Stand-Ups on Screen

December 27, 2007
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With “Mad TV” star Aries Spears performing this week at Morty’s Comedy Joint and Chris Rock coming to the Murat, I’m thinking about stand-up comics transitioning into movies.

Although he seems to have the talent to do so, Spears hasn’t broken out. And while Rock has had plenty of opportunities, he hasn’t quite gelled on screen.

It used to be that there was no assumption that stand-up comedy and film acting were transferable skills. I’m guessing you can’t name too many Milton Berle movies or Jack Benny flicks. Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl didn’t make the jump. Even Rodney Dangerfield was decades into his stand-up career before he was featured in “Caddyshack” in 1980. 

On the other hand, Bob Hope, Woody Allen (until he stopped being funny) and the brilliant Albert Brooks managed to effectively extend their stage personas into film.

Others such as George Carlin have made efforts in that direction. It’s just that the results (“Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure” aside) haven’t been very impressive. Even the great Richard Pryor has a very short list of watchable non-concert films.

You could argue that that’s because those artists didn’t control their films in the way that Allen and Brooks have. Perhaps, but other actors who had the clout to have some say have still avoided the movies. Ellen DeGeneres and Ray Romano seem to have gotten the message very quickly (from “Mr. Right” and “Welcome to Moosewood,” respectively) that they should stick to animated voices. Jerry Seinfeld has wisely gone right to “Bee Movie.”  Since rising to stardom, Dave Chappelle has pretty much stayed away from the big screen, too.

So what does it take to make the jump? Who do you think hasn’t been giving a fair shake in movies? And who should stick to the stand-up stage?
Your thoughts?
  • Don't forget Andy Griffith, Bob Newhart, Jerry Lewis, and the great (Kennedy Center Honoree) Steve Martin. Griffith has performed in just about every medium imaginable, actually, though most people know him now almost exclusively for the Andy Griffith Show and Matlock. (Griffiths' Wikipedia entry says he was a monologist in his early career. Maybe the term stand-up comic hadn't been invented yet.)

    Why Tim Allen still has a film career, though, I don't know. I think he may have sold his soul to Disney.

    I think the comics that have done well on film have been those whose acts originally relied on the ability to create a character somewhat distinct from themselves. There's a level of acting already present there. In fact, I don't think Robin Williams actually has his own identity, which is perhaps why he's been arguably the most successful stand-up comic in the movies.

    On the flip side, some comics derive their humor from other sources than a projected persona, so they might not be the best candidates for character acting. It would be difficult to create a film around the incisive and hyperintelligent observations of a George Carlin; his humor is almost entirely verbal. There's no George Carlin character; there's just George Carlin. (I have no idea what the deal was with his tenure on the kiddie show SHINING TIME STATION.)

    I wonder why black comedians in particular seem to have had a tough time in the movies, even the most astoundingly successful ones? (Anyone remember LEONARD, PART SIX?) Eddie Murphy had a great run, up to about the year 2000 anyway, but have any other prominent black comics been consistently successful (commercially or otherwise) on the big screen for any similarly extended period? What's going on there?
  • Don't forget 1/2 of Cheech & Chong and Lily Tomlin.

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