A patient goes to a doctor complaining about depression, anxiety, an overall distaste for life. The doctor says, “I have just the cure. The clown Pagliacci is in town; go see his show and you will feel better about life.” The patient replies, “But doctor, I am Pagliacci.”
This is an old joke with ambiguous official origins dating back to poems and stories traded in the early 19th century. Even then, we observed an ironic truth about comedians: They make other people laugh as an attempt to hide or transform their own latent sadness. Reverberations of this truth have since echoed in many pieces of media attempting to dissect the comedian, down to this very Pagliacci joke being quoted in works like Watchmen and Bojack Horseman.
All of this is to say that movies about comedy are often different than comedies; in fact, they are rarely interested in making you laugh on a consistent basis. Instead, they wish to dive into the psychology behind those who are interested in making you laugh on a consistent basis, often finding the beating-but-blackened heart of a sad clown. Inspired by Annette, a beyond-eccentric musical that zeroes in on the psychology of a troubled standup comic, here is a brief history of films about comedy.
Lenny Bruce is one of our most influential and important comedians — not just for the jokes he told, but for the stance on freedom of speech he took even in the highest and most unfair of governmental retributions. In his tragically short career (he died of a heroin overdose in 1966 at the age of 40), Bruce’s penchant for a kind of intentional, satirically-minded vulgarity resulted in gripped audiences, tastes of fame, and lots of arrests and court cases for public obscenity. We Americans can take for granted that people can say whatever they want; Bruce was an artist who revealed the limitations of that ostensible idealism.
A biopic about anyone runs the risk of hagiography, of softening out edges in favor of a “greatest hits” approach. Thankfully, Lenny is uninterested in such fantasy. Director Bob Fosse renders his vision of Bruce (Dustin Hoffman) in stark, high-contrast black and white, framed by docu-style interviews, edited sharply to the bones of the matter, no matter how unsavory they make anyone appear. This immaculate formal style is, like Bruce’s comedy, after “the truth,” and it tends to get it. We are intoxicated by the long, gritty, found-feeling takes of Bruce captivating his audience with confessions of sex and infidelity, right before we are punched in the gut by a stark depiction of Bruce’s real-life infidelity on his real-life, drug-addled wife (Valerie Perrine); the human consequences of turning one’s life into content made disquietingly apparent.
From a contemporary viewing perspective, the 1974 film’s formal techniques have only sharpened with age — and its warts-and-all approach to Bruce has become even more provocative in our modern discourse about (I’m so sorry for saying this) cancel culture. In one comedy performance sequence, cut agonizingly between an alternating slowness and quickness, Bruce, a white Jewish guy played by a white Jewish guy, asks the crowd politely if there are any Black people in the audience, using the most vicious slur one can use to describe them. He uses this word over and over, the film cutting between the faces of uneasy Black people watching a white guy use such a historically charged, vile word about them. Eventually, Bruce begins using every other slur in the book to describe the other members of the audience, and turns the sword on himself with self-flagellating Jewish slurs. His point, which he ultimately makes by staring a Black man in the eyes and repeating the n-word over and over, is that words unto themselves are not powerful; we give them power by avoiding them and deifying them. If we keep saying them out loud, we destigmatize them and eradicate their power, their ability to harm.
This sequence is queasy. There is an intellectual logic to his argument, especially given its historical context of “the shifting mores and growing cultural freedoms of the mid-1960s.” But Bruce gets to be intellectual about the Black experience because he doesn’t share it; he gets to bandy a slur around willy-nilly and claim its lack of power because he’s never felt its power applied to him. Fosse is a canny enough filmmaker to use obviously discomforted, even annoyed faces as reactions, even showing Bruce uneasily laugh off an observation that one audience member wants to physically hurt him. In this use of showing not telling (even as Bruce does nothing but “tell”), the film shows a certain comedic idelogy at its purest (i.e. “Comedians should be allowed to say whatever they want, whoever they are!”) while giving the audience the space to reckon and decide.
