Exploiting the Archives: Control Nathan Rabin: The Comedian (2016)
Welcome to the latest installment in Control Nathan Rabin, the masochistic column where I allow this site’s Patreon donors to pick my poison by choosing which of two singularly unappealing-looking movies I will be forced to watch and write about. For this entry, I chose a pair of abominations from somewhere deep into the “sad decline” phase of Robert De Niro’s career.
I assumed that readers would choose Dirty Grandpa because it was widely derided yet grossed nearly 100 million dollars while The Comedian more or less slipped under the radar as much as a movie featuring Robert De Niro as an outrageous insult comic can. I’m glad you weirdoes chose this particular punishment because I just watched The Comedian and I’m still not entirely sure that it exists.
The Comedian represents an unmistakable nadir in a career that includes a movie where one of the guys from LMFAO shoved his thong-clad penis aggressively in the formally respected Oscar-winner’s face as he made that, “Eh, can you believe this is happening to me?” face that is his default expressions in his many terrible comedies.
For late-period De Niro, homoerotic shenanigans involving pop-rap bozo’s genitalia is the rule rather than the exception. At this point, De Niro's dignity is a distant memory so even though De Niro is the one dishing it out as well as taking it in The Comedian, the film nevertheless represents a sustained assault on what’s left of his pride.
The Comedian is so astonishingly misconceived that it’s hard to know where to start. So we’ll begin with the epic miscasting of Robert De Niro as Jackie Burke, a cult comedian so explosively funny he sends everyone around him into the laughing equivalent of multiple orgasms every time he opens his mouth and lets loose with a ribald quip.
De Niro plays the title character as the comedy answer to The Incredible Hulk. Only instead of hulking out, growing huge and shredding his clothes whenever he gets angry, when Jackie gets mad he shreds the delicate egos of the uptight busybodies who serve as his satirical targets.
Burke knows how dangerously funny he is, so he nobly refrains from using his super-power of hilarious mockery as much as he possibly can. Yet throughout the film, he is continually pressed into making the kinds of crazy, offensive jokes that could only have originated in his wild mind or the mind of literally any hack comic ever.
When he’s cajoled into doing a tight five at his niece’s LESBIAN wedding, for example, he hauls out some material the Eddie Murphy of Raw would have found unfunny, dated and homophobic about how gay weddings, followed by gay divorces are the hot new fad with the kids and how his niece wasn’t a Jewish American Princess—she’s a Jewish American Prince!
You or I might find this material hopelessly dated and tacky, not to mention offensive, but we would be wrong. To not laugh, and laugh hard, at everything Jackie says is to angrily defy God’s will, because Jackie was put on earth to make people laugh. For Jackie is that rarest and most necessary of creatures: a comedian willing to mock the physical appearances of women, the overweight and odd-looking men.
The film’s plot kicks off during one such comic truth-telling session. A large, funny-looking man with a web-series where he angrily confronts insult comics gets all up in Jackie’s business and Jackie clocks him in a video that quickly goes viral, a phrase that is super important to the plot and comes up repeatedly in ways that betray that the filmmakers have no idea what that means, and clearly still think computers are some kind of fad.
The Comedian desperately wants to have its pulse on the comic zeitgeist, but feels like it was made by people who still have AOL accounts, land lines and have to ask their children and grandchildren what a “podcast” is. The movie is fucked by timing in that respect. It has the misfortune to come out after podcasts like WTF and television shows like Louie have laid the psychological universe of the stand-up comedian bare.
The film makes the terrible mistake of filming multiple scenes in The Comedy Cellar, where Louie’s opening credits are filmed and the show occasionally takes place, a move that only highlights the film's phoniness. Comedians like Jim Norton are on hand to lend the movie an edge of gritty realism but as soon as they open their mouth any iota of verisimilitude evaporates and the celebrity cameos become as clumsy and stilted as those on Arliss or Entourage, which are the gold standards or clumsy, stilted celebrity cameos.
Jackie goes to jail for his assault. Literally the next scene he’s out and doing community service doling out slop and outrageous one-liners to homeless people extras who over-act so egregiously you’d think they were in the presence of Christ’s funnier and more interesting older brother, not a guy doing a bad Don Rickles impersonation.
The Comedian angrily demands that Jackie is a George Carlin-level comic genius, a savage satirist too principled and smart for his own good, but judging by his jokes here he’d barely pass muster at the average open-mic night. So to really drive home the idea that Jackie Burke is not just a funnyman but comedy personified, it has the audience explode with laughter after everything he says. The wall-to-wall, never-earned laughter is mixed so loud it’s a wonder you can hear what anyone says.
