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Stand-up on Film: 11 Movies About Stand-up Comedy

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There haven't been many movies made about stand-up comedy -- possibly because it's not the most visual medium. What few films there are seem to paint most comedians as depressing, talentless dreamers or borderline sociopaths. Still, there are a few films on this list that stand out as loving tributes to stand-up. There's a good deal of depressing losers, too. Check out this list for a rundown of the funny business on film.

1. Rubberface (1981)

Rubberface DVD cover art
Photo courtesy of PriceGrabber
Originally produced as a Canadian made-for-TV movie in 1981 (called Introducing...Janet), Rubberface didn't see a big video release until after Jim Carrey's breakout success in the 1990s. The plot is similar to 1988's Punchline, with Carrey as an aspiring comic who helps bring a quiet, meek woman out of her shell with stand-up. The video title has nothing to do with the film other than that it was a lame attempt to capitalize on a nickname Carrey -- famous for his manic facial contortions -- never even had.
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2. The King of Comedy (1982)

The King of Comedy DVD cover art
© FOX
Perhaps the most underrated film from director Martin Scorsese, this masterpiece of awkwardness and discomfort stars Robert De Niro as Rupert Pupkin, the first in a long line of pathetic, terrible and sociopathic wannabe comedians on film. Desperate to meet his idol, comedian Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis), Pupkin hatches a plan alongside his stalker friend (comedian Sandra Bernhard) to kidnap Lanford and demand a slot as his opening act. As with just about any Scorsese film, The King of Comedy is crazy brilliant -- a fascinating and uncomfortable study on the nature of fame and the dreams of losers. This is the movie that a host of other stand-up comedy films would imitate -- unfunny guy has comedy club dreams -- to far lesser effect.
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3. Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling (1986)

Jo Jo Dancer Your Life Is Calling DVD Cover Art
© Sony Pictures
The great Richard Pryor co-wrote and directed this film (his first and only narrative directorial effort), which he swore wasn't autobiographical. You tell me: a successful comedian (raised, like Pryor, in a brothel) is badly burned while freebasing cocaine (any of this sounding familiar?). While lying in a hospital, he looks back on his life and how comedy success led to drug abuse and womanizing. Maybe it's not autobiographical -- maybe it's all just a coincidence. Either way, the film does little justice to Pryor's own story; it's a too-broad and softened summary of the groundbreaking comedian's life, and either makes excuses or puts too pretty a gloss on the horrors he endured on the road to success.
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4. Punchline (1988)

Punchline DVD cover art
© Sony Pictures
Prior to 2009's Funny People, this film was probably the most high-profile and focused movie about stand-up comedy ever made. That doesn't mean it's that great; actually, it's only ok and often looks and feels like a TV movie. Sally Field plays a housewife who suddenly decides she wants to be a stand-up comic, and in the process of pursuing her dream meets Tom Hanks, who's actually really good at comedy but is being pressured by his dad to go into medicine. Hanks is very good in Punchline, capturing the darkness that a lot of comics have when not on stage and actually performing his routines like a pro (he did stand-up all over New York to prepare). He alone makes the movie worth watching. A host of familiar '80s comics also appear.
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5. Talkin' Dirty After Dark (1991)

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The first starring vehicle for comedian Martin Lawrence casts him as a struggling stand-up comedian with a car that only drives in reverse and not enough money to pay his $67 phone bill. To get ahead at the local comedy club, Dukie's, he's sleeping with the club owner's wife; unfortunately, the club owner (played by comedian John Witherspoon) is trying to be another performer at the club. Just how much of this behind-the-scenes politicking and bed-hopping is accurate I can't say, but I can appreciate that the movie casts Lawrence as a struggling comedian without making him a worthless loser. Plus, it's one of the comic's only film roles that's as edgy as his act; shortly after this, he'd lapse into high-concept and family comedies.
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6. Mr. Saturday Night (1992)

