Despite the omnipresence of comedians in film since shortly after that train made all those folks in Paris flip out, for many years there weren’t many depictions of life as a comedians. The ones that did exist were biopics or satires, and usually dealt with the experience of extreme fame as a comedian in some way. Recent years have opened things up to a wide range of movies featuring workaday comedians as characters, illuminating the experience of being a comedian from a more intimate angle. But both breeds have truth and value to them, so today we’re running through the best entries in a small but growing subgenre.
Jenny Slate’s character in Obvious Child—Gillian Robespierre’s winning comedy about a woman deciding to get an abortion after a one night stand—wasn’t even originally written to be a comedian. That seems insane once you watch the film, which captures the duality of Slate’s daytime/nighttime existence, the process of introducing your life to people via stand up, and unfortunately also having to deal with creeps like David Cross.
The first entry on any list like this for many years, Martin Scorsese’s black comedy about a deranged, wannabe comedian (Robert DeNiro) kidnapping a talk show host and demanding a performance slot is a cult oddity in his filmography that’s only grown in everyone’s estimation over the years. Despite being profoundly disengaged and disinterested in the reality of actually being a comedian, The King of Comedy is easily one of the greatest films ever about the obsessive pursuit and worship of fame in an era where one set on The Tonight Show could make your career, chillingly released a year after John Hinckley’s attempt on Reagan’s life.
Both of Mike Birbiglia’s features revel in the little joys and disappointments of being a comedian, the subtle personal slights and the constant jockeying for position. Sleepwalk With Me, a loose fictionalization of Birbiglia’s book and album of the same name, contains a million little moments of Birbiglia reveling in, say, flopping down in a hotel bed on his first out of town gig, even as his then-modest comedy career begins to isolate him from other people. Don’t Think Twice, one of two films I can think of that are really about improvisers, is a brutal look at how fragile the familial bonds of an improv team are when exposed to the corrupting influence of fame and status, and an honest portrayal of the reality that in that scene, you’re no one until you’re someone. Given that, despite cultural awareness of improv increasing drastically over the last few years, most depictions still boil down to Michael Scott pulling out that gun in class, Don’t Think Twice stands, essentially, alone.
Albert Brooks followed up a quartet of perfect movies with a duo of stinkers, before bouncing back into the director’s chair with a movie that brings back “Albert Brooks,” a vain, pretentious celebrity comedian who believes that he can bring a thorough understanding of the Middle East back to America if he can understand what makes its citizens laugh. It’s an incredibly self-absorbed endeavor, and no doubt some of the optics here don’t hold up, but Brooks’s specialty is in throwing himself under the bus, and it lifts up this great act of neurotic self-flagellation, reminding us that Brooks was and is one of our greatest commentators on the noxious elements of comic celebrity.
A little curio from across the pond that didn’t get any play here, Festival is an Altman-esque collage of stories from the iconic Edinburgh Fringe Festival, a pipeline for comic talent that’s perfectly utilized as a backdrop for insecure misadventures all around. The highlight of the film is Chris O’Dowd, the only actor from the cast who would go on to really pop in Hollywood, as a comic attempting to seduce a local radio host. Best of luck getting your hands on it, but it’s out there.
A breakthrough for the comedian it stars and the genre in general, The Big Sick nabbed an Oscar nomination for the real-life story of a comedian (Kumail Nanjiani) who falls for a woman who promptly goes into a coma (Zoe Kazan), and needs to bridge the gap between himself and her parents. Definitely part of the Obvious Child school of movies that dramatize the life-to-comedy pipeline (this time also being an example of it), Nanjiani’s use of stand-up within the movie to let the character speak openly about his feelings is perfectly pitched when it could feel extremely fake. That’s one of many things that separates The Big Sick from the crowd.
It’s gotten the reputation as the beginning of Judd Apatow’s overlong, navel gaze-y period, but Funny People is really him trying to step into the shoes of his hero James L. Brooks, making the kind of dramatic comedies that simply don’t get made anymore. Following a younger comic (Seth Rogen in a UCB shirt) assisting an Adam Sandler-esque movie star (…Adam Sandler) who is dying of cancer, Funny People is a meditative hang-out comedy that nails the clash between generations of comedians and the seeming futility of comedy in the face of death. It’s worth a second look.
Another cancer movie, and perhaps the most well-observed one ever made, Other People is a gut-wrenchingly painful account of a mother’s illness from writer-director Chris Kelly. The fact that Jesse Plemons, playing a version of Kelly, is a comedian is weaved into the movie with a very, very light touch. He seems to be on a house or weekend team at UCB, and has plenty of awkward interactions with family members asking why he doesn’t write for SNL. But the movie often puts that in the background, especially once Plemons leaves New York to take care of his mom, bringing it back as a biting reminder of his insecurity about the life he’s built for himself. But the scene of his mother (a career-best Molly Shannon) finally attending one of her son’s improv shows will wreck any young comedian who knows the feeling of just wanting to reassure their parents that they’re really good at something.
A rarity in that it’s a movie about a comedian that’s a biopic but doesn’t star the comedian themselves, Bob Fosse’s follow-up to Cabaret stars Dustin Hoffman as Lenny Bruce, leaning way into the whole firebrand thing. The movie definitely suffers from a Walk Hard messiah complex when it comes to Bruce himself, but because this is Bob Fosse, the man who made All That Jazz, and simply loves that kind of thing, it works, even if it holds up differently than intended. I want to resent the film for contributing so, so much to the idea of the tortured comedian who is held back by the world, an idea that every other film on this list has had to respond to in one way or another, but I can’t. Not when the film is this audacious and deliciously full of itself.
Real Life, Funny Bones, Punchline, Rubberface, Jo Jo Dancer Your Life Is Calling, This Is My Life, Entertainment, and Mr. Roosevelt
Graham Techler is a New York-based writer and comedian. You’d be doing him a real solid by following him on Twitter @grahamtechler or on Instagram @obvious_new_yorker. A real solid.