The King of Comedy
To perform comedy is to walk the tightrope between irreverence and obsession, self-deprecation and ego, gritty realism and borderline delusional fantasy. And if one doesn’t perform comedy but simply dreams of performing comedy, these lines become all the thinner, the walking all the more perilous.
The King of Comedy, Martin Scorsese‘s dark comedy-thriller, shows what happens when you fall off this tightrope and get tangled in a bunch of tightropes below. The audience will still react, and maybe even laugh or applaud. Is that enough for a budding, dreaming comedian? For Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro), who’s dangerously obsessed with successful late-night talk show host Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis), it just might be. Yes, he considers himself a comedian worthy of performing his particularly special point of view, even and especially on Langford’s show. But the motivation to team up with an obsessive accomplice (Sandra Bernhard) and kidnap Langford to take his place stems less from a drive to share one’s talents and stories and more from a deeper, darker drive of recognition. We all want to be seen. Famous people are seen exponentially more, their skills and movements magnified for mass consumption, threatening to consume attention paid to anything else — at least from the perspective of unstable clout-desirers like Pupkin. His need to be seen, to be king for a night is overwhelming and amorphous, taking whatever shape it needs to; performing standup comedy here, kidnapping and threatening murder there, if it means eyeballs are on Pupkin, it’s a win in his book. To get up on stage by oneself and share one’s irreverent, self-deprecating, grounding perspectives inherently takes some obsession, ego, and fantasy. The King of Comedy pushes it all to the limit with thrilling results.
Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling
Chris Rock said, in a movie you’ll see later on this list, that Richard Pryor was the most confessional comedian; his act amounted to cutting himself open and spilling everything on everyone. It’s hard to disagree, especially when considering his most influential, important routine centers around a confession and procedural articulation of burning himself nearly to death while abusing cocaine. Pryor doesn’t mince words, to devastating comedic effect.
In Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling, co-written, directed by, and starring Pryor, the man uses this source of trauma as the framing device for a surreal, frightening, and often downright sappy examination of his own life as a self-destructive comedian. In his traditional routines, Pryor’s confessions are honed and crafted; even as his vocal affections suggest a level of emotional unpredictability, he is fully in control and making intentional statements for intentional laughter. As a filmmaker-star, however, Pryor throws everything at the screen, much of which sticks. At times a procedurally traditional biopic about “coming up through show biz”; at times a soap opera about crime and romance; at times a magical realist fable about the need to be grateful for the hand life deals you — Jo Jo Dancer is an impassioned and restless work of cinema, a cumulative odyssey of one’s own perspective, a film that confuses as much as it affects. Pryor, even as he commits with genuine pathos to the serious, even scary beats of the picture, finds the time to chart his evolution as a comedian, too. In his early, formative years, he’d do anything for a laugh and a shot at some dough, even hastily mumbled street jokes or broad and bawdy physical gags. To watch him mature into a man who knows enough about what to say that he’s confident saying it all simultaneously is quite the inspiration.
The 1980s saw a boom in the comedy club scene. Bolstered by the growing appetite and marketplace for comedian success on late-night TV and the burgeoning cable landscape, dingy nightclubs became packed with comics eager and desperate for stage time. While some of the comics who burst through during this scene were obviously unique talents — think Jim Carrey or Eddie Murphy — many of them latched onto a certain type of comedic voice — think Jerry Seinfeld — and wrung it out for everything it was worth. Loose-fitting suit jackets, carefully patterned schtick, misanthropic viewpoints, casual racism, casual sexism, casual homophobia — this was the vibe of the average 1980s club comic.
