The world of stand-up comedy is one rife with popular misconceptions about its featured performers. For some, comedians are those amusing orators whom we sometimes catch glimpses of when channel surfing in the late afternoon, or hear on talk radio too early in the morning to remember their names, or catch brief sets from on a whim, perhaps because you had nothing else to do, and thought a comedy club might afford an easy distraction from the proverbial weight of mere being and life itself.
But that’s not how comics see themselves or what they do. While many might give in to the occasional dick and fart joke, their interior lives are in a constant state of conflict over their sense of self-worth, their insecurities stemming from personal inferiority-complexes waylaid by the fever pitch of getting a laugh from an audience. For these hardened road comics and late night troubadours, comedy is a means by which pain, personally and socially felt, may be softened through humor, and where inchoate anger may be disarmed through compulsive self-deprecation, which is why misery so infamously loves comedy.
When Robin Williams died in August of last year, many commentators of the mainstream media and entertainment world were shocked, with morning news anchors left bewildered as to why someone so funny and jovial could end his life with such abrupt finality. In Judd Apatow’s third directorial effort, Funny People, this general misconception about the interior life of most comics is addressed head-on via Apatow’s insider point of view. The film serves as an exercise in getting at the deep-set idiosyncrasies of character and the mental and emotional instabilities that often pre-date a truly genius comedian’s work and pervading humor.
In Funny People, Apatow depicts close friend and real life stand-up-turned-actor Adam Sandler as a tongue-in-cheek, satirical version of himself. In Apatow’s film, Sandler plays George Simmons, a middle-aged comic and frat-pack Hollywood jester whose body of work has become entirely redundant and insufferably sophomoric to the point of undeniable bitterness and cruelty held by Simmons for his own audience. Seth Rogen plays Ira Wright, an aspiring stand-up who grew up on the films of Simmons, and who Simmons takes under his wing as an opener and joke writer when the aging comic takes to the stage once more in order to regain some form of relevance after years spent making big budget Hollywood comedies (and after learning that he has contracted a rare form of highly degenerative cancer). Apatow’s opus on the world of stand-up comedy thus becomes a highly charged dramatic tragedy, the humor that has come to define the studio filmmaker is used liberally, but with a lighter touch, in order to discuss and address death, misery, and comedy in a way that feels immediately true to its subjects, and relatable to anyone who has ever experienced any passing form of depression or self-doubt, and used humor as a means to ease or disguise the pain.
When the film was initially released during the summer of 2009, audience reaction was divided. After winning the mainstream over with The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up, many viewers reacted to Funny People as though they had been betrayed by Adam Sandler, and by association Judd Apatow. For some audience members, Funny People was entirely too depressing and far too long, its ponderous tone and thematic attention to character a drag for those hoping for more of the same light-hearted high jinks that had served to define the individual projects of Apatow and Sandler in the past. Instead of offering an offhand, behind-the-scenes look at a Happy Madison Production, Funny People appeared to have taken a wrong turn, ridiculing and mocking the very sorts of films that have made a household name out of Sandler. Funny People was therefore popularly received as a wrongheaded, anti-populist move that Apatow has since had some trouble shaking off, which might be why his new film with comedienne Amy Schumer, Trainwreck, looks to be so irreverent and structurally weightless.
But it’s in Funny People that Apatow has made his most sustained work as a storyteller. In George Simmons, Apatow has constructed an avatar for all of his anti-social proclivities through the insecurities of the typical stand-up comedian, whose social dysfunction is often hidden in plain sight. It’s sometimes hard to tell just what kind of struggle each and everyone of us is going through on a day-to-day basis, and moving from moment-to-moment, and sometimes, as was so tragically the case with Robin Williams, those of us who can outwardly manifest a collected outlook are often the most troubled and distressed. Likewise, Sandler’s turn in Funny People is one enacted out of the aging frat-boy’s deep maturity and emotional understanding of the character Apatow wrote for him, even if he has otherwise continued in Hollywood as a performer of broad farce and low-brow parody.
More often than not, when people talk about Judd Apatow as a good filmmaker, they cite the short-lived TV show originally broadcast on NBC, Freaks and Geeks, and one scene from that episodic series in particular. In the scene in question, Bill Haverchuck (Martin Starr), the true latchkey kid of the program, is featured coming home from school, where he is shunned for looking and behaving oddly, and quoting popular lines and catch phrases from popular culture as a means of connection with those otherwise socially ignorant or uninterested. Once he gets situated, he turns on the TV, watches the stand-up comic Garry Shandling, and laughs until the food he is trying to eat comes out of his mouth. This one sequence is probably the best thing Apatow has ever produced, as it represents the writer and director on a more personal level than anything else he has ever done, before or since. Funny People is largely concerned with the same issues and works in the same way, only it depicts an Apatow who might have been, a Bill Haverchuck who may have never left the couch to engage and collaborate with a larger world of freaks and cultural misfits, which is a professional move that has come to define Apatow’s shining contribution to popular culture and film.
It’s never going to be ok that someone like Robin Williams was taken from us too soon. But in coming to terms with such tragedy, comedy is a means by which such existential chaos may be made culturally beneficial, bringing together a community of likeminded soul searchers in the act of stand-up performance, where some of the world’s most insidious ailments and errors may be redressed through the calming balm of laughter, lighthearted or personally felt.
Funny People may not contain the same off-brand riffing that Knocked Up succeeds so well in re-appropriating as narrative discourse, but in addressing the morally complicated aspects of life itself through the profession of being a comedian, Apatow’s third feature film stands as one of his best works coming from a more personally held perspective, and if nothing else it holds more maturity and nuance than any one of his many other productions put together. Bottom line, Funny People is Judd Apatow’s most important film to date, as it answers the question as to whether misery loves comedy with a resounding yes, but isn’t afraid to posit the opposite query, which is why the film is as funny as it is, as self-deprecating as it is insightful, honest, and melancholic, which are all factors that compose the making of truly great comedy.
Featured Image: Funny People, Universal Pictures