Thursday, October 14, 2010

Did you hear the one about stand-up comedy movies?

Sarah Silverman’s new film, “Jesus is Magic” is part of a rare breed: The big-screen stand-up comedy film. Not that it was ever a dominant genre, but these days it takes a lot to get jaded moviegoers to haul their butts to the cineplex. As movies get bigger and splashier, the idea of sitting through something as seemingly mundane as a 90-minute stand up comedy routine (even enhanced with musical numbers or skits) becomes an increasingly hard sell.

The concept of a concert film (comedy or music) seems inherently strange. Live performances are (ideally) spontaneous, exciting, unpredictable events, the performer and the audience symbiotically feeding off of each other. Sitting in a chair in a theater watching a filmed performance projected on a screen dilutes most of the impact of a concert.

With a musical concert movie, there are advantages: You can actually see the band and the sound is better. Of course, you can’t (legally) have a drink during the show and dancing in movie theaters is usually not welcome, but these are trade-offs. Rock and Roll is supposed to be larger than life and films such as Talking Heads’ “Stop Making Sense,” “Woodstock” and the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” live up to that promise.

Comedy, on the other hand, is more intimate. The comedian needs to connect with each audience member individually, and humor is a bit more subjective than the primal pound of music.

So the biggest draw of the stand-up film is the communal experience. Funny stuff is funnier when you’re laughing alongside other people. Anyone who’s ever had the pleasure of watching an old Looney Tunes cartoon in a full theater knows that even old familiar material can seem fresh when you’re sharing it with a big group of strangers.

The irony is, there was never really an optimum time for stand-up film. When Lenny Bruce was thrilling audiences with his incendiary routines about sex, racism and religion in the late 50s and early 60s, he was arrested numerous times on obscenity charges. There wasn’t a theater in the country that would’ve played a movie of his material. “The Lenny Bruce Performance Film,” an underground movie that had screenings mostly on college campuses in the late 60s, is kind of misnamed. Rather than “perform,” Bruce spends the whole film ranting about his legal problems, and the movie (just out on DVD) is more of a historical document of his decline than anything else.

The first comedian to truly bring the art of stand-up to the big screen was, fittingly, Richard Pryor, the man voted Greatest Stand-Up of All Time in a 2004 Comedy Central poll. While he broke ground with the 1979 film, “Richard Pryor Wanted - Live in Concert,” most fans consider his 1982 concert film, “Live on the Sunset Strip” to be the finest of his four stand-up movies. After his infamous 1980 self-immolation while freebasing cocaine, Pryor took a trip to Africa to recover both physically and mentally, and this show finds him edgy, honest and refocused. There’s not a dull moment in its 96 minutes.

But even as the comedy boom exploded in the 80’s, few comics followed Pryor to the big screen. One exception was the purported heir to Pryor’s throne. “Eddie Murphy: Raw” (1987) suffers from some discomforting homophobia and misogyny, but mines the usual relationship / racism material for fresh perspective and adds bits about sudden fame and fortune. His rant against the almost sainted BIll Cosby (who had chided Murphy for his off color language and material) cemented Murphy’s place as a take-no-prisoners comic.

But something new was happening in the 80’s that made the stand-up film if not obsolete, at least not as necessary: Cable TV.

George Carlin (maybe the only comedian who could challenge Richard Pryor’s crown) immediately realized the advantage of uncensored cable TV. His first special for HBO, “On Location: George Carlin at USC” aired in 1977 and while there was a disclaimer before the show warning of the language that was to come, it was the first time Carlin’s famous “Seven Words You Can’t Say on TV” were, well, said on TV. Carlin never released a stand-up feature theatrically, preferring to stick with the cable format right through this day. To date, he’s recorded over a dozen shows for HBO.

As cable TV grew and became more specialized, channels such as Comedy Central and offshoots like HBO Comedy gave comedians more outlets than ever, and more to their advantage. One huge reason that stand-up works better on cable is length: few comics can sustain hilarity for the duration of a feature film (as Martin Lawrence can attest). it’s a stretch for most comics to put together a solid half hour of material.

The stand-up film didn’t die, of course. Over the years, Margaret Cho, Eddie Izzard, Eddie Griffin, Jerry Seinfeld, those Blue Collar fellas and the curiously named Original Kings of Comedy all cracked wise on the silver screen. But for every stand-up movie that hit the multiplex, there were a hundred that went straight to video. These days, with studios making more profits on home video than theatrical releases, there’s almost no rationalization for spending the money to release and market a low budget movie like a stand-up film theatrically.

It takes a comedian that’s not the most popular, but of a cult status to get people to go to the theater. Someone who’s still just a bit below the radar, an edgy, intelligent comic that appeals to hipsters and can create a buzz around a movie. Sarah Silverman fits the bill.

Silverman pushes the envelope more than almost any other working comic, making jokes out of such unfunny topics as September 11th, AIDS, the Holocaust and racism (among many others). If that makes you uncomfortable, that’s the point. The best comics have always held magnifying mirrors up to society and forced us to confront all our blackheads, warts and little ugly hairs.

It takes a lot to shock us these days. We’re moving towards a time when Carlin’s Seven Words are being whittled down to two or three. Part of the reason for our desensitization to shocking material is isolation; It’s hard to feel embarrassed if there’s nobody sitting next to you.

Maybe that’s the stand-up film’s remaining purpose: to gather the masses, let ‘em settle in with their snacks and get comfortable and then collectively snap ‘em out of it. Like a great and powerful Oz, we need the projected image of a huge, angry, smart funny person to loom large over a group of people stuffing their faces contentedly. We need to be shaken out of our complacency and forced to confront our ugliest demons outside of the safety of our living rooms where we can just shrug... or turn it off.

And “In Her Shoes” ain’t gonna do it.

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