Punchline, a 1988 dramedy, sticks us directly in the middle of this environment to some elucidating effects. Its opening credit montage is a cavalcade of ’80s comics whose routines feel “I need to make a 5-minute impression on Johnny Carson” practiced; no sense of ambiguity or tension is felt in their persona, though the tension of whether they’re actually funny remains. The film also feels more than comfortable showing comedians simply hang out with each other backstage, presenting effectively this curious found family that alternates dramatically between support, jealousy, love, and desperation. Most courageously, the film takes America’s friggin’ sweetheart, Tom Hanks, and makes him the purest distillation of all the negative connotations surrounding ’80s comics. During his most “successful” sets, Hanks’ Steven Gold traffics in racist accents, sexist descriptions of women in the audience, and a tour-de-force whirlwind on whom he hates in this world. Writer/director David Seltzer has shifted Hanks’ heights lower than your average protagonist, so when he hits his lows, lookout. Punchline is more than willing to hard-shift into severe psychological drama, revealing Hanks’ Steven as a broken man full of trauma, emotional instability, and a problematic need to be heard. He breaks down crying on stage, he shouts put-downs at celebrity judges through a megaphone, he manipulates co-lead Sally Field as needed. If Pagliacci was a sad clown, Steven Gold is an angry one; a cutting representation of the snarling male id present in the 1980s.
Speaking of Sally Field: Her Lilah Krytsick is, far and away, our more empathetic protagonist, a troubled housewife with a troubled marriage (to John Goodman) who needs in her bones to get on stage and tell jokes. But her storyline is not a traditional “rags-to-riches” one. Punchline lives, perhaps too jaggedly and comfortably, in the bumpiness of this ride, in the raw emotional fallout of her decisions. Her husband seems to hate her, her children seem to do nothing but cry at her, her new comedy friend Hanks seems to turn on a dime how he feels about her from moment to moment. There are inspiring conclusions drawn about why Field needs to express herself on stage, why turning one’s issues into communal laughter is such an important art form for all of us (most effectively rendered in a climactic scene when Goodman actually shows up to a routine). But there are also messy conclusions drawn about “happiness” versus “greatness,” and what “success” really means. For Steven Gold, all the world needs to be a stage or he’ll fall apart. Lilah Krytsick has her eyes a bit more centered on the “merely players” part of that quote.
Talkin’ Dirty After Dark
The title of this underseen Martin Lawrence vehicle, Talkin’ Dirty After Dark, distills a kind of comedy audience appeal to its basest elements, even since someone as intellectual as a Lenny Bruce. Audiences go to see a comedian because comedians are allowed to say the taboo, to speak our most unspeakable thoughts, to talk dirty after dark. The film, thus, shows extended periods of standups talkin’ dirty, diving headfirst into the most prurient, sexual, and gleefully blue material you can think of. But if Punchline showed the darker side of these impulses, Talkin’ Dirty After Dark shows them at their most unabashedly joyful. These comedians, including and especially Lawrence himself, are having fun on stage, and the audience is having fun listening to them, and it is a hoot and a half of fun to experience it all.
This element of “fun” speaks to Talkin’ Dirty After Dark‘s most refreshing quality: It is explicitly interested in being a comedy about comedians. There is a narrative, conflicts, and stakes, all centered around the backstage shenanigans of a comedy club, from Lawrence’s affair with the owner’s wife, to the emcee’s being stalked by a pair of dubious groupies, to a ginormously buff guy ready to kill anyone he thinks is making a move on his girlfriend. And many of these shenanigans do reveal a certain kind of brusque truth about the, to borrow a word used often in the film, “politics” of producing professional comedy. But these shenanigans, even when they’re centered explicitly around “how comedians act around each other,” have a genuine interest in making us smile and laugh. It’s a genuine pleasure to see Lawrence and emcee Darryl Sivad congratulate each other on their spots for that evening’s show; it’s a genuine pleasure to see owner John Witherspoon and his wife Jedda Jones play their shifting betrayals with broad, brawny energy; and it’s a genuine pleasure to see the “one crazy night” energy emanate in the best source it can — a group of dang comedians. Talkin’ Dirty After Dark reminds us that comedy is, inherently, a joyful practice; thank God it does so.
