After Henry Phillips released his semi-autobiographical movie, Punching the Clown, in 2010, Showtime expressed interest in developing a companion series.
That series never came to fruition. But the awkwardness of that failure inspired Phillips and Gregori Viens to co-write and direct a sequel. Originally titled And Punching the Clown when it premiered a year ago at SXSW (and you can hear Henry Phillips tell me about his real-life stories that inspired these films in Episode #76 of my podcast, Last Things First), it’s now called Punching Henry and in theaters and On Demand now.
If you saw the new film The Comedian, starring Robert De Niro and directed by Taylor Hackford, then consider Punching Henry the indie version of that. Which means it’s also more believable and infinitely more amusing for comedy fans and comedians alike.
Within the first minutes of the film, Phillips endures a cringeworthy podcast, has his nose broken by an audience member, and gets interrupted by a bachelorette party.
In The Comedian, a similar set of circumstances lands its lead character in jail and sets the plot in motion. In Punching Henry, our lead’s response is simpler and more cynical: “Just another Saturday night.”
Comedians Lynn Shawcroft, Dave Waite, Sarah Tollemache and Brendon Walsh all figure into spoiling this Saturday night for Phillips. But he proves himself as much of a spoiler in the lives of other characters played by Sarah Silverman, Tig Notaro and Stephanie Allyne.
Silverman portrays a podcast host learning what’s happened to Phillips since our last big-screen recap of his career as a musical comedian. A Hollywood producer (played by Oscar winner J.K. Simmons!) apparently has shown interest in Phillips for a reality series, but Hollywood being Hollywood, everything doesn’t go quite the way it has been pitched to Phillips. As he tells the podcaster, describing his reluctance to move to Los Angeles: “I’ve always felt that if you put positive energy out there, people will just take advantage of you.” TV executives played by Wayne Federman and Michaela Watkins hear his pitch, with Federman exclaiming: “Sisyphus meets Charlie Brown. I like it!” while Watkins sees him as “a loser’s loser.”
Along the way, Phillips also finds plenty of supporting roles for his comedy friends. Doug Stanhope plays a cab dispatcher who embroils him in a running feud. Mark Cohen plays his parody songs at a Sunset Strip venue called Let’s Get Guitarded. Tig Notaro and Stephanie Allynne play a couple who take him in as a houseguest and enlist him in a domestic plan gone awry. Nikki Glaser plays a bartender to hear about his plight. Mike Judge plays the sound guy at one of his road gigs who can’t quite follow instructions, while Jon Huck plays an audience member who causes a kerfuffle. Matt Kirshen and Myq Kaplan show up at one point as viral video gurus. Joe List, Chris Fairbanks, Greg Warren, Al Madrigal and Jim Jefferies also make appearances.
So many actual stand-up comedians show up onscreen that it’s fun just to watch them all interact with Phillips and either help or hurt his cause.
Then again, it’s best left to the award-winning actor in Simmons to sum it up with his take on Phillips and his career as a traveling troubadour of jokes. “At the end of the day, I get it. Not everybody’s looking to be famous just to be famous.”
Famous or not, Henry Phillips remains eminently funny and charming, a joy to watch and listen to. Whether you’re laughing with him or at his exploits.
Punching Henry is in select theaters and available everywhere On Demand.
You can also get it via iTunes and Amazon: