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If you say someone's funny are they doomed to failure?
September 29, 2009 5:06 PM   Subscribe

Are there any examples of stories where a character is depicted as super-funny, and that actually comes through in practice?

Oftentimes, in movies and plays and tv shows, the story will involve one character's skills being trumpeted. Now, if this skill is something like ass-kicking or hacking or janitorial equation-solving, that's easy enough to show off when the script requires it. Sometimes, though, the story will require the creator to summon the same degree of artistic skill that is ascribed to the character, which is where this gets dicey and obviously, quite risky.

Sometimes the risk pays off. In Stephen Sondheim's Merrily We Roll Along, the song "Good Thing Going" is endlessly promoted as just the best thing you've ever heard, but Sondheim backs it up with an actually achingly beautiful song. In The West Wing, Toby and Sam are frequently touted as amazing writers, but Sorkin actually shows us the soaring, idealistic speeches they make, and they are, indeed, pretty awesome.

Where this always seems to fail, however, is with comedy. When Sorkin tried to do the same thing on Studio 60 with comedy writers, for instance, it became the primary reason for the show's quick demise, because none of the viewers agreed. The same is true for such misbegotten projects as Man of the Year and Mr. Saturday Night. I haven't yet seen Funny People, so maybe that's the exception to this, but my question is: are there any examples of fictional movies about supposedly great comedians/comediennes where the character in question is actually, you know, funny with their act? If so, which ones? If not, why not?
posted by Navelgazer to Media & Arts (26 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
 
Since you mentioned TV above, I'll say, The Larry Sanders Show.
posted by found missing at 5:10 PM on September 29, 2009 [1 favorite]


Tracy Morgan on 30 Rock?
posted by oinopaponton at 5:16 PM on September 29, 2009 [3 favorites]


Do you like fish sticks?

Wow, what a great audience.
posted by Midnight Rambler at 5:21 PM on September 29, 2009


In Annie Hall, Alvy Singer is a comedy writer, and he gets off enough good observations that the character is believable.

Annie Hall: Sometimes I ask myself how I'd stand up under torture.
Alvy Singer: You? You kiddin'? If the Gestapo would take away your Bloomingdale's charge card, you'd tell 'em everything.

posted by Cool Papa Bell at 5:23 PM on September 29, 2009


Curb Your Enthusiasm? I think there are probably more examples of "funny" characters, but the issue is when someone writes a drama about a funny person; they're writing a drama, and they're probably good at writing drama, not comedy.

Sometimes there are funny characters who are just funny because that's who they are. Superbad, for instance, those kids are just funny kids, but that's what makes the movie good (imo).
posted by CharlesV42 at 5:25 PM on September 29, 2009


The Dick Van Dyke Show.
posted by The World Famous at 5:28 PM on September 29, 2009 [3 favorites]


"Do you like Fish Sticks" is a great example of the intentional subversion of this, as is everything on 30 Rock, methinks. Jimmy's jokes are supposed to be lame, while everyone laughs at them. Parker and Stone don't even try to make them funny. The only thing truly funny about the Fish Sticks joke is that Kanye doesn't get it, and on the few ocassions that Tracy Jordan is seen on TGS, his act isn't funny (again, intentionally so) so much as the fact that he's doing it is funny. It's a fine distinction, but there it is. Relatedly, Larry Sanders is funny as hell, but that humor comes from the fact that the people who he's interviewing are playing comic variations of themselves, and thus his "on stage" act is enveloped in the dynamics we've seen set up between them.

I'm curious if maybe there's a suspension-of-belief problem, where we can follow that to one level, and be amused by jokes and comic foibles, but once that is level is taken to show-within-a-show, as it were, some crucial element of comedy is lost, somehow.
posted by Navelgazer at 5:40 PM on September 29, 2009


Ok, this is a children's book, not a movie or TV show, but it's a GREAT example of this.

Dogs Don't Tell Jokes is a book by Louis Sachar; people my age remember him for Wayside School, but I think he's mostly known for writing Holes now. He is a genuinely funny author beloved in third grade classrooms all over the country, and I would be lying if I said I didn't occasionally reread Wayside School is Falling Down.

The star, Gary Boone, is painfully unfunny, but triumphs over the school with a stand-up comedy routine at the end of the book.

You know how you're always frustrated by books or movies or whatever that depict the making of a play or the writing of a story where you never get to see the finished product?

The last chapter is a full-on stand up comedy routine, and while it's in a children's book (so, you know, some of the humor is a little immature and it's all very clean) I think it's really funny. Really.

Also, the Amazon reviews for this book are so cute. I feel like I'm watching Reading Rainbow. DOGS DON'T TELL JOKES IS A FUNNY BOOK AND I THINK YOU WOULD ENJOY DOGS DON'T TELL JOKES IF YOU LIKE FUNNY BOOKS. Ba-duh-dah!
posted by Juliet Banana at 6:07 PM on September 29, 2009 [5 favorites]


It's been a while, but I remember Jerry's standup bits on Seinfeld as being funny (except for when they weren't supposed to be). Not hilarious, but enough to get me to smile.
posted by The corpse in the library at 6:09 PM on September 29, 2009


Robert Parker's Spenser novels involve the titular character who I find to be rather funny. He's always saying ironic or sarcastic comments that many of the antagonists don't understand. A good place to start would be with "The Godwulf Manuscript." I know you didn't mention books specifically, but tough noogies.