The Late Shift
And now, the 1980s comedy bubble bursts in glorious, garish, made-for-premium-cable entertainment.
In the early ’90s, Johnny Carson, beloved host of The Tonight Show, was finally retiring. Carson’s preference for a replacement was David Letterman, the host of the show that followed him, Late Night. But top brass at NBC had eyes on Carson’s Tonight Show guest host, Jay Leno. They felt he’d be more palatable to an 11:35 audience, they felt he’d be easier to control, and most troublingly, they felt pressured by his shrewd manager, Helen Kushnick. This was NBC’s ultimate decision, leading to a timeslot showdown between Leno on The Tonight Show and Letterman on CBS’ The Late Show — and a whole bunch of hurt feelings and professional snipings strewed about.
Both Leno and Letterman came up performing standup in the late ’70s and early ’80s, riding the creatively adventurous period of the former into the financially successful period of the latter, and garnering televised success in their own lanes. For The Late Shift, the HBO movie based on the Bill Carter book, to publicly dramatize the internal explosions and implosions leading to such a paradigm change in the comedy world is for The Late Shift to announce that the charted and formulaic path to success for a 1980s club comic is obliterated. Letterman himself had already been challenging the “in a box” nature of comedy on his anarchic, self-reflexive Late Night program; The Late Shift challenged and exploded the box surrounding the box. It doesn’t matter how much you play by the rules; the mask of meritocracy is off, and corporate backstabbings will always win.
This could, and perhaps should’ve meant that The Late Shift was, and is, a formatively creative work of filmmaking about comedy. The problem is… it’s grotesque. It’s over-the-top. It cakes its actors — Daniel Roebuck as Leno and John Michael Higgins as Letterman — in such obviously false hair and makeup that it feels like caricatures come to life. It casts Kathy Bates as Kushnick, an inspired bit of casting, then renders her work among a milieu of nasty production design and half-baked constructive choices. Historically, The Late Shift tries to show a lightning bolt time period in comedy, and technically succeeds. Creatively, well, to quote Mr. Letterman, “Not a match, the board goes back.”
Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World
Albert Brooks is one of our most relentlessly self-analyzing comedy forces, a writer/performer/filmmaker who turns the magnifying glass on himself and shows us all the underlying neuroses to relate to and laugh at. But Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World is presented as one of his most explicitly autobiographical works — given that he plays “Albert Brooks, writer/performer/filmmaker.”
This curious film came out in 2005, a time scarred by 9/11, a slew of seemingly endless Gulf Wars, and a polarizing president who offered a kind of anti-intellectual “America rah!” philosophy to all of these complexities. As such, jingoism and Islamaphobia ran rampant through American culture. While some works of satire produced during this time dove into these culturally accepted, even celebrated prejudices with a kind of headfirst, ballsy, provocative irony — think The Colbert Report or Team America: World Police — Brooks’ techniques are much gentler. Looking for Comedy takes one of the most clichéd-but-true perceptions of comedy — the idea that it can heal, that it’s “the best medicine” — and tries to softly stretch it across the broad-shouldered force of Islamaphobia. Brooks as Brooks is hired by the US government to travel to India and Pakistan in an effort to ease tensions between these Muslim countries and the United States, all through the power of common comedy.
As you might imagine, there are some pretty glaring issues with a film in which, not unlike a Lenny Bruce, a white Jewish guy tries to intellectually defang a powerful force of hate about a group he does not belong to, a level of visceral prejudice he’s never had to experience himself. The film even tries its hand at some thriller plottings as a technique of increasing the conflicts on both sides, and while the conclusions to this subplot of “India and Pakistan will go to war because of Brooks’ comedic diplomacy” are satisfyingly self-effacing and subtly satirical, the inherent premise sniffs a tad of half-baked Islamaphobia itself; Brooks tries to pin all the geopolitical misunderstandings on himself, but can’t help but problematically show these Muslim worlds as a little over-willing to fight (though is this itself a satirical commentary on what these kinds of movies always turn into?). Also, Brooks performs a ventriloquist routine involving a Muslim puppet, and that’s pretty bad.
