned out by the sound of a flushing cistern, which isn’t so far-fetched: in the small and imperfectly formed 2Northdown venue in London (formerly known as the Invisible Dot), the stage is flanked by two bathrooms. No matter how well a gig might be going, the toilet lies only metres away.

It’s never clear exactly how good Scott is meant to be, which touches on one of the problems of comedy routines delivered by movie characters rather than actual stand-ups: rarely are they objectively funny. His initial set, rife with wiseacre puns and sub-Steven Wright one-liners (“Went Apple-picking the other day. Got myself an iPad”), is meant to signal the sort of emotional detachment that prompts him to flee Los Angeles in the first place, whereas his later return to the stage with warmer material about family and feelings suggests a thawing-out, a reconnection. But he is much more amusing trading spiky banter at home with his sister (Grace Gummer, daughter of Meryl Streep) than he ever is in front of a paying audience.

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That’s not a charge that could be levelled at Donna, the comic undergoing her own emotional turmoil in Obvious Child, one of the better and more unsparing stand-up movies. By an odd coincidence, she is played by Jenny Slate, Schwartz’s on-screen twin sister from Parks and Recreation, in a plausibly frazzled performance that closes the usual gap between actor and stand-up. Three of Donna’s sets are shown in the film, each one serving its own narrative function: the first establishes her skilfulness, the second shows her falling apart, before in the final one she takes real emotional risks that pay off. Crucially, though, they all feel like routines that might be heard in an actual club. Even Dustin Hoffman, performing actual material by Lenny Bruce in Bob Fosse’s 1974 Lenny, couldn’t quite pull that trick off.

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Donna’s boyfriend in Obvious Child is played by the likeable Jake Lacy who had his own stint as a fictional stand-up in the Showtime series I’m Dying Up Here, one of a number of recent shows (see also Lady Dynamite, The Marvellous Mrs Maisel and the HBO series Crashing) that are set against a backdrop of live comedy. It transposed a group of fictional comics to the real-life Los Angeles stand-up circuit of the 1970s, though putting them in a world where the likes of Johnny Carson and Pryor also appeared as characters ended up undermining the conceit: as Harry Waksberg of Vulture pointed out, it’s a struggle to care about what happens to fictional comics “knowing that elsewhere in town, real historical figures are reshaping comedy”.

The representations of stand-up that ring truest tend to be those that give full rein to the bitterness and the drudgery that outnumber drastically any fleeting moments of on-stage triumph: Tom Shkolnik’s intimate drama The Comedian, Judd Apatow’s sprawling Funny People or Annie Griffin’s incomparably sour Festival, which was shot at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2004. With this year’s festival cancelled, Griffin’s film can give audiences the authentic experience of being there – and make most performers glad that they’re not. Trying to pick out its most dispiriting scene is a tough call. Perhaps it is when Chris O’Dowd, as the stand-up sleeping with a journalist (Daniela Nardini) who is judging the comedy award, implores her: “Like me. Please.” Or when Lucy Punch, as an ambitious up-and-comer, pitches her act (“I’ve got this whole ‘Jewish mother’ routine”) to a dyspeptic celebrity (Stephen Mangan) in the middle of masturbating him. It’s only fitting that the film’s climax should feature a comedian on stage in tears, screaming into the microphone: “It’s not a fucking joke!” No kidding.

“Standing Up, Falling Down” is available to stream now