Watching a stand-up comedian on stage is an isolated experience. It’s an act of entertainment, without the baggage of a before or an after. The artist arrives, performs and leaves. But a stand-up comedian on stage in a film or television series bears both the privilege and burden of a performance within a performance. A stand-up routine in a movie is rarely as funny as real life because we know the artist. The plot-line’s context and narrative define them. The viewers of the story engage with a character through the medium of an audience reacting to a performer. It’s a strange paradox of visual form, but one that has found iconic representation over the years.
For your viewing pleasure, we’ve put together a list of eight engrossing titles across film and television that feature stand-up comedy as the primary theme. Microwave some popcorn, put your phone on mute, and get bingeing.
The King of Comedy (1982)
Perhaps Martin Scorsese’s most overlooked film till Joker reminded the world of the “original,” The King of Comedy is a violent satire starring Robert De Niro as a struggling comedian who stalks a famous talk-show host (the great Jerry Lewis) and blackmails his way into the limelight. It remains one of the earliest films to weaponise the allure of showbiz by blurring the line between the desperate and the deranged. Life in the movies came full circle when an older De Niro reversed roles to play a talk-show host mocking Joaquin Phoenix’s sociopathic comedian in Joker.
Man on the Moon (1999)
The master of the biopic, Milos Forman, gave comedian Jim Carrey the role of his career in this dead-serious dramedy based on the life of American entertainer Andy Kaufman. Man on the Moon is the most compelling examination of performance art in cinema, with Carrey owning the legacy of a man whose entire life was a provocative performance. Watching Kaufman’s audiences buy into his disdain for conventional comedy also means falling for Carrey’s meta sensationalism as an over-the-top Hollywood star. And those last five minutes—the film becomes the protagonist in its audacious pursuit to fool comedy itself.
Funny People (2009)
Terminal illness spurs a middle-aged movie star to return to his stand-up comedy roots, but the joke is on the viewers of this affecting drama. Funny People is the cinematic equivalent of a double bluff, where much of its surprising charm is derived from our perception of a director (Judd Apatow) known for adult comedies and an actor (Adam Sandler) known for crass comedies. And then there’s Seth Rogen as the friend/assistant of the dying man. Rogen went on to reprise another version of this role in 50/50 and prove that there’s nothing quite as beguilingly awkward as a funnyman coming to terms with the punchline of tragedy.
Joel Potrykus’ Ape is what would happen if Lars Von Trier were to make an angry, low-budget slacker movie as a middle finger to the romanticisation of modern comedy. The troubled artist template is not new. But here, the plot-less palate of existential dread is driven by Joshua Burge’s terrific lead turn as a man trapped in his own mundane mediocrity. That he’s also a pyromaniac only elevates the unrestrained visual language of a film that’s as sad as it is startling.
Obvious Child (2014)
Generally, artists prefer to tackle issues like destigmatising abortion by devoting a few minutes in their stand-up to the issue. Film-maker Gillian Robespierre took that a step further, by making a rom-com about a pregnant stand-up comedian who decides to get an abortion. Naturally, she also does a winning set about abortion. The breakout Sundance indie film stars Jenny Slate as the hysterically edgy protagonist who goes from heartbroken to inspired without losing sight of the stage. Her profession—amusing people for a living—informs her courage in wanting to redeem her own sense of living. And any film that ends with characters watching Gone With The Wind can’t be all that bad.
I Am Offended (2015)
Hasmukh bungled the chance to spotlight the small-town comedy landscape in India, while its modest urban counterpart, TVF’s Humorously Yours, fluffed its second season. But Jaideep Varma’s documentary, I Am Offended, fares much better. The documentary came at a time when the Indian stand-up scene had exploded into a mainstream cloud of public scrutiny. The extensive film—built on wide-ranging interviews and voices across languages and classes—streamlines the contentious relationship between performers of resistance and a nation of people averse to the idea of laughing at themselves. There’s an encyclopedic curiosity about Varma’s gaze, which delves deep into the history of homegrown sense of humour.
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (2017 — Present)
Actress Rachel Brosnahan’s performance is the slow-cooked punchline in Amazon’s series about a scorned Jewish housewife in 1960s New York who stumbles into a career in stand-up comedy. In a performance that’s as manic as it is mesmerising, Brosnahan pulls out all the stops to carry a show that, at times, struggles to keep up with Mrs. Maisel’s on-stage routines. Yet, rarely has a stand-up comic story been a comedy at heart, at once funny and fiercely original, without compromising on the emotional duality of young motherhood.
Feel Good (2020)
Canadian performer Mae Martin’s ode to the addictive personality of art assumes the shape of a semi-autobiographical series. Feel Good stays true to its title—it’s a feel-good tragedy about a London-based stand-up comedian whose drug habit resurfaces when she dates an inhibited English woman. Their erratic relationship becomes the prism through which we identify not just the social pressure of performance but also the performative shackles of social pressure. Martin is both heartbreaking and holistic as herself, in a role that transcends the indulgence of self-therapy.
Lenny (1974): Dustin Hoffman delivers an Oscar-nominated turn as volatile comedy genius Lenny Bruce.
Seinfeld (1989-1998): Jerry Seinfeld stars as himself in one of the most influential sitcoms of all time.
The Aristocrats (2005): 100 stand-up comedians improvise the world’s dirtiest joke in this documentary dedicated to Johnny Carson.
Sleepwalk With Me (2012): Mike Birbiglia’s eccentric indie features an aspiring comedian who suffers from a sleep disorder in which he acts out his dreams.