Mr. Saturday Night DVD cover art
© FOX
The passion project of comedian Billy Crystal, Mr. Saturday Night casts Crystal (who also wrote and directed) as fictional club comic Buddy Young Jr. as he rises from Catskills comic to nightclub and TV star to self-destructive has-been. Crystal means well with this love letter to old-school comedy, but can't seem to see the forest through the trees; his Buddy Young Jr. alternates solely between maudlin sad-sack and unlikable prick. There are still things to like (David Paymer, as Crystal's brother, is good and scored an Oscar nomination) Crystal fans should definitely check it out, but as stand-up comedy movies go this one falls pretty much squarely in the middle.
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7. This Is My Life (1992)

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Julie Kavner (better known as the voice of Marge Simpson) stars in this early Nora Ephron effort, playing a single mother of two who begins neglecting her daughters when her stand-up career takes off. It's a rare movie that explores stand-up comedy from a female perspective (unless you count Sally Field's frumpy housewife in Punchline), but doesn't quite find anything profound to say on the issue of gender in comedy other than "it's hard to have it all, ladies." Dan Aykroyd has a supporting role, and comedians Ellen Cleghorne, Bob Nelson and Joy Behar all make appearances.
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8. Funny Bones (1995)

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Oliver Platt stars in this British comedy about yet another terrible stand-up comedian, only this one is stuck living in the shadow of his famous comedian father (played by Jerry Lewis). After his big-break show in Vegas goes disastrously badly, Platt retreats to England to find the funniest unknown comedians so he can steal their acts and perform them back in the U.S. This odd, eccentric film is less a statement about stand-up than a celebration of comedy and what it means to be funny. Even in a genre as limited and narrow as movies about stand-up, Funny Bones is a real original and worth seeking out.
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9. The Jimmy Show (2001)

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Yet another comedian-as-hapless-loser movie, The Jimmy Show finds Frank Whaley (who also directed) as a working-class schlub with hopes of making it as a stand-up comic. His act is terrible, his life is depressing. Comedy! Like many other movie stand-ups (possibly beginning with Rupert Pupkin in The King of Comedy), he's a really bad comic -- either an indication that Hollywood has very little respect for stand-up comedy or that there's a belief that only the bad ones are interesting. This is also one of the few films about stand-up that doesn't bother to cast anyone in the comedy community. Maybe they were all tired of being painted as pathetic bums.
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10. Funny People (2009)

Funny People poster art
© Universal

Funny People, the third film from former stand-up comic Judd Apatow casts Adam Sandler (Apatow's former college roommate) and Seth Rogen as comedians on opposite sides of success: Sandler is a mega-star (headlining his own awful high-concept comedies, not unlike Sandler himself) while Rogen is the up-and-comer picked to be Sandler's protege. The film takes place in the real world of stand-up, so you get a host of comics (including Sarah Silverman and Norm MacDonald) playing themselves, while others (such as Aziz Ansari and Bo Burnham) take on fictional roles. Seeing as how so many of the film's participants come from stand-up -- including, chiefly, Apatow -- this may be the most accurate and reverent movie about stand-up comedy yet.

11. Obvious Child (2014)

Obvious Child movie poster
Photo courtesy A24
The feature debut of Gillian Robespierre is also the first starring role for comedian Jenny Slate, who spent a season on Saturday Night Live (and famously dropped an f-bomb on her first episode). Slate plays an up-and-coming stand-up comic who accidentally gets pregnant after a one-night stand. The movie is charming and avoids a lot of the usual romantic comedy pitfalls while tackling some challenging material, and Slate sells it all with sweetness, vulnerability and a lot of humor. There aren't many movies about stand-up comedy that approach it from quite this angle -- it's something she does, it's something she's working on, but it doesn't define either the character or the movie. Obvious Child is much more interested in the person than the comic. David Cross, another real-life comic, has a good supporting role.

 

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