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10 dramas about comedy

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Photo: Dustin Hoffman in "Lenny," courtesy United Artists

Making people laugh is serious business.

When you go to a stand-up comedy show, you’re there to have a good time and laugh at some jokes, and if you’re a nerd about it, maybe you go to appreciate the craft. If you’re the guy on stage, though, the perspective is pretty different sometimes. There’s often an obsession at play that borders on addiction, be it to the art, to the wordplay, to the cadence of each punchline, or maybe to the attention and the spotlight. Whatever it is, the motivations behind each person getting up in front of a roomful of oft-drunk strangers to try and kill them and avoid dying makes for some interesting drama, and every once in a while, people in Hollywood try to capture that. So here’s a list of ten dramas about the world of comedy.


1. “Lenny” (1974)

Dustin Hoffman stars in this Bob Fosse film as the titular comedian of world renown, notoriety and reverence. There can never be enough said about how much of a trailblazer Lenny Bruce was, and this film, released eight years after his death, did not shy away from any of the controversies that defined his life as a crusader for free speech by way of clever, straightforward honesty, expressing himself in ways that hadn’t been heard on stage before. That kind of brazen flouting of convention came with a heavy price, to the point where it’s been said that he was arrested so often that his untimely death was caused by “an overdose of police.” This film was nominated for six Academy Awards, by the by.


2. “The King of Comedy” (1983)

A genre wouldn’t be a genre if Martin Scorsese didn’t try his hand at it, and put Robert De Niro in it. Scorsese’s take is a lot creepier than most, however, as De Niro stars as Rupert Pupkin, a really lousy stand-up comic who lives in his own fantasy world and, when he meets legendary comedian Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis) by chance, he thinks that alone is his big break. When that doesn’t turn out to be the case, Pupkin kidnaps the guy and holds him for ransom – the ransom of a TV spot. Pupkin is one of the more sympathetic psychopaths you’ll come across, and there’s some debate about how much of this film takes place in his own mind.


3. “Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling” (1986)

The icon Richard Pryor insisted that the one and only movie he directed was not autobiographical, but considering how it was the life story of a comedian who burned himself while freebasing cocaine, you have to think this drew heavily on Pryor’s real life. That incident puts Dancer in a coma, during which he reflects on his childhood in a brothel, his self-destructive life and how he got to that very low point.


4. “Punchline” (1988)

Who wouldn’t want to see Tom Hanks as a stand-up comic? He’s a natural born funnyman. In this film, he’s a med student moonlighting in the stage world, and he forms a bond with Sally Field, a housewife who’s also trying to make a go of a new career in this sort of showbiz. However, the friendship is strained when the cutthroat competition of the business gets in the way – not to mention unrequited romantic feelings – and things don’t end wonderfully for everybody.


5. “Mr. Saturday Night” (1992)

Billy Crystal made his directorial debut, giving himself the starring role as Buddy Young Jr., a hugely popular comedian with his own show in the 1950s whose career didn’t go quite the way he’d hoped, and as he aged, he also alienated everybody close to him that helped him reach the top in the first place. While it’s an interesting portrait of a celebrity past his prime, it didn’t do all that well at the box office, but David Paymer was nominated for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar.

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