8 Great Movies About Stand-Up Comedy

Stand Up Comedy Movies 8 Great Movies About Stand Up Comedy

For some reason, there was a period in comedy history where the pinnacle of a stand-up comedian’s career was getting his or her own sitcom. You had your Seinfelds and your Roseannes and your Raymonds and everybody loved them. The medium, at the time, seemed like the most appropriate translation of a comedy act into a television show, allowing for the observational humor of many of these performers to be played out in situational scenes before a live studio audience.

The stand-up sitcom is not so much in vogue anymore. Part of this is due to the waning aesthetic quality of in-studio or canned audience laughter of the multi-cam sitcom, with many of the more popular comedies opting for the single-camera, non-laugh track style. Part of it could also be that Louis CK has ended the competition with his superb and groundbreaking series, Louie, which translates stand-up into visual storytelling in a completely new way. There’s also the preference by comedians, including Jerry Seinfeld, to select a medium where they can retain more creative control than they would have on a network sitcom, such as a web series.

Comedy is just thought of differently today than 20 years ago, which is probably true for every successive generation. Most notably, it’s thought of rather extensively thanks to the ubiquity of comedy podcasts and the subculture of comedy nerddom that has found a niche online. Just about everything I know about stand-up culture I learned from Marc Maron’s podcast. Movies, fictional and non-fictional, have offered some fascinating and fresh perspectives on the world of comedy recently, although there are some offerings of years past that remain relevant today.

Here are 8 terrific movies to watch on the topic of stand-up comedy: 4 works of (quasi)fiction and 4 documentaries.

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1) Funny People

Funny People 8 Great Movies About Stand Up Comedy

Judd Apatow’s humor has progressed rather fascinatingly over time. He has preserved a unique brand of so-called immature comedy while becoming one of the most mature popular comedy filmmakers of this generation. It’s been so startling, in fact, jarring even, that movies like Funny People and This is 40 are difficult to fully appreciate on initial viewings.

There’s an impressively distinct tone he’s established in these last two films in particular that deserves greater appreciation. They’re not the types of movies that will have you laughing throughout, although there are genuinely laugh-out-loud moments. The comedy comes more in the absurdity of the situations and the dispositions of the characters, as well as the narrative perspective, that treats these situations with a conscious levity as a way of addressing heavy material without feeling too serious, which is one of the advantages of a comedic approach.

So it almost seems like the only way to treat the subject of stand-up culture is to do so with relative seriousness. After all, it’s a diverse and varied world, but one surprising aspect of it seems to be that it’s populated by performers who are intensely serious about the craft, even though they express this in ways that are, on the surface, goofy. Funny People works tremendously well at showing the depth of sensitivity in many personalities drawn to stand-up. The ironic line bitterly spoken by Adam Sandler, that “comedy is usually for funny people,” seems to sum up the movie’s premise somehow. It might be the best demonstration of how to talk about comedy without talking about it, because talking about it robs it of its magic.

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2) The Comedians of Comedy

Comedians of Comedy 8 Great Movies About Stand Up Comedy

There is little that can make a fan more greatly appreciate the craftsmanship that goes into a stand-up comedy set than seeing comedians casually hang out with each other. Witnessing the banterous back-and-forth (albeit at least somewhat influenced by having documentary cameras pointed at them, but nevertheless) of people who are professionally funny reveals a couple of things.

The first is that the general disposition of probably most comedians, certainly the ones featured in The Comedians of Comedy, is to treat most of what they encounter with a smile, a sarcastic observation, and a burning desire to share those and whatever random thoughts and impressions with the people around them. Off stage, this usually comes out in juvenile and unpolished ways, which I mean in the best possible way.

Then, the second revelation is just how much work is done to turn this disposition into a performance that a crowd of people will enjoy. Sometimes it’s the extensive writing process Brian Posehn describes, or the off-the-cuff improvisational moments Patton Oswalt conjures up, or the spontaneous musical ensemble Zach Galifianakis brings together in a day. The relationship between natural comedic talent and hard, time-consuming work is alluded to in this verité-ish documentary, but not spoon-fed to us. It’s nice.

