Anyone with even a passing knowledge of the comedy business will tell you, usually in jaded terms, about the “comedy boom” of the 1980s. It was an explosion of stand-up, in which seemingly every abandoned strip-mall space in the country was filled by a Chuckle’s or HaHa Hole, and every spare hour of television saw a stand-up spotlight or a wacky sitcom built around the persona of a gimmick comic. It was a bubble, and it eventually burst; so much talent was required to fill the spots that people without much talent ended up doing it, and the general public grew tired of mediocre comedy. And much of the great comedy that followed in the 1990s – people like David Cross, Louis C.K., Patton Oswalt, and Janeane Garafalo – was a direct response to the hackwork and tired premises of that era, but there are documentaries you can watch about that.
Plenty of documentaries, in fact, which brings me to the current version of the comedy boom – one that’s manifested itself not in more stand-up comedy venues, but rather in more #content about stand-up comics. We’ve got online and television interview shows about comedy (WTF with Marc Maron, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, Inside Comedy), documentary movies about comedy (Misery Loves Comedy, Can We Take a Joke, the forthcoming The Last Laugh and Dying Laughing), documentary series about comedy (Make ‘Em Laugh, the forthcoming History of Comedy), TV shows where stand-up comics play fictionalized versions of themselves (Louie, Maron, Dice) and films in the same vein (Funny People, Top Five, Sleepwalk With Me, Road Hard, the forthcoming The Big Sick). This is, to put it mildly, not uncovered ground.
And now we have The Comedian, which amounts to the Prestige Picture version, with Oscar nominee Taylor Hackford (Ray) directing multiple Oscar winner Robert DeNiro (you know) as an aging, washed-up comic. His character, Jackie Burke, played the Archie Bunker/Ralph Kramden-esque lead on an old sitcom called Eddie’s Home; now he’s playing “TV sitcom nostalgia night” gigs (“More like Night of the Living Dead,” he snorts, at a line-up that also includes Jimmie Walker and Brett Butler) in Hicksville. That night, he gets in a physical altercation with a heckler that gets caught on video; he ends up doing a month in jail and sentenced to community service.
There he encounters Leslie Mann, who’s the best thing in the movie – funny, charming, sexy, the works. Playing a woman escaping a bad relationship (and working off a community service sentence for assaulting her ex and the woman she caught him with), she manages to make a shoddily written character seem complicated and tortured. And there are other elements that work as well: Terrence Blanchard’s moody, bluesy score; the lived-in sibling relationship between De Niro and Danny DeVito; the tension between Jackie and Mann’s father, played by Harvey Keitel (and the tension between the two actors, longtime co-stars who seem to really sniff and circle each other here).
There are even a few good lines scattered through the script (and there should be; it’s credited to no less than four different scribes). But it’s also a tremendously predictable movie, both in terms of the overall fall-and-comeback narrative and the events of individual scenes; it’s a film full of moments where you think to yourself that’s not going to go well, and it doesn’t. Hackford’s never been much good at pacing, and the film sort of sloshes from one scene to the next, which calls greater attention to its considerable flab – it’s full of full scenes and subplots that could disappear without any real damage.
But that’s not The Comedian’s biggest problem. The problem, at risk of putting too fine a point on it, is that Jackie Burke isn’t funny – not when he’s supposed to be bombing, not when he’s supposed to be killing. And Robert De Niro, while a brilliant actor, is not a good comedian; Burke barely seems more credible as a comic celebrity than Rupert Pupkin. It’s a glaring issue, because the movie manages to get so many details of the stand-up world right (the plague of bachelorette parties at shows; the various lower rungs of gigs; the Comedy Cellar’s current stats as mecca of NYC comedy). That shouldn’t come as a surprise; Jeff Ross is one of the writers, Jim Norton and Jessica Kirson are credited as consultants, and they are among the many real comics who turn up in the film as themselves.
Yet those cameos ultimately kill the movie’s verisimilitude: when someone like Norton or Kirson or Hannibal Buress turns up on that stage, the difference between their ability and De Niro’s is jarring, and the credibility goes out the window. You can’t fake being a great stand-up; it’s not like playing a musician, where you can mime the chords and cover it with edits. This is a skill you have to acquire in years, not weeks. (De Niro shouldn’t feel bad; the same thing happened to Sally Field and Tom Hanks in Punchline.) It is, in the end, the most ironic thing about the current boom in the real-business-of-comedy-industry: all the shows and movies that probably made The Comedian seem marketable are what ultimately end up rendering it so inauthentic.
“The Comedian” is out Friday in limited release.