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14 February 2017

Lights, camera, be funny NOW!

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Robert De Niro as "The Comedian" (Courtesy: imdb.com)

Robert De Niro, Tom Hanks, Dustin Hoffman or Julie Kavner haven't called lately.

But if they did, or do (Come on, what would it hurt?), I would ask them all the same question:  "What the heck were you thinking when you signed on the dotted line to play a stand-up comedian in a movie?

Why couldn't they pull it off?

Here's the short answer:

They aren't comedians.  They're actors.

Shall I expand a little?

Even great actors like De Niro, currently on screen as the title character in The Comedian, can't pull it off.  They just don't have that comic spark that's instantly noticeable in gifted comedians like George Carlin, Steve Martin, Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, Melissa McCarthy, Ron White and others.

Think about it, actors can be funny on screen if they have the proper set-up, a talented co-star, some music cues to guide the audience mood and good lines.

Here's what a stand-up comedian has:  A microphone, a spotlight, occasionally a stool and a soul to bear to a roomful of people often armed with loud heckles of disapproval at the slightest drop in A-list material.  Or something much worse:  silence. 

Ah, but the truly funny comedians have that something else, the X-factor of funny.

That funny something is what's missing when even great actors attempt to play a stand-up comic on screen.

De Niro has a slight advantage in The Comedian because his character, a caustic, profanity-spewing near has-been old school comic named Jackie Burke, is not someone known to the movie audience.  He has a few scattered funny moments, but not enough.  Great actors like De Niro possess the gift to get under the skin of their characters, but for some reason they can't quite locate the all-too-elusive funny bone.

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Tom Hanks in "Punchline" (Courtesy: google.com)

Tom Hanks took to the lonely stand-up comedy stage in the romantic comic-drama Punchline in 1988.  Hanks, a gifted comic actor, hopped behind the mic and faced the bright, piercing spotlight which, as it turns out, has an uncanny knack for detecting and/or causing flop sweat. 

The talented supporting cast included John Goodman and Sally Field, as a housewife dying to be a success at stand-up.  Punchline, unfortunately, didn't sport many lines that lived up to the title.

As much as I admire Hanks, he came across as a very good actor and comic talent who lacked the elusive comic spark.

Julie Kavner nailed what it must be like when a mom craving to be on the stand-up stage gets there and then must choose between family and her career in This Is My Life.

For those who care about such things, This Is My Life was the first movie directed by the late Nora Ephron (Sleepless in Seattle) in 1992.  Unfortunately, the stand-up moments didn't exactly kill.

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(Courtesy: amazon.com)

Dustin Hoffman probably came the closest to pulling it off in Lenny (1974).  As Lenny Bruce, Hoffman was about 95 percent convincing as the take-it-past-the-limit comedian who spouted social commentary that cut through thick nightclub smoke on target.

Still, something was lacking, despite exquisite raw direction by the late Bob Fosse, who knew how to put on a show; any show.

It all comes down to this.  You just can't fake funny.

Beats me why they keep trying.

 

 

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