Comedian Doug Stanhope Breaks Down Stand-Up in Movies

Fact: Every comedian hates the movie 'Punchline.'
Comedian Doug Stanhope Breaks Down Stand-Up in Movies

It’s a question you could imagine a hacky comic asking in front of a faux-brick wall at some forlorn comedy club: “Did you ever wonder why comedians in movies are always doing stand-up in New York or Los Angeles?” 

Real-life comic Doug Stanhope wonders why. Movies about stand-up comedy “just ignore the nuts and bolts of the road,” says a man who spent many years touring the “sh**holes of middle America” with their less-than-ideal accommodations. There’s a scene in the 1988 movie Punchline that depicts fledgling New York comedians hanging out in the club’s green room, each with their own locker like they’re attending George Carlin Junior High. Um, no. That’s not a thing. 

Columbia Pictures

A comic could live in a locker like that. And probably would try. 

Stanhope, soon to be hitting the road once again on a tour that somehow includes dates in both Las Vegas and Australia, recently sat down with Cracked to discuss the depiction of stand-up comedy in the cinema. Sometimes the movies get it right. More often, like in Punchline, they get it … less right. “I know how hard it is to write good comedy, having done this for 32 years,” he says. “So it’s very difficult to just whip up an act that's gonna murder in real life.” The degree of difficulty for onscreen stand-up is high. Which movies pull it off? Here’s Stanhope’s take on the stand-up comics of the movies.

Steven Gold (Tom Hanks) and Lilah Krytsick (Sally Field), Punchline

“Every comic who’s ever worked in the business hates Punchline,” claims Stanhope, and if you’ve ever seen it, it’s pretty clear why. 

First of all, there are the actual comedy routines, with pedestrian bits that haven’t exactly aged well, like Hanks’ foreign cab driver accent. (To be fair, it’s probably representative of what one might have heard from a wannabe comic in 1988.) But worse, Doug says, is the unrealistic mentor/student relationship between Hanks and Field, with “the teaching like ‘the rain in Spain,’ whatever that f***ing movie is.” 

Hanks tutors Sally Field’s character, a toothless Roseanne or stand-up version of housewife-chuckler Erma Bombeck, but the resulting laughs simply aren’t believable. 

George Simmons (Adam Sandler) in Funny People

An example of a movie that gets stand-up comedy right? “I thought Funny People was fairly accurate,” says Stanhope. “I love the breakdown scene where (Sandler) goes on stage, he's miserable, and he says you people have to pay to laugh. I’ve been that guy. I’ve done that rant on stage.” 

It helps that Sandler is an actual stand-up comedian vs. Hanks, a funny guy and a great actor but not someone who’s had to spend years honing his craft. Having a writer/director with stand-up chops in Judd Apatow likely doesn’t hurt either. 

Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro) in The King of Comedy

The King of Comedy is a great one,” says Stanhope.

As for DeNiro? “Getting it right” in this case might not be the goal. Stanhope thinks the movie is fantastic, but Pupkin's amateur performance "is not supposed to be an accurate representation” of what stand-up comedy is really about.

Jack Burke (Robert De Niro) in The Comedian

The Comedian director Taylor Hackford actually reached out to Stanhope for help punching up jokes for De Niro’s insult comedian character. “They sent me the script and I go ‘this is not really my sense of humor,’” he remembers. “Jeff Ross should be the guy that does this because he's an insult comic. And they go ‘yeah, Jeff Ross is the guy that we are replacing.’” 

Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) in Joker

You’re looking for an accurate representation of stand-up comedy? Joker might seem like a weird place to find it, but to Stanhope, the movie and Arthur Fleck have it right. “Just getting up and doing spots and dying like that? Yeah, you can see that any night in LA or New York,” he says. 

Lenny Bruce (Dustin Hoffman) in Lenny

Lenny is one movie about comics that Stanhope is ready to watch again. Hoffman is “absolutely believable. He sold it well.” But Doug finds the actual Lenny Bruce difficult to listen to -- the lingo, the jazz feel, the jokes that are no longer obvious. “I know (the real Bruce) was groundbreaking but I just don’t get it.” 

Buddy Young Jr. (Billy Crystal) in Mr. Saturday Night


Mr. Saturday Night, I really liked at the time,” says Stanhope. “I’ve gone back and rewatched it and … maybe it doesn’t hold up as well.”

One thing Doug did like? Crystal’s character in the movie was on his way down at the same time that a young Stanhope was on his way up “and I was playing the same sh***y gigs he ends up playing. I did relate to standing in the rain in front of a Chinese restaurant where you have to do comedy.” On the minus side, there’s the problem of Crystal’s old-age make-up, which Stanhope correctly points out “looks a little Princess Bride-y.”

Andy Kaufman (Jim Carrey) in Man on the Moon

Stanhope has watched Man on the Moon a lot. Is it because Carrey was so brilliant? “It’s because my mother was an extra in it.”

Stanhope says he never really liked Jim Carrey, “especially around that time. I’ve never been a big fan of mugging and slapstick.” But Carrey did win over Stanhope with his portrayal of Kaufman. “He did a fantastic job,” he says. “He destroyed in that movie.” 

Marty Malt (Judd Nelson) in The Dark Backward

1992’s The Dark Backward is “the one that nobody knows,” says Stanhope, “and I’m always surprised that even stand-up comics mostly don’t know it.” 

“It’s not supposed to represent comedy that accurately, but Judd Nelson plays a horrifically bad stand-up comic and his buddy Bill Paxton is the only guy that laughs at his jokes.” Nelson’s character eventually grows a third arm out of his back and uses it as his gimmick. Due to the dearth of movies about stand-up comedy, Stanhope doesn’t understand why more comics don’t know “this very Repo Man-esque” oddity.

The comics in I’m Dying Up Here

Not a movie, but Stanhope was impressed with the faux-comics in Showtime’s series based on William Knoedelseder’s I’m Dying Up Here: High Times and Heartbreak in Stand-Up Comedy’s Golden Era. The series replaces the book’s real stand-ups with fictional stand-in comedians (save for quick cameos by Johnny Carson and Richard Pryor), and for the most part, I’m Dying Up Here gets it right, says Stanhope. “I didn’t know any of the comedians in that, and it was fun to guess which ones were real stand-ups and which ones were actors playing stand-ups. I didn’t know Andrew Santino at the time, but he does a pretty good job of acting like a comedian.” 

Doug Stanhope in The Road Dog

Stanhope, who appeared as a stand-up comic (himself) in the documentary The Aristocrats, will get to try his stand-up acting chops in The Road Dog, a comedy just starting to hit the festival circuit. It’s about a dying alcoholic comic playing a series of sh**hole one-nighters in the middle of the country. Based on his personal experiences, we’re guessing Doug will get it right.

Top image: Comedy Central

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