Hack comedy specials often open with masturbatory shots of the crowd talking about how excited they are for the night's comedy, and are punctuated liberally with reaction shots of the crowd guffawing. The more a stand-up special feels the need to repeatedly cut to audience members chortling, the less confidence it has in the audience's ability to make up their own mind about what they find funny. The Comedian takes that desperate tactic out of the stand-up special and makes it the core of two hours that pass like four.
It’s never established through dialogue, but The Comedian clearly takes place in an alternate universe called the Land of Easy Laughter, where every time a comedian makes a joke, on or off-stage, that joke is received with great gales of laughter and stomping-on-the-ground enthusiasm. In the Land of Easy Laughter, there is no such thing as an unsuccessful joke. If someone makes a joke, and that person is Jackie, then it is automatically hilarious, and no amount of ecstatic audience reaction shots or booming laughter can convey the full impact of such hilarity.
After he gets out of prison, Jackie romances a woman also working her way through community service played by Leslie Mann. Like everyone in the film, she cannot be around Jackie without worrying about laughing so hard she’ll have a heart attack and die, even when he’s insulting her dad, played here by Harvey Keitel.
In a lovely act of solidarity and loyalty, Keitel honors his friend and Taxi Driver costar’s commitment to awfulness in entertainment by being every bit as bad, overwrought and unconvincing as a man who astonishingly was once considered a solid candidate for world's greatest living actor.
Speaking of De Niro’s glory days, the Oscar winner has now starred in one of the greatest, most queasily authentic and just plain great movies about comedy and entertainment and aberrant human psychology in The King Of Comedy and one of worst, least authentic and just plain terrible movies about those same subjects in The Comedian.
How unconvincing is De Niro as a man who makes people laugh harder than they’ve ever laughed before reflexively? He’s harder to buy than John Wayne as Genghis Khan in The Conqueror and Mickey Rooney as an Asian gentleman in Breakfast At Tiffany’s. Yet the film never stops insisting on the character’s prickly genius and explosive truth-telling.
When a desperate Jackie is asked to host a sadistic and gimmicky reality competition (one that suggests the filmmakers still think Survivor is a hot new thing they can cash in) it’s supposed to represent a terrible violation of Jackie’s purity and unshakeable integrity. Yet he’s such a belligerent, unfunny, hateful asshole that it accidentally comes off as the perfect gig for a foul-mouthed prick like Jackie.
Out of respect for the actor and icon De Niro used to be, I will refrain from extensively discussing the scene where he entertains an old folks’ home with a naughty parody of “Makin’ Whoopie” called “Not Makin’ Poopie” that later gets the auto-tune treatment in and also goes viral. I can’t believe I’m writing this in a second consecutive Control Nathan Rabin entry, but whoever wrote the “Not Makin’ Poopie”: I know “Weird Al” Yankovic. I’ve worked alongside “Weird Al” Yankovic. I’d like to consider “Weird Al” Yankovic a friend. You, person who wrote “Not Makin’ Poopie”, are no “Weird Al” Yankovic.
De Niro has spent much of the past two decades making audiences forget why they once loved and respected him yet The Comedian assumes the audience retains a bottomless level of goodwill towards him. I like to give credit where it’s due, however, and point out the three and a half seconds of the film that work.
The wonderful Charles Grodin, who really should have starred in this movie, but only if they let him improvise all his lines and also threw out the script (or let him re-write it) has a small but important supporting role as Jackie’s arch-nemesis. We’re supposed to hate Grodin’s conniving character because Jackie does. Instead, his disdain for the comedian immediately renders him the film’s most realistic and sympathetic character.
There’s a single wry moment late in the moment when Jackie is considering doing a roast for an ancient actress played by Cloris Leachman, who Jackie describes as “a barely living legend.” Unique among the film’s characters, Grodin does not laugh at Jackie’s weak joke. Instead, Grodin pauses just a little bit too long, in that inimitable Charles Grodin fashion, before semi-grudgingly allowing, “Funny” in place of laughter.
It’s a tiny moment from a man who can’t not be funny, even in these fetid swamp waters.It’s the closest the movie gets to a laugh but it also says a lot about this character and the way comedy, to him, is only moderately about being funny. It also stands out because Grodin is rather egregiously not laughing at De Niro, and making all the extras and supporting players who are guffawing as if they’re about to OD on nitrous oxide look even phonier.
The Comedian has such a bizarre, painfully artificial conception of comedy that it almost qualifies as anti-comedy. If Tim & Eric had tricked someone like De Niro or Billy Crystal (who has the least awkward cameo as himself, if I might damn him with faint praise) into starring in this movie as a cruel, meta joke at their expense, it would be brilliant.
But nah, The Comedian is just fucking terrible. The worst. It’s bad even by latter-day Robert De Niro standards. I wasn’t even aware movies could be this bad, and I’ve seen a few stinkers in my time, many starring this particular hack.
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