Then there are wonderful anomalies like Maria Bamford, who sit back and listens to her colleagues and friends and laughs with them, but when it comes to creating, she seems to wander off by herself and sing into a voice recorder. Her brand is completely unique, and equally appreciated in the movie.

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3) Comedian

Comedian 8 Great Movies About Stand Up Comedy

It’s probably the first documentary I ever saw on a stand-up comedian, and for its time one of the most in-depth looks at the act-building process for a performer at the top of his game. The timing of it remains interesting to me. Comedian was released in 2002, which came four years after the conclusion of Jerry Seinfeld’s sitcom run and a year before Bowling for Columbine would bring documentaries greater attention and wider theatrical releases. So not a lot of people saw it.

The subject matter was relatively unexplored territory though, and would probably do better today if not for everyone seeming to explore the world of comedy clubs and the seriousness of stand-ups these days. We’re treated to seeing the biggest comedy act in the world do something unheard of at the time: tossing out his joke-ography, retiring his old act, and starting from scratch again.

This is almost expected of comedians now, with the most famous example of Louis CK crafting an hour-long set every year and scrapping it all after recording a special for HBO or whomever. Seinfeld is more old school, so seeing him try out new material, especially when it was too fresh and bombed in front of club audiences, was a bit of a jolt. Juxtaposed with his story is an up-and-comer in Orny Adams, and their trials and struggles run parallel in ways that offer a glimpse at what it takes to rise in the comedic ranks.

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4) The King of Comedy

King of Comedy 8 Great Movies About Stand Up Comedy

Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese as a pairing are one of cinema’s all-time greatest dream teams, but one collaboration that is perpetually underrated is their 1983 movie, The King of Comedy. Of all the movies on this list, this one is probably the most anti-comedic. Simply put, it’s like if Travis Bickle was an aspiring entertainer instead of a cab driver.

The film is best understood as a satire on the quest for fame, but the avenue chosen for fame in this instance is stand-up comedy. De Niro plays Rupert Pupkin, a polite lunatic who imagines the most elaborate fantasies in which he and his hero, Jerry Langford, are not only colleagues in the entertainment business but BFFs. This is a story told subjectively, like Taxi Driver, so the perspective we’re shown is distinctly Pupkin’s (it wasn’t until I saw this movie that Taxi Driver actually clicked for me). That means that we’re privy to a special kind of madness that De Niro makes look almost normal, and by the standards of contemporary celebrity fandom, isn’t all that strange.

It ends up showcasing the potentially horrific effects of well-intentioned delusion. It was cringe comedy before there was cringe comedy. As an added bonus, it might also be the best performance of De Niro’s storied career.

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5) The Aristocrats

The Aristocrats 8 Great Movies About Stand Up Comedy

Music and comedy have a lot in common. Both are heavily dependent on rhythm, possess an intuitive quality that everyone is on some level skilled in, and revel in the element of performance and surprise. The Aristocrats is essentially based on one joke, much like a popular song, of which virtually every professional comedian can perform a cover version. There are plenty of references by the comedians interviewed in this documentary to jazz musicians, and the comparisons are apt.

The individuality of the comedian is never more apparent than in the repeated telling of this one joke, titled “The Aristocrats,” which has a singular theme, namely the first line of the setup and then the final punchline, but then is told in infinite variations. This documentary is really the joke’s big coming out party in the public sphere, having existed previously almost exclusively in the realm of comedian inner circles, described as a kind of “secret handshake” and dating back to the days of Vaudeville. An interesting question would be what the differences in shocking subject material might be between now and the late 19th century, but the film, understandably, is more concerned with the variation between comedians’ styles and content that gives every performer a unique take on the famous joke.

Any movie that is designed to shock and offend most people tends to come with a caveat of don’t watch this if you are ever offended by anything. Don’t watch if you have ever described something as “filthy” in a pejorative way. Because chances are, if there’s something that offends you, someone featured in The Aristocrats will rub your nose in it. That, in a nutshell, is why I adore it so much: it’s the highest quality filth you’ll ever see.

