6 Reasons Hollywood Can’t Get Stand-Up Comedy Right
Recently, we here at Cracked discussed some of the worst fake stand-up performances in movies, and the article posed a question that I felt required further explanation: why is onscreen stand-up comedy so aggressively mediocre?
On the surface it seems like it should be simple, right? It shouldn't be that hard to make a funny person appear to be funny in front of an audience, even when it's a professional comedian playing the part. But after examining over thirty examples of movies and TV shows that depict how stand-up comics do their jobs, Hollywood always finds a way to screw it up. Turns out, there are a lot of elements at play that explain the phenomenon.
Narrowing The Field
Before we begin, we're gonna have to give certain examples here a little leeway. Like when a real comedian is playing a version of themselves: Seinfeld, Louie, Pete Holmes in Crashing, Richard Pryor in Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling. It's kinda hard to criticize their technique when their act was the reason the project got greenlit in the first place.
We also have to put a pin in some instances where being bad at stand-up is the whole point. We're talking Sweet Dee gagging her way through an open mic set on It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia, Dave Chappelle in The Nutty Professor, Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World, Eddie Jemison at the beginning of Ocean's Twelve, Aziz Ansari (and others to an extent) in Funny People, Jim Carrey for most of Man on the Moon, etc. Those were supposed to be cringe.
Instead, we're gonna look at the performances where they are legitimately trying to make a stand-up career work out for them. Whether they are successful or not in the story, let's explore why they aren't able to believably pull it off.
It's Not The Actors' Fault
The first criterion we have to consider is, how good are these actors at performing stand-up? Setting aside the plot of the movie or the jokes they're telling, and focusing solely on only the parts where they're on stage doing their jobs (their delivery, stage presence, mannerisms), do they play a convincing comedian? For the most part, yes.
Are they funny? Not really, but we'll get to the other reasons for that. But, they all seem to be playing their role remarkably close to what you could expect from a comic of that level of talent, at that stage in their career, and in that particular time period. Robert De Niro in The Comedian is a legendary insult comic who's sick of everyone thinking of him as an insult comic, so yeah, when he performs in that movie it seems a little stiff because his character is sick of doing that shit. In Punchline, Tom Hanks' stand-up act is pretty spot on for a typical white guy comic from the '80s, but it's hard to watch today because A) a lot has changed in our society in the past 33 years and B) It's Tom Freaking Hanks. The guy is so famous now every role he's ever had only makes you think of everything else he's done.
Hollywood is actually really good at making actors look like real stand-up comedians on stage, and the actors are doing the best they can with what they've been given to work with. The problem is what they've been given to work with is always some variation of the sad clown cliche. If a character's job is to make people laugh on stage, then the story always gives them a disproportionate reason to be completely miserable off stage. Sure, an internal struggle always makes for good drama, but not every comedian is their own worst enemy.
But Hollywood keeps using this tired trope because it works every time ... when the character is a musician. You can center a film around a sad, tortured singer/songwriter because that backstory will make whatever love song they write that much more powerful. But if you make that same movie about a depressed comedian, it's gonna make their jokes the opposite of funny.
There Are Two Audiences
Why can't they make a fictional stand-up performance feel the same as when we watch a real comic perform? They've had real comedians perform their acts on TV since the 1930s, they've been making hour-long TV comedy specials since the '70s. They've long since cracked the code on how to bring stand-up comedy into our living rooms. So, why can't they replicate that same energy in a fictional setting?
The answer is context. Stand-up comedy is its own self-contained storytelling medium. The jokes a comic does on stage are micro-plays with their own three-act structure (premise, setup, punch line), and they're written to be as short and sweet as possible. Any superfluous details are cut out. Any additional context behind the joke can ruin the whole experience.
When you watch a comedy special on TV, they're making the camera an additional member of the audience. You're experiencing the show as close to how every person who bought a ticket to that show does, but you're also only taking in the same amount of information as they do. When a fake stand-up comic is performing in a movie, you're not a part of that audience because you're backstage. You've been following that comic around all day. You've been in their head this whole time.
Here's an example of how added context can kill a joke. Watch this clip of Ellen DeGeneres making her first appearance on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in 1986:
This was the bit that first put Ellen on the map. This joke is what got her booked on The Tonight Show in the first place. 35 years later, it still holds up. It's got a solid premise, clever lines, and the timing is perfect. It's also the most Ellen joke that Ellen ever Ellen'ed.
Now buckle up for the backstory behind that joke. Ellen was inspired to write that joke because her live-in girlfriend died in a car accident in 1980. After having to move out of the apartment they both shared and into a flea-infested basement, Ellen came up with this joke after wondering what it would be like to ask God why her girlfriend was gone, but fleas were still allowed to exist.
Now, go back and watch that clip again. That backstory really kicks that joke right in the nuts, doesn't it?
Film Is Forever, And Jokes Have A Limited Shelf Life
There are so many problems with 2009's Funny People. There's the fact that nearly every character in this film shows how awful they truly are to the point that you have no one to root for by the end. Or the fact that it was co-written by Adam Sandler who stars as an actor who laments making nothing but the kinds of low-brow, critically panned movies Sandler continues to make to this day. But perhaps the most difficult part of the movie to watch is this:
Not only was this the most ham-fisted attempt at product placement since Mac and Me, it was a cringeworthy dated reference even when the film premiered. The movie was filmed in the summer of 2008, right as Facebook had surpassed Myspace in number of users. It was already a dying brand that needed the world to think it was still relevant, even if it meant being roasted by Adam Sandler.
