‘Comedian’ not very funny, or a very good story

By Gary Clift

The 12-plex out on Seth Child Road is now showing “The Comedian.” This is a character picture starring Robert De Niro. Director Taylor Hackford’s recognizable support cast will attract some movie-goers. Leslie Mann, Harvey Keitel, Edie Falco, Danny DeVito, Charles Groden (who is particularly good here), and Cloris Leachman are just some of the name actors who appear. During a celebrity autograph session, we get to see Bobby Rydell, albeit just for a moment.

But, now, here’s the thing: there isn’t much of a story. The movie follows former TV situation comedy star and now stand-up comic Jackie Burke (De Niro) for a couple of months and then skips ahead a few years to deliver what passes for a climax.

They aren’t very distinguished months. Burke assaults an act-stealing heckler (imagine that combination) during a performance, is sent to jail, meets a woman while doing later “community service,” takes her out a couple of times, sees clips of performances of his become popular on the internet, and while in Florida visits the woman he was dating in New York. The end.

The film is actually about Burke himself and not about what happens to him. He is selfish, intellectually brawling, and rarely very funny when he is performing. Audience members may find it difficult to believe that anyone likes him either as a performer or a person.

And yet the film keeps giving us evidence, believable or not, that he does have fans. His deli-owner brother DeVito) loans Jackie money when he gets out of jail. His joyless manager keeps finding work for him even after he fires her.

A cable channel for young adults hires him as the master of ceremonies for a new game show they want to run. He is regularly celebrated by young comedians at a basement comedy club he likes to hang around in. And a dining room full of retired folks laugh along when he jokes about their difficulty eliminating waste. This last is particularly important to the movie. Burke can’t keep himself from constant reliance on profanity and obscenity. But the public seems to have the notion that it is really only old people who object to rough language. This is a misunderstanding, I think. What I object to is not the language, but the idea that the language itself is the joke.

At any rate, if Burke can get laughs from retirees with his version of the old song “Making Whoopie,” “Making Poopie,” then doesn’t that show that he is actually likable, that what we think of him doesn’t matter so much as what others think of him?

Over and over the film shows Burke berating the fans of his old TV series, interrupting other comedians, and delivering runs of insults having to do with sex. And even his on-screen audience is split about him. He refuses, at first, to make remarks at his niece’s lesbian wedding. But then it seems he has a presentation all prepared. It kids the celebrants and offends his sister-in-law. But his niece and brother are pleased with the performance.

Something like this happens fairly often in the movie. Some guys he makes angry. Some laugh.

And then there are all the instances of Burke’s being approached by people who recognize him as the boob tube star who had, confusingly, a couple of tag lines. People on the street or at autograph sessions (for which Burke is handsomely paid) want him to repeat his tag lines. This makes him angry.

Well, we can understand why he is miffed when his date’s father wants him to be nothing but the TV character. But how can Burke be so angry at people he only meets in passing?

I searched my notes and memory for good jokes from the picture. The only one I recall is delivered by another lesbian, a comic, who is performing in the “Comedy Cellar.” She tells about an old man, an acquaintance, who was trying to explain her to a friend of his. “She’s a lesbian and a magician,” the guys says. I laughed. Then she went on with an anatomical reference to make the joke dirty. But the idea that the old guy was so fixed on her sexual orientation that he got confused about her performing profession was sort of funny.

In general “The Comedian” isn’t very funny. And it hasn’t got much of a story. What is interesting here is the odd way some on-screen audience members have of forgiving Burke for being what he is.

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