Robert De Niro played a wannabe standup comic named Rupert Pupkin whose dream was to host a late night talk show and would go to any means to accomplish that in the 1983 Martin Scorsese-directed satire “The King of Comedy.” Although the film flopped at the box office it did become a cult favorite and it wound being one of De Niro’s best remembered roles of his very long film career.
Thirty-three years later De Niro is back snapping off one-liners in the new Taylor Hackford film, “The Comedian.” Whereas Rupert Pupkin was a wet-behind-the-ears nebbish, his character in this film, Jackie Burke, is probably what Lenny Bruce would be like had he survived until today.
Burke is bitter because he is best known for his role as a grumpy security guard on what was a popular TV show in the late ‘80s, “Eddie’s Home,” and for screaming “Hey Arleeeeeen!” at the top of his lungs in every episode. He is tired of being known for one catchphrase and one role and for people in the street calling him Eddie instead of Jackie.
His agent books him a “nostalgia night” gig at Levittown’s legendary Governor’s Comedy Club and the emcee that night is Jimmy “JJ” Walker who in real life has experienced what the fictional Jackie is going through. A heckler gets on him for his refusal to recite any lines from his old television program and when Jackie sees that he is taping his act, which is generally a comedy club no-no, Eddie winds up in a physical altercation. A judge orders Jackie to spend 30 days in the Nassau County Correctional Center in East Meadow (scenes were actually filmed there) and then perform community service.
Ironically, Jackie who previously couldn’t get arrested, to use the old showbiz term for someone famous whose career now seems to be in the toilet, is even hotter than he was when he was the star of “Eddie’s Home,” thanks to the video of his melee at Governor’s going viral on social media. He suddenly becomes the darling of the college age crowd but quickly discovers there is a cost to that newfound fame.
“The Comedian” works when the film spends time examining the world of comedy from an insider’s viewpoint. In the early scene at Governor’s, Jackie thinks aloud to himself that he could have been a doctor or lawyer but his pathetic need for applause led him to the world of standup and trying to make drunks happy. That kind of self-loathing is apparently common in the comedic world.
With Lewis Friedman and Jeff Ross responsible for a lot of the screenplay it’s not surprising that the Friars Club and its infamous celebrity roasts form a pivotal scene. While the lay public is always assured of a lot of laughs, as anyone who has ever watched a roast on Comedy Central will attest, there is a lot of politics and pressure on the performers behind the scenes. There apparently is some serious politics behind who gets to be part of the dais and the order in which the comics are called up to hurl the insults to the guest of honor. The importance “to kill” (comic lingo for making peers laugh) at roasts can make or break a career. The thorny topic of comedians stealing material from each other is also broached.
The fillmmakers behind “The Comedian” would have been better off had they stuck to its core theme of peeling back the curtain on the world of creating laughs. Unfortunately the film meander s off into needlessly becoming a relationship film by having Jackie get involved with a flaky woman, Harmony (Leslie Mann), he meets while performing his community service sentence. Their interplay doesn’t feel authentic and it just foolishly pads the film’s running time to two hours.
One good thing is that there is a lot of Queens in “The Comedian.” The iconic Rego Park deli, Ben’s Best, is featured prominently in the film. Although Danny DeVito plays its proprietor, its owner in real life, Jay Parker, is given a cameo and is mentioned by name. Unlike when Martin Scorsese changed the name of the Shalimar to Kacandes Diner when filming “The Wolf of Wall Street,” Hackford wisely keeps the Ben’s Best name here. A key wedding scene was shot at the Elmhurst catering hall, Da Mikele Illagio. Political activist and former CUNY trustee, Jeff Wiesenfeld, who grew up in Rego Park, has a cameo in the film playing a reporter.
“The Comedian” may be kicking off a 2017 entertainment trend. CNN is set to launch a “History of Comedy” series this spring while Showtime will be adapting William Knoeldelseder’s book about the LA comedy scene in the ‘70s, “I’m Dying Up Here,” into a Jim Carrey-produced series beginning in June.