Or check out Robert Crais' Elvis Cole novels. Again, tough noogies!
posted by Draccy at 6:20 PM on September 29, 2009


Jerry Seinfeld.
posted by blue_beetle at 6:23 PM on September 29, 2009


TVTropes has a long article dedicated to movies/books/shows that fall into this trap, but also mentions a few cases where a character's supposed great talent was actually proven. Just search the page for "averted," which is the site's term for a case in which a narrative problem or cliché is successfully avoided. Spoilers abound, of course, but the big ones are hidden so that you have to highlight them to read them.
posted by Rhaomi at 6:26 PM on September 29, 2009 [1 favorite]


Cool Papa Bell, Juliet Banana, and Rhaomi - Thanks. I loved Louis Sachar, and was a 3rd grader when his books were coming out, though I've never read Dogs Don't Tell Jokes, I have faith that Sachar (honestly my first favorite author of my life until I discovered Lloyd Alexander and Brian Jacques) would be the exact type to do this right. As for Woody Allen, it's kind of a technicality, but since we don't ever (as far as I remember) see his finished product, I'm not sure it counts, but it's damn close. I'm now going to spend a while reading the tvtropes page (I adore that site and never found this entry) when I should be more productive. Anyway, please keep 'em coming!
posted by Navelgazer at 6:56 PM on September 29, 2009 [1 favorite]


The same is true for such misbegotten projects as Man of the Year and Mr. Saturday Night. I haven't yet seen Funny People, so maybe that's the exception to this

I thought the characters in Funny People were genuinely funny. There's an interesting theme here though that I recognize in Man of the Year that also holds true in Funny People (haven't seen Mr. Saturday Night).

In order to be successful and appeal widely, the humour suffers (look at The Tonight Show). In these films, the characters are actually funny people, but fall back on old and repeated jokes or variations thereof when performing because that's what's expected of them. The larger the audience, the staler the act seems to be the rule. It's actually addressed briefly in Funny People at one point.
posted by ODiV at 6:59 PM on September 29, 2009


found missing nd blue beetle beat me to it but yeah, Jerry Seinfeld and Larry Sanders are perfect examples.
posted by Neiltupper at 7:38 PM on September 29, 2009


De Niro in the King of Comedy

Seconding World Famous' Dick Van Dyke

Regarding Seinfeld, I always thought George and Cosmo were carrying Jerry and Elaine.
posted by rakish_yet_centered at 7:46 PM on September 29, 2009


On second thought:

Roger Rabbit
posted by rakish_yet_centered at 7:52 PM on September 29, 2009


Okay, it's another point against: Who could forget "Mr Holland's Opus". Ugh, what a horrible piece of "music".
posted by jerwood at 8:38 PM on September 29, 2009


If not, why not?

Whether the film is a comedy or a drama it must contain conflict or there's no reason to keep watching. A film about a comedian who's actually funny has no conflict--it only has frustration (for the audience). Instead of asking "Will he make it?", we end up asking, "How come he can't make it? He's hilarious!"

And I can't believe people are suggesting Jerry Seinfeld was ever funny. He's the straight man on the show. He's not supposed to be funny. And he's very good at it. And his opening acts? Goddamn, they were awful--and I throw them up as an example of what you're talking about. I never bought for a second that he could make it in NY as a comic.
posted by You Should See the Other Guy at 10:49 PM on September 29, 2009


Oh, and I'll Nth Curb. Larry David's supposed to be a comedy writer, though a retired one, and he's fucking hilarious.
posted by You Should See the Other Guy at 10:51 PM on September 29, 2009


You Should See the Other Guy: I never bought for a second that he could make it in NY as a comic.

Those opening bits were mostly (always?) taken from his actual stand-up act -- which he used to make his living as a comic.
posted by mhum at 2:37 AM on September 30, 2009


I thought Tom Hanks was funny in Punchline, although I haven't seen it in years. The movie's not great, but I remember his stand-up bits as being pretty good.
posted by orme at 5:20 AM on September 30, 2009


Those opening bits were mostly (always?) taken from his actual stand-up act --

Fair enough. But I don't think I laughed once in nine years. Had I been watching them on dvd, I would have fast forwarded.

which he used to make his living as a comic.

Really? I always thought he and Larry David were failed comics before the show. I think Seinfeld may have had a short run on Carson but I didn't think he was a big name or anything.
posted by You Should See the Other Guy at 6:32 AM on September 30, 2009


I always thought he and Larry David were failed comics before the show.

That's interesting. I always thought that he was one of the top stand-up comedians of the late-eighties stand-up boom which was what led to him getting the show. However, my perception may be skewed by the fact that his subsequent show was wildly successful.

In any case, according to this YouTube clip from the Letterman show from 1988, Jerry is described as being a regular guest and having a 5-night, sold-out solo show at the 1,500-seat NY Town Hall.

One observation about Seinfeld and his place on his show: the earlier episodes had him cast as the main character and, as a comedian, the funny man. However, it became clear that Jerry Seinfeld was no great actor, so he migrated more towards a straight man role. At least, that's how it seemed to me.
posted by mhum at 9:30 AM on September 30, 2009


I always thought he and Larry David were failed comics before the show.

Seinfeld was a multimillionaire long before Seinfeld, the show, ever saw the light of day. David was a not-unsuccessful comedy writer for television and other stand-ups.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 11:10 AM on September 30, 2009


I thought Tom Hanks was funny in Punchline, although I haven't seen it in years. The movie's not great, but I remember his stand-up bits as being pretty good.

This is what I thought of as well. Sally Fields' character is even trickier, as she goes from not being funny to being funny. She pulls it off, but Tom Hanks makes the movie work because he is a gifted comedian (much better than Barry Sobel, who is presented as the "big-time" comedian in the movie). It's a pretty good movie, really.
posted by Bookhouse at 12:31 PM on September 30, 2009


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