I think it was Jerry Seinfeld who noticed the peculiarly violent streak to comedy: Either you “killed out there” or you “died out there.” “So,” the comic tells his audience, “It’s you or me.” As cute or charming or delightful as we may consider our funny people, the pros themselves are well attuned to the disturbing ways it works, or doesn’t work. Often the act is built on a psychic landfill of toxic sludge.
We’d prefer not to think about that, though. Why can’t our comics just be funny and not bore us with their problems? In Judd Apatow’s 2009 tour de force Funny People (streaming on Starz), the most insightful and probing movie about comedy ever made, world-tickling slapstick movie star George Simmons (Adam Sandler) is worrying about dying from a rare blood disease when he returns to the standup circuit for a farewell tour. His audience doesn’t know he’s dying. George has been a terrible human being and is aware he doesn’t deserve anyone’s pity, so he mocks himself with a tragic song on a piano in a comedy club:
Cause I’m one funny man
I bring the comedy.
I am the one you go to to get cheered up . . .
He doesn’t have patience.
He hates so many people.
He’s mad when others do well.
He hates himself . . .
Don’t visit my grave, c***suckers.
George thinks the choicest comedy derives from torment. This man who made his name playing a man with a baby’s body, or a mermaid’s, tells his young protégé Ira (Seth Rogen), “Your generation has the divorces, which is cute-funny. But my generation has the ‘Oh my God, my father’s about to hit me with the bat.’” Sandler has said he had a happy childhood, but on the other hand Chevy Chase used to get beaten and locked in a closet by his mom. A lot of comics have suggested that they used jokes to protect themselves from harm. Many of them went on to do harm to others, as George Simmons has done; his ex-wife (Leslie Mann) wants nothing to do with him. He is forbidden even to contact her.
Sandler was once Apatow’s roommate in a $900-a-month apartment, a detail Apatow exploits brilliantly in the sequence that opens the film, in which a young Sandler is still on Rung One of the comedy ladder, prank-calling strangers. From what we can see around Sandler, we’re in some starter hovel of an apartment. Then Apatow cuts to the end result of being really good at goofing around: a SoCal palace that would have awed the Sun King. But there’s nobody else there except George’s servants, and we soon see why. Playing the last Beatles’ hit, “Real Love,” with some musical pros, George says, “I wish you guys were really my friends and I didn’t have to pay you to jam with me.” It’s funny ’cause it’s true.
Nearly everyone in the movie is a professional comedian, and they spend the movie wondering about their strange art and its dependence on the whim of the audience. “If you put ‘cute kitten’ in the title of your YouTube video, you’re gonna get a million hits,” notes one young comic (Jonah Hill). Someone remarks with great surprise about George, “He’s really funny! I don’t know why his movies aren’t funny, though.” Aziz Ansari, in a bit part, typifies the nightclub comic who sells trite ideas and witless catchphrases with “personality,” i.e. shouting and gesturing and prancing around the stage idiotically, which sometimes works. No wonder comics are nervy; even at the highest levels of the profession, it’s hard to comprehend comedy’s hidden valence.
Unlike most other celebrities, comics tend to look like and come across as ordinary people. Apatow tears up those misapprehensions and sacrifices George’s likability in the process. Comedy leads to fame, fame attracts women, and George has been helping himself sexually to whoever catches his eye. There is no need for seduction; women are just there for him, like items at a salad bar. Even at the starter level of comedy fame, the rewards on offer are beyond most people’s comprehension: Jason Schwartzman plays the star of a dreadful NBC sitcom who is still living with two roommates but makes $25,000 a week and also has his pick of the ladies. “I’m dating the girl who plays Mrs. Pruitt. Her name’s Carla-something,” he says. You can see why both male and female critics would hate these men, and mistake their animosity for a flaw in Apatow’s writing.
Apatow’s devastating third act has George rediscovering what’s important but then, crucially, re-forgetting what’s important. When his health returns and even mortality seems to bow before his riches, George brags, “I’m never gonna die, baby!” He tries to steal back his ex and beat up her ex-husband but fails in both attempts. Even the Sun King of merman movies can’t buy his way out of his previous mistakes. Comics are just like the rest of us in some ways, after all.