But the gentle, even aimless aims of Looking for Comedy do give it some space to find some enlightenment, especially when Brooks speaks with Pakistani comedians themselves. Brooks’ goals, both within the movie’s world and with the movie itself, feel admirable if over-fleeting, optimistic if oddly sour, ready to showcase the healing power of comedy while revealing the limitations we have yet to go — even and especially within himself.
Funny People is, broadly, “Punchline but longer and meaner.” Adam Sandler takes Hanks’ mantle of “America’s Friggin’ Sweetheart playing a comedy monster,” inhabiting a comic superstar past his creative prime, diagnosed with terminal leukemia, eager to make some kind of change for the rest of his short, embittered life. He finds a potential catalyst for progress in Seth Rogen, an aspiring comic who shares bouts of stage time at crappy clubs with people like Aubrey Plaza and Aziz Ansari‘s immediately iconic “Raaaaaaaandy” and an apartment with sitcom sellouts Jason Schwartzmann and Jonah Hill. Sandler plucks Hill into a boundary-blending gig involving being his personal assistant, his joke writer, his opening act, and his kinda-sorta friend. Writer/director Judd Apatow uses the nearly two-and-a-half hour length to amble through all kinds of found comedy pods, finding harsh truths at every level of success and interpersonal connection/competition; a sort of hardened, millennial take on the backstage conversations found in Punchline or Talkin’ Dirty After Dark. Funny People has its fingers on the pulse of broadening, but more complicated opportunities available for comedians who are still trying to retain that primal drive of “telling jokes to people so they can laugh at them.”
These exploratory moments feel authentic in their tragicomic shades, and Sandler feels authentic in his driving, gritting unpleasantness. Funny People shows how much the relentless pursuit of success curdles into the relentless sensory dulling of fame, and shows how difficult it can be to get the feeling back into your life without alienating those around you (though neither Sandler nor Apatow seem to care about alienating anyone with their committedly pointed work). The film even gives Sandler a Sally-Field-in-Punchline-esque temptation of a normal life, thanks to a reconnection with ex-wife Leslie Mann, though the conclusion of this subplot is much more grueling and less romantic — and perhaps truer — than what Field finds in Punchline.
In its final, genuinely touching scene, Funny People presents the positive flipside of the negative truth stabbed into us over and over again: Funny people care about being funny more than anything. The issue persists when this need to be funny stops being a connecting tool and starts being an isolating one.
Sleepwalk With Me / Obvious Child / The Big Sick
In this trio of excellent 2010s films, one creatively rewarding commonality is found. Instead of making “the world of comedy” the primary focus of the film’s premise, they are the given base realities, the accepted worlds these characters live in, the backdrop that makes their high concepts pop. Beyond the storytelling triumphs found in this approach, this choice also indicates a cultural landscape very familiar with comedy and every facet going into its construction. The 2010s were a time of comedy podcasts, nationwide explorations of comedy schools, and unprecedented levels of self-referential explorations in acclaimed comedy works like, yikes, Louie. After all of these previously made films prepared us for a broad understanding of “what it’s like to make comedy,” these 2010s works took that baton and stopped explaining what the baton is. They trusted us to run.
Sleepwalk With Me tells the autobiographical tale of Mike Birbiglia‘s chronic, dangerous sleepwalking. Obvious Child finds Jenny Slate reckoning with the decision to get an abortion after a fling. And The Big Sick dramatizes Kumail Nanjiani‘s real-life love story with co-writer Emily V. Gordon (played by Zoe Kazan), which happened to involve the latter being placed in a medically-induced coma. All three of these protagonists are stand-up comics; all three of their films show us so much truth about what it means to exist in the world of comedy; none of them have to “tell” us. Confident films in so many ways, this inadvertent triptych of “we’re comedians, you get that” might be the most effortless snapshots of comedy psychoanalysis on this entire list.
