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
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.