Stand up and be funny

Jack Black is one of Amer­ica’s most suc­cess­ful com­edy ac­tors, but be­ing funny on­screen is harder than it seems. Joe Grif­fin asks why the best stand-up co­me­di­ans of­ten flop in the cin­ema

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Film -

COM­EDY is a most un­for­giv­ing genre – if they don’t laugh, it don’t work. But it makes sense that if some­body is a good per­former on stage, that should trans­late to the big screen, right? Well, sad to say, even comic ge­niuses are lim­ited.

Shift­ing a co­me­dian from the stage to the screen is chal­leng­ing in much the same way as adapt­ing a beloved novel. When film-mak­ers tried to bot­tle and sell the prod­uct of, say, Richard Pryor, the co­me­dian went through so many fil­ters that by the time he came out the other side, he barely re­sem­bled his orig­i­nal form.

To reach the largest pos­si­ble au­di­ence, stu­dios of­ten strip co­me­di­ans of the edgy ma­te­rial that made them ap­peal­ing in the first place. This might ex­plain why, for ex­am­ple, we have yet to see a film in which Chris Rock dis­cusses race re­la­tions in any mean­ing­ful way.

An­other fac­tor is the drudgery of a film shoot. With no live au­di­ence, end­less takes and con­stant wait­ing for cam­era set-ups, it’s no won­der comics lose so much en­ergy on the big screen.

Con­sider Dane Cook. Watch­ing him do stand-up is a reve­la­tion, not just be­cause of his en­er­getic per­sona that feeds off his au­di­ence, but also be­cause it’s like you’re watch­ing an en­tirely dif­fer­ent per­former from the star of Good Luck Chuck and Wait­ing.

Also prob­lem­atic is the stu­dios’ per­cep­tion of Cook’s au­di­ence. While his standup is coarse, it has heart and smarts, but his films seem to be made for drunken frat­boys.

Writ­ing your own script is one so­lu­tion to this prob­lem. Co­me­di­ans Woody Allen and Steve Martin, while past their prime now, wrote smart movies around them­selves. Granted, this led to more than a few nar­cis­sis­tic de­ci­sions, but at least they weren’t speak­ing words that some­body else imag­ined for them.

Jack Black has slogged his way to the top via theatre groups, mu­sic and stand up: He seems to be an in­fi­nite source of en­ergy. It was ob­vi­ous in his star-mak­ing turn in High Fi­delity, and hasn’t flagged even in medi­ocre fare such as Na­cho Li­bre. Black at­tacks ev­ery project with the gusto of some­one straight out of drama school, and even his weak­est films ben­e­fit from this force. Sure, he’s not ad­verse to the odd dirty joke, but Black’s strange mix of in­no­cence and pas­sion has proved palat­able to both film-mak­ers and au­di­ences.

Re­cently-de­parted comic Richard Jeni once said that stand-up in Hol­ly­wood is looked on with roughly the same pres­tige as midget pornog­ra­phy. If so, then why are so many comics based in LA? The most de­press­ing thought is that mak­ing in­fe­rior movies is an ap­peal­ing endgame. Ed­die Mur­phy, it seems, would rather star in Nor­bit for seven fig­ures plus scale rather than put in the (un­de­ni­ably) hard work of tour­ing the com­edy cir­cuit. For­many, the sit­u­a­tion seems rem­i­nis­cent of the ho­tel waiter ask­ing the deca­dent Ge­orge Best where it all went wrong. More of­ten than not, their gain is our loss.

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