Top Five is a prickly and often icky movie. Chris Rock‘s autobiographical-feeling comedy superstar character feels caught in the middle of two extremes — the earlier, “misanthropic guy can say whatever he wants” school of comedy (evidenced by his movie-opening, and overall constant belittling of Asian people and women as a source of knocked-off jokes) and the contemporary, “self-aware artist tries to expand his boundaries” school of progression (evidenced by his character’s recent film, a drama about Haitian rebel Dutty Boukman). The film metatextually feels caught in between modes as well; Rock proves himself to be an excellent visual director and editorial stylist here, but the work doesn’t know whether it wants to be a Woody Allen-esque “people sharing their neuroses explicitly and falling in and out of love” piece, a John Cassavettes-esque “people share long, improvised conversations in handheld takes in order to find a darkly hilarious truth without explicit plot momentum” piece, or a Farrelly Brothers-esque “Rosario Dawson sexually assaults her boyfriend because she suspects he’s gay” piece.
So, it tries to be all of ’em, with iffy results. Perhaps this is what Rock is saying it feels like to be a comedian of his stature, to be paralyzed between expectations and impulses, to wonder in a present tense how much experimentation one can get away with. But in the film’s most effective moments, things become simpler, even as they get a tad surreal (i.e. DMX singing “Smile” in a jail cell; perfect cinema). Rock finds a kind of quiet, key truth among the sound and fury of Top Five, one shared by many of the most effective films on this list: Genuine connection is key. I can’t wait until Rock the director finds the mode of communication most genuine to him.
To fans of 21st-century alt-comedy, Neil Hamburger is a known, beloved character. Played by Gregg Turkington, Hamburger is a lounge performer turned into a swiss army knife of pain and discomfort. His hair is obnoxiously slicked over, he holds multiple drinks under his arm, he clears his throat loudly into the microphone, he repeats setup words like “Why?” until they become a kind of predatory bird call, and when he finally does tell a joke, they’re somewhere on the three-pointed continuum of “horrifically offensive,” “inexplicably basic,” or “literally crafted to be unfunny.” Neil Hamburger is designed to be ironic, to be a deconstruction of why we like comedy and what certain comedians get out of performing, to fold in on itself. But Neil Hamburger is also, at least from my personal experience, designed to make people who are on his wavelength laugh. And over tons of live performances, albums, and film cameos like Tenacious D in The Pick of Destiny, Neil Hamburger has made tons of other people laugh while making them examine the apparatus of “comedy” surrounding it. Quite the feat!
So why, when we’re already dealing with a distanced, ironic character that comments on comedy, do we need to put him even further into distance and irony? This is the fatal flaw of Entertainment, a wholly unnecessary character study of “Neil Hamburger” from provocateur Rick Alverson. Alverson seems determined to take the point already made by Turkington/Hamburger and beat it beyond the point of submission, sucking out any latent or inherent joy (or even cogent statement) along the way. When the film gives Hamburger the space to do his routine, I cackle with glee at his purposeful audacity, his intentional disruption of expectations, the way I always have when I hear his routine. But Alverson fills the audience with blank-to-outright-hostile members, creating even further of a distance between comedy and “comedy,” flinging Neil Hamburger into the stratosphere of empathy when a film centered on him might want to get us closer.
The one statement I can think of that Entertainment makes is that “comedians are sad and angry,” a statement made by just about every other film on this list with much more potency. To pad out its running time, Alverson shoots and cuts everything wide and slow; Alverson and co-writers Turkington and Tim Heidecker fling a series of arbitrary “indie horror aping David Lynch” episodes at Hamburger; and any sense of othering and isolation, from an unseen estranged daughter to a particularly troubling usage of Latinx people and culture, is slathered atop the milieu until even the filmmaker himself seems to want to run away from it. Hamburger’s act is a watershed of meaningless labels like “alt-comedy” and “anti-comedy” and “performance art comedy,” a piece of comedy creation that hits you in the gut and makes you think after. Entertainment is nothing but meaningless label after meaningless label.
