Stand up for these five great movies about comedians

by Freda Cooper

The nineties were good for Jim Carrey. His crazy brand of comedy made The Mask and Dumb And Dumber huge box office hits. Dramatic roles followed, firstly The Truman Show and swiftly afterwards Man On The Moon, when he played comedian Andy Kaufman. A comedian playing a comedian, then. Jim And Andy: The Great Beyond, now on Netflix, goes behind the scenes on the set of the Milos Forman film and into Carrey’s head in terms of his approach to playing Kaufman.

He’s not the first to play a comedian on film, but he’s also one of a surprisingly select group. Given that many, stand-up or otherwise, have had colourful lives, it’s surprising that more haven’t been portrayed on the big screen. Or perhaps that’s the reason. Whatever, there’s a comparative dearth of them, but there are enough out there to appreciate and make you wish for more. And, since we’re talking Jim And Andy, let’s start with…

Man On The Moon (1999)

Until Milos Foreman cast him as Andy Kaufman, Jim Carrey’s flexible body and rubbery features were almost exclusively associated with comedic roles. In Man On The Moon, he transformed himself wholesale into comedian ground-breaking Andy Kaufman, who started off in stand-up and found a wider audience in TV comedy series Taxi as the white overalled Latka, who came complete with catchphrase “Thank you very much.”

Latka may have been the character that turned him into a comedy star but, as the film showed, there was more to Kaufman’s subversive style of comedy, from miming to the Mighty Mouse theme or reading The Great Gatsby from beginning to end in front of a live audience, to his other creation, the crass and unbelievably tuneless crooner, Tony Clifton. And there was his partnership with Bob Zmuda, played by Paul Giamatti, whose name was all over the film, from Clifton’s make up all the way up to producer.

Man On The Moon isn’t just one of Carrey’s best performances – some might say the best – it’s also something of an underrated gem. Funny, shocking, moving and ultimately tragic, Kaufman’s brand of subversion and anarchy was safe in the experienced hands of Forman.

The King Of Comedy (1982)

It’s probably too soon to consider a bio-pic of Jerry Lewis: he may not have wanted one anyway. So we’ll have to settle for this – not that this story of a fictional, would-be comedian is any hardship. Martin Scorsese chose Lewis to play a talk show host who loved his privacy, and Robert De Niro to portray wannabe comic Rupert Pupkin who stalks and kidnaps him. It’s a film that divided audiences at the time and one that tanked at the box office, but hindsight has been kinder and it’s now recognised as one of Scorsese’s best, with great performances from both Lewis and De Niro, who is as unfunny as they come. It’s the darkest of dark comedies – perhaps too dark for audiences at the time – but it’s undeniably funny and bitterly incisive.

Lenny (1974)

Before Andy Kaufman’s subversive brand of comedy, there was Lenny Bruce. Bob Fosse’s depiction of the comedian who turned upsetting the establishment into an art form and didn’t so much break boundaries as smash them, was made in black and white. It was also nominated for six Oscars, although it didn’t take a single one home.

Al Pacino was originally offered the role of Bruce, turned it down and it went to Dustin Hoffman. In Fosse’s quasi documentary, he was a flawed, talented, heroic yet deeply troubled artist and Hoffman turned in one of his best early performances. For some, though, it was an over-idealised portrait, one that wasn’t necessarily borne out by the facts. It was also Valerie Perrine’s breakthrough role, playing his equally outrageous wife, Honey, a stripper without a heart of gold. Lenny was never a comfortable watch but, given its subject, it was never going to be.

Chaplin (1992)

Richard Attenborough’s bio-pic of the king of silent movie comedy – perhaps movie comedy per se – provided another breakthrough role, this time for Robert Downey Junior, who played the title role. He was the director’s choice yet, despite building his career in roles throughout the 70s and 80s, he was pretty much an unknown. His re-creation on screen of Chaplin was uncanny, not just facially but also physically. Just watch the legendary “dance of the bread rolls.”

There were so many fingers in the pie that was the screenplay that it never really held together as a coherent whole, but there was no doubting the quality of Downey Junior’s performance. He pipped plenty of big names to the post for the role and Attenborough’s decision was completely vindicated.

The Big Sick (2017)

While it’s not primarily a portrait of a comedian as such – it’s essentially about the ups and downs of modern love – the central character is another aspiring stand-up. He’s played by his older self, now successful comedian Kumail Nanjiani (from TV’s Silicon Valley), and is the story about how he met his wife, Emily Gordon, and their faltering progress towards a proper relationship. The pair also wrote the script.

More dramedy than pure comedy, Michael Showalter’s crowd pleaser also featured another stand-up, Ray Romano, from TV’s Everybody Loves Raymond. Kumail finds it difficult to draw the line between on-stage gags and what he says to people in real life – which makes for some interesting conversations, to say the least. Inevitably his career as a stand-up comes with as many pitfalls as his private life and the film is one of the best comedies of the year. It’s released this month on DVD.

2018 promises a little more in the way of films about comedians, one fictional and one more factual. Funny Cow, which was shown at the London Film Festival, also gives us what is still regarded as unusual – a woman stand-up. She’s played by Maxine Peake, alongside a cast that includes Paddy Considine, Stephen Graham and, perhaps most tantalising of all, Vic Reeves as a ventriloquist. There’s no release date yet and one has yet to be announced for Stan And Ollie, which looks at Laurel and Hardy’s UK tour towards the end of their career. The casting is mouthwatering: John C Reilly as Ollie, with Steve Coogan as Stan. It speaks for itself.

Freda Cooper is a film critic and broadcaster. She tweets @FredaTalkingPix.


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