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Even in the era of social media and streaming, there’s nothing in the digital world that can match the authenticity of live comedy. Watching a comedian risk losing his or her reputation and dignity on a set is a thrilling feeling, and the buzz of seeing a great routine is a unique experience that can’t be replicated at home. There’s nothing quite as fulfilling as sharing laughs with a crowd while watching a comedian excel, and nothing quite as uncomfortable as watching one bomb.
This is yet another experience that will have to be put on hold until it’s once again safe to gather into tight, packed comedy clubs. Many comedians, such as Dave Chapelle and Jerry Seinfeld, have taken their acts to Netflix in the wake of COVID-19, and for the time being, comfortable home viewing will be all we have to fill that gap.
Comedians often act in films, with many of the alumni of Saturday Night Live in particular having gone on to have fruitful cinematic careers, but the nature of the comedy business itself is one that it is often hard to crack on screen. It’s easy to see why — do we really want to see what the bitter, grim reality of a comedian’s life is when all we really need is for them to make us laugh?
Some films have managed to leap past those barriers and provide insightful perspectives on the lives of comedians, both real and fictional. As we mourn the closure of comedy clubs, check out these great films about comedians.
Man on the Moon (1999)
Jim Carrey’s dedication to the role of legendary comedian Andy Kaufman was so in-depth that he famously alienated the cast and crew, blurring the line between imitation and performance art. The film was directed by Milos Forman (Amadeus, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, The People Vs. Larry Flynt), and explored how Kaufman’s desire to mock authority dictated the unusual direction of his career. For an in-depth look at Carrey’s transformation, check out the excellent Netflix documentary Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond.
Dolemite Is My Name (2019)
A great comedian played a great comedian when Eddie Murphy delivered his best performance in over 20 years as Rudy Ray Moore, the “Godfather of Rap” who was best known for his title role in the Dolemite films. Moore may have seemed like nothing but a goofball at first, but Dolemite Is My Name explores how his films employed and promoted the work of underrepresented artists.
The King of Comedy (1982)
Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro may be best known for their collaborations on Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Casino, but this 1982 cult hit was ahead of its time in exploring the obsession with celebrity. De Niro stars as Rupert Pupkin, a delusional comedian who becomes convinced that he has a personal relationship with his idol Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis in a rare dramatic role). Many of the plot points in The King of Comedy served as a primary influence on last year’s Best Picture Oscar nominee Joker.
As exciting as it can be to stand solo on a stage and speak to a crowd, it can also be an isolating experience. The loneliness of stand up is brilliantly examined in Lenny, which starred Dustin Hoffman as the famously provocative Lenny Bruce, a comedian whose vulgar social criticism often caused him to conflict with the establishment.
Don’t Think Twice (2016)
Ever wondered what the Saturday Night Live audition process is like? This heartwarming ensemble dramedy explores the lives of various members of an improv sketch group, detailing how they grow apart as individual members vie for a shot at joining SNL.
The Big Sick (2017)
A work of semi-autobiographical filmmaking from acclaimed stand-up comedian Kumail Nanjiani, The Big Sick was co-written by Nanjiani and his wife, Emily V. Gordon, and details the early stages of their relationship and how it is offset by Gordon’s medically induced coma. Zoe Kazan plays Gordon and Nanjiani plays himself, a move that would feel completely self-serving if it wasn’t so honest and painfully real.
Late Night (2019)
This progressive take on (you guessed it) late-night comedy imagines the novelty of a female talk show host (Emma Thompson) who struggles to avoid early retirement. The crux of the film details how Thompson’s character Katherine Newbury confronts the flaws in her own writers’ room when she hires a woman of color (Mindy Kaling, who also wrote the script). The film’s wholesomeness may have made it out of touch, but thankfully Late Night is light and breezy for a story that deals with the realities of corporate micromanagement.
Other People (2016)
Another film about the reality of working for SNL, Other People follows a comedy writer (Jesse Plemons) who returns to live with his family after his mother (Molly Shannon) is diagnosed with leukemia. Comedy is a form of healing for many people, and Other People speaks to the challenges that comedians face when the material gets deeply personal.
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