Don’t Think Twice
Thus far, every film on this list has covered standup comedy, an accessible, widespread, and immediately understandable form of comedy. Don’t Think Twice, bolstered by the aforementioned 2010s expansion of ideas, experimentation, and self-reflection in the comedy marketplace, zeroes into other forms of comedy not as well-understood or explored in pop culture: Improv and sketch. Mike Birbiglia directs and stars alongside an ensemble cast of performers experienced in the worlds of improv and sketch: Tami Sagher, Gillian Jacobs, Kate Micucci, Chris Gethard, and Keegan-Michael Key. These six actors play the long-running members of New York improv team The Commune, whose already-tempered-and-fraught relationships fracture even further when Key is pegged to join SNL surrogate sketch show “Weekend Live,” eclipsing the other members in terms of fame and status.
To get his audience to buy into the world of improv and sketch so they can understand the stakes behind them — or, to put it in improv and sketch terms, to establish the base reality quickly so he can play the game faster — Birbiglia simplifies and irons out some of the nuances and accuracies behind participating in the strange, often-insular feeling worlds of improv and sketch. But in doing so, I’d argue he broadens out both their appeals and their pitfalls, walking away with a particularly nuanced point of view about the complications of life as someone trying to find their own way, especially when that own way is inherently made up. The flips between “comedians doing bits to make their friends feel better” and “comedians finding any way to persevere in their own career at the expense of their ‘friends'” are raw, confessional moments of performance unlike any other film on this list, exacerbated by the nature of improv and sketch demanding you make your scene partner look good above all else (at least at its purest form, which Key’s success might come by explicitly contradicting). It’s an ensemble dramedy that spotlights an underseen corner of comedic expression while making it human enough for all to see themselves in.
And now, finally, Adam Driver plays Bo Burnham.
The Leos Carax/Sparks musical Annette has too much on its mind and says it in too many ways, including a Brechtian level of distancing achieved by self-aware lyrics lacking any subtext, and a goddamn creepy puppet kid. Among its many things to say, Driver plays an enfant terrible standup comic, whose posture, use of sudden theatricality in the middle of vulnerability, and overwhelmingly self-analyzing purview remind me more than a little of Mr. Burnham (his Inside might be the unplugged version of this loud-and-wild pop-art fantasia).
But is that actually what the comedian and his comedy are like, or is that just what Annette wants to say about the abstract symbols of “the comedian” and “his comedy”? Driver’s standup routines cascade into surreal flights of opera, where typically blunt lyrics about his opinions and thoughts about what he’s performing at that moment jut up against a chorus of audience members demand-singing he examine his status further as “a comedian” (The exact lyric is something like, “Tell us why you’re a comedian”). Questions are constantly raised but never answered; by design, I imagine. Like Entertainment, Annette wants this level of distance and irony and deconstruction about comedy, though it wants it with a loud, raucous sincerity that waffles between infectious and annoying, especially since any attempt at putting the deconstructed pieces back together to form a statement seems far away from the creative minds behind the film.
Is asking the question enough? Or does Driver’s journey — one that eventually involves jealousy, murder, exploitation, and once again, “cancel culture” — answer the question of “why are you a comedian” satisfactorily? Do people get into the business of making people laugh out of genuine human connection, or out of ego-driven obsession? Is every comic at heart a Pagliacci, a sad and angry sack who needs to put something somewhere at all times or they’ll implode?
These movies, all about comedy while rarely “trying to be a comedy,” do their best at offering a punchline to this setup. But the conversation, as does the state of comedy as a craft rather than springboard of filmic psychoanalysis, remains in flux. And if Annette is any indication, it’s only gonna get wilder from here.
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They also talk about the amazing VFX on King Shark.
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