Don’t be misled by the title or the movie trailers.
The Comedian, a Taylor Hackford film (An Officer and a Gentleman, Ray) starring Robert De Niro as a former sitcom star and stand-up comedian still trying to ply his trade into his 70s, is actually a love story about second chances and last chances that happens to revolve around a comedian.
So don’t think of The Comedian as a straightforward comedy — despite the many real-life stand-up comedians doing parts of their acts onstage in this movie, and to great effect. And when you remember it’s a Hollywood version of a love story, remember, too, that Hollywood thinks a beautiful 44-year-old woman (Leslie Mann) would fall for a 73-year-old’s charms in a romantic way, and not just a paternal way.
Instead, imagine De Niro, some 34 years after The King of Comedy, exploring life from the other side of show business than Rupert Pupkin, now playing a guy, Jackie Burke, who actually had become the proverbial king of the comedy mountain as the star of long-running hit sitcom Eddie’s Home.
Can Jackie Burke change with the times? Should he? Should he even have to?
It’s one more chance for De Niro, too, as his more recent lead or main roles haven’t left many longing for the good old days. Small scenes with Harvey Keitel, Charles Grodin, and even Billy Crystal (as himself) subtly wink at that. But I’m not going to analyze that too much.
Two comedians, Jeffrey Ross and Lewis Friedman, share screenwriter credits, while Jessica Kirson and Jim Norton are listed as comedy consultants and perform onscreen. Burke even borrows one of Kirson’s trademark onstage moves, co-opting her penchant for inner monologues, adapting it by putting his hand over his face rather than turning his back on the audience. Burke also might have become fast friends with Jerry Langford, the talk-show host Jerry Lewis portrayed in The King of Comedy — as they both seem equally fatigued from the cost of fame and quite over it with their fans. In the film, Burke’s fans keep shouting “Eddie” at him and asking him to repeat his sitcom catchphrase. In real life, how many times do you think people still quote Taxi Driver back at De Niro? This is the kind of subdued, play-it-straight performance with his own realism take out of De Niro that you’ll enjoy as much as you did with Lewis a generation ago.
It’s also a love letter to the Friars Club, not just in Burke’s style of humor, but also in having him go back to the club for a scene that includes Freddie Roman and other Friars, where Burke is on the dais with Gilbert Gottfried, Richard Belzer and Damien Lemon, roasting an aging actress played by Cloris Leachman.
The plot opens with Burke finding himself at his washed-up breaking point, performing on a nostalgic bill with Jimmie Walker and Brett Butler as themselves to a half house on a rainy night at Governor’s comedy club on Long Island, where a bachelorette party sitting up front and a heckler in the back (Happy Anderson) prompt Burke to snap. The ensuing altercation lands Burke in jail — if only we’d been treated to more of what that was like — and fulfilling his community service at a homeless mission where he meets Mann’s character.
Where does Burke go from here, three decades removed from TV stardom and fresh out of jail?
Edie Falco as his manager has ideas. Danny DeVito as his brother, a deli owner, and sister-in-law Patti Lupone just want Burke to finally grow up.
We see Burke return to the Comedy Cellar (a booth at the Fat Black Pussycat subs in for the famous “comedians table” at the Cellar, where longtime booker Estee Adoram greets Burke with her natural aplomb) and are treated to more actual stand-up than Chris Rock’s Top Five and the most since Judd Apatow’s Funny People, if not more. Kirson, Norton, Hannibal Buress, Greer Barnes, Sheng Wang, Aida Rodriguez and Ryan Hamilton all get to fire off zingers and punchlines, some even at Burke’s expense.
And we see Burke perform at Governor’s and the Cellar, as well as try his hand at adapting his comedic sensibilities — very much in the aggressive, roasting style — outside of the clubs in situations such as a niece’s wedding reception, a retirement home, a fan convention and a TV game show. Some of it works. Some of it doesn’t seem, too. Either way, he may just go viral.
Because that’s where we’re at these days: “Being funny is not enough anymore.”
The Comedian is rated R and opens nationwide today.