But by the time the film was released in July 2009, Myspace had lost even more of its market share to Facebook. News Corp thought Myspace was becoming too toxic of an asset and sold it off before they lost any more money on it, and this was the same News Corp that paid out $13 million in sexual harassment settlements for Bill O'Reilly alone. Plus, Myspace president Tom Anderson, who cameoed as the guy who introduced Adam Sandler in this clip, had been forced out of the company three months before the film was released.
So, when you're watching a film about a stand-up comic set in the modern day, this is why the material they perform is so boring and generic. The jokes are often lame on purpose because leaving in any topical material makes as much sense as putting a ham sandwich in a time capsule.
This is one of those things that actually helps a show like The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. That show has the benefit of being set in 1958 because they could throw in anything from the Eisenhower years and nobody can complain about the jokes not being relevant today. With a few minor tweaks to the plot, the show could've been set in the modern day, but one Tinder date joke could be the kiss of death if a more popular dating app ever comes along.
Fake Laughter Will Always Sound Fake
Let's try a little experiment. Step one: record yourself faking a sneeze. Step two: next time your allergies are acting up, try to record yourself sneezing for real. Please do all of this when you're at home alone, by the way. The pandemic isn't over yet, and this isn't a sick prank to try in public right now. Step three: compare the two clips. I'm willing to bet they'll sound nothing alike. Why? Because a real sneeze is an involuntary reflex, and your brain is momentarily shutting down a number of functions, including worrying about how silly you might look.
It's the same way with laughter. You can try to stifle it all you want but more often than not, trying to suppress it only makes it happen even harder. Also, when you fake laughing at something, it never sounds as sincere as you think it does, especially if everyone in the room is doing the exact same thing.
That's another reason fake stand-up scenes feel so inauthentic. The audience response is written right into the script, and if the extras on set can't bring it, the sound engineer can. But none of them ever get the timing right. In a real, in-person, live comedy show, each member of the audience is working on their own wavelength. Some get ahead of the punch line and start laughing early, some take a second or two to get it, and some never laugh at all. But fake laughter in movie scenes, everyone sounds like they have a hive mind, laughing at exactly the same thing at precisely the same time, and the result is only marginally better than canned laughter on a sitcom.
The same tricks are also applied to many of your favorite stand-up comedy specials as well, but it's done a little more honestly. Most comedy specials are filmed with the comic performing the same set and wearing the same outfit on multiple shows in the same venue. The comic may have a better delivery on a joke on one show, but the audience laughed harder at the same joke on a different show, so the better laughter is layered in with the take with the better delivery. They then cut to audience reaction shots to hide the splices in the performance. A bit of a cheat, sure, but at least the laughs are for the same joke.
"Killing" Isn't Meant To Be Taken Literally
Director Todd Phillips has stated that he made
Don't get me wrong, I really liked Joker ... until I read that quote by the director. It's a genius film, but that's such a bullshit excuse for its existence. "Go try to be funny nowadays with this woke culture," he said, "... So I go, ‘How do I do something irreverent, but f--k comedy? Oh I know, let's take the comic book movie universe and turn it on its head with this.'" That's certainly one way of looking at it. Another perspective is that the people who liked Old School in 2003 grew the hell up and you didn't.
An unfortunate side effect of Joker's success is that after it came out a lot of people started signing up for open mics because they left that film thinking that stand-up comedy is a suitable substitute for therapy. I know that may not be what the filmmakers had intended, but sometimes these things take on a life of their own and there's nothing the creators can say to change people's minds about it. After the past four years of political discourse, I'm sure the Wachowskis would love to get a mulligan on the red pill/blue pill scene from The Matrix.
As the old saying goes: You don't have to be crazy to work here, but it helps. Every stand-up comic has something going on with their brain that is different -- not broken, just different. That skewed perspective on the world affords comedians the ability to point out its greatest absurdities. And being able to filter your thoughts and experiences into something that can be laughed at can be a powerful coping mechanism, but it cannot be your only coping mechanism. That is unfair to you and your audience. Stand-up comedy is therapy in the same way that a bowl of Cap'n Crunch is part of a balanced breakfast; there's other stuff that has to be included for it to be considered remotely healthy.
Joker was just part of the darker side of that sad clown trope, along with Standing Up, Falling Down, Entertainment, The King of Comedy, etc. where having a comedy career not work out exactly as they had hoped leads to an existential crisis at best or a mental breakdown at worst. The truth about stand-up comics is it's a tough business to be in. No comedian is where they want to be, and very few are where they deserve to be. The world has lost a lot of brilliant comics to that despair. Many have suffered through drug and alcohol addiction because when you self-medicate, you never get the dosage right.
There just needs to be better examples of comedians dealing with mental illness, trauma, or addiction that spotlights the recovery instead of glorifying the chaos. Give us a third season of Lady Dynamite, Netflix! Make a film version of Gary Gulman's The Great Depresh. Too "woke" for you? Give us biopics of Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Bill Hicks, or Barry Criimins. A lot of stuff that went on backstage there ought to surprise you.