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6) Lenny

Lenny 8 Great Movies About Stand Up Comedy

Oftentimes the most celebrated comedy of any era is appreciated on the basis of a countercultural attitude that takes full advantage of the medium’s unique ability to speak truth to power. This is true of the three most celebrated stand-up comedy acts in modern history (as per Comedy Central but also just common knowledge I’d say): Richard Pryor, George Carlin, and Lenny Bruce.

The life of Lenny Bruce served as Exhibit A for anyone fascinated by the comedic stereotype of the sad clown. His stand-up act in the 1950s seemed like a kind of therapy that wasn’t working all that well for him towards the end of his life. The movie, in which he’s played by Dustin Hoffman, captures some of the most famous and dramatic episodes that he’s known for: having self-destructive breakdowns on stage, constant battles with censoring bodies, flouting his disdain for laws pertaining to both obscenity and drugs.

Some of these performances where he’s just laying out all of his frustrations and personal feelings for a confused and sometimes hostile audience have become legendary. No doubt Bruce is one of the figures that informed Adam Sandler’s character in Funny People, showing an increasing contempt for crowds at his shows. Lenny is a fascinating portrayal of a certain kind of artistic genius: our protagonist relies on his ego to reach incredible heights but is also buttressed on a self-hatred that leads to rock bottom.

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7) Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop

Conan OBrien Cant Stop 8 Great Movies About Stand Up Comedy

Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop examines the anatomy of a goofball. It documents the tour Conan and his people embarked upon following his departure from a brief tenure hosting The Tonight Show, and in so doing presents an intimate look at an individual who is normally fairly private. Stories float around constantly about what Conan is like behind the scenes on his talk shows—that he’s a bit of a bully to his staff, that he’s extremely hard on himself and ambitious—but allowing this side of his character to be seen publicly marked something of a turning point for the late night host.

Anyone who was watching those Tonight Show episodes where Conan’s departure had become imminent must surely agree that when addressing his frustrations with NBC and how the entire debacle had transpired, he was never more funny. Continuing these motifs of sad clowns and serious comedians, we see in the documentary the toll this ordeal took on Conan: off-stage he acts incredibly sarcastic and almost depressingly negative, but on-stage he finds a way to channel it into a weird kind of optimistic punk rock attitude, becoming empowered by the reminder that he still has an audience who adores him and fans that will follow him across the country. It may not be that surprising a documentary, but as a chronicle of one of the most memorable cross-country comedy tours it’s full of energy and joy.

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8) Sleepwalk With Me

Sleepwalk With Me 8 Great Movies About Stand Up Comedy

I think the reason the realm of stand-up comedy intrigues me so is because it’s fundamentally about a deeply individual quest to become good at something. There can be collaborative aspects to it but most often it’s one person on a stage with a singular purpose: to cause a group of people to laugh. There are times when that profoundly individual world results in closing oneself off to the world outside, alienating the people in a comedian’s life. Or at least, again, this is what Marc Maron has led me to believe.

Mike Birbiglia’s comedy has come into its own, and he seems to really find a voice that suits him in Sleepwalk With Me, which began as one-man show off-Broadway, then became a book, and then a movie. Though I’ve only seen the movie, this seems to be a story he’s crafted over time, just as his character crafts his act in the movie, and it’s this process that we get to see in a fresh way that makes the film one of the strongest and most endearing and funny to ever be made with a stand-up protagonist.

The trend among narrative movies about stand-up comedy, particularly when they have a comedian at their center like Mike Birbiglia, is that they have to find a balance between the collaborative aspect of moviemaking and the individual, stranded-on-an-island element of stand-up. But this clash between mediums seems to often result in remarkably inspired takes on a subculture that is coming more and more to the fore of artistic expression. Using different media to examine stand-up comedy may not result in as many laughs as the purity of a single act, but allows it to make sense in a way that’s impossible by simple explanation. Like on just about every other front, on this issue, stand-up stands defiant.

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