Noel: As of right now, two of the 10 most popular movies in the United States star Kevin Hart, a stand-up comedian who’s had a slow-building career, but is lately having something of a moment, thanks to Ride Along, About Last Night, and his hit 2013 concert film Let Me Explain. Hart’s success puts him in the relatively small group of stand-ups who’ve become movie stars. The disciplines of stand-up comedy and acting—even comic acting—are so different that not everyone is able to make that leap to the big screen. (More often, stand-ups settle in on television, in sitcoms, but even that isn’t easy to do.) Prompted by a reader comment, I wrote a little bit a few weeks ago about which kinds of comedians make the best movie actors, suggesting that the broader physical comedians like Jim Carrey and Jerry Lewis do better on the big screen than the observational comics like Jerry Seinfeld and Louis C.K. But Hart splits the difference between the outsized and the personal. He’s more like a classic character-actor type, which makes his elevation to leading-man status all the more impressive.
I’d like to get some input from you guys. Which stand-ups do you think have become credible movie stars, either now or in the past? Why did someone like Steve Martin have such a good run in movies, while Lenny Bruce never did?
Matt: The “why” part is a tough question. You look at a list of great stand-up comedians, and nearly all of them tried their hand at acting at some time or another, and in some medium or another. Some, like George Carlin, dabbled, but never really found as much success onscreen as they did onstage. A fair number, including Larry David, Jerry Seinfeld, Paul Reiser, and Garry Shandling, found ways to essentially transmute their stand-up material into television shows, or occasionally movies. And then there’s the rarer breed, like Carrey or Martin, who basically left their stand-up act behind and became actors who used to be comedians, not comedians who occasionally acted.
Maybe it comes down to separating the “actors” from the “performers.” Some stand-ups are performers; they tell personal anecdotes and offer amusing observations about their own lives. Others are actors disguised as stand-ups; they create little stories in which they play every part and act out each scene. Some stand-ups are comfortable in their own skin; others like to try on other people’s skin. (That sounds really gross and vaguely Silence Of The Lambs-y, but you get the idea.) Before Robin Williams became a TV and movie star (and later an Oscar-winner), he developed a stand-up act full of goofy characters and weird voices; he essentially created an entire filmography’s worth of roles before he ever stepped foot in front of a movie camera.
As to who really made the jump from stand-up to legit movie star, beyond the aforementioned (Steve) Martin and Lewis. Carrey and Williams. There are at least a few more that qualify, including Eddie Murphy and Albert Brooks. Then there’s the case of maybe the most famous and most successful stand-up-turned-filmmaker in history. His act was not distinguished by impressions or voices, and as an film actor, he’s so locked into one kind of performance that people have come to assume all his movies are autobiographical, regardless of their actual origins. His name, of course, is Woody Allen. Nathan, why do you think Allen succeeded where others with similar skill sets and similar aspirations—like Chris Rock, for example—have struggled?
Nathan: I think the reason Allen succeeded so spectacularly as an actor, writer, and director is that he committed to it 100 percent. He threw himself into learning and perfecting the art of film, to the detriment of everything else, including one of the most influential, impressive stand-up comedy careers of all time.
Chris Rock, by sharp contrast, is and probably always will be a stand-up comedian first and foremost. When it comes to film, he’s a consummate dabbler; he’s worked with some interesting people (Neil LaBute, Julie Delpy, Louis C.K.), but mostly, he’s been content to clumsily repackage his stand-up in underachieving, forgotten schlock like the toothless Head Of State, which he also directed. The closest Rock has come to recapturing the magic of his stand-up on the big screen has been Good Hair, and that’s precisely because it let Chris Rock be Chris Rock, instead of reducing him to one of Adam Sandler’s sidekicks, or having him voice a sassy anthropomorphized animal.
So there’s a big trade-off at play here. I don’t think Rock would be as brilliant a stand-up comedian if he were fully committed to film, and I don’t think it’s at all coincidental that some of the greatest stand-up comedians of all time, like Albert Brooks, Steve Martin, and Woody Allen quit stand-up when they became successful filmmakers. Here’s my question to you: Is the trade-off worth it? Would you give back Albert Brooks or Woody Allen the filmmakers to have them as stand-up comedians?
Noel: A more important question might be: Would they? Allen has said in the past that he hated doing stand-up, and while he had a flair for the one-liner, when I listen to those old Allen stand-up routines, I can hear him trying to break out of the strictures of mere personal observation and create little scenarios, not unlike the New Yorker pieces he later wrote, or the movies he later made. Also, one of the reasons Allen was so successful at transitioning to film was that he understood that “Woody Allen” was always just a character, similar to Bob Hope when Hope played “himself” in movies. Unlike a lot of comedians, Hope rarely took a serious turn onscreen, and while Allen has made dramatic movies, he doesn’t take the lead in them.
Brooks is a different story. In his own films, he’s generally spun variations on the same persona, but he’s also played character roles for other directors, and has shown he’s adept at drama. Would I trade that in for more Brooks stand-up? Given that Brooks’ stage act in the 1970s tended to be more conceptual and sketch-oriented, I don’t think we’ve missed much from him transferring those skills to film. What I do miss are the days when Brooks would go on Larry King’s radio show and riff. That was his best forum as a comedian, bouncing impressions and off-the-cuff observations off King, who could barely contain his delight.
Here’s an unusual case: Richard Pryor. He was an excellent actor, as evidenced by movies like Blue Collar and Lady Sings The Blues. Yet outside of his concert films, his screen comedies were incredibly weak. Weirdly, he was outpaced in that regard by Eddie Murphy, who (in my opinion, anyway) was funnier in his early movies 48 Hrs. and Beverly Hills Cop than he was in his off-puttingly nasty stand-up film Raw. What made Murphy such a good comic actor, and Pryor so much better at being dramatic?
Matt: As stand-ups, Pryor was probably more of a “performer,” and Murphy more of an “actor.” Murphy’s material was never as sharp as Pryor’s, but it was always loaded with excuses for his incredible charisma and impressions (including one of Pryor himself). Later, Murphy cleverly used his gift for characters in some of his biggest movies, playing half a dozen or more per film, in stuff like Coming To America and The Nutty Professor.
But maybe Pryor’s success in dramas rather than comedies wasn’t about his skills, so much as about the limitations of mainstream Hollywood filmmaking. Much of Pryor’s best material was about race, sex, and drug use (including his own); serious topics tackled in funny ways. Studio comedies rarely dealt with these subjects at all, much less with the brutal honesty and uncensored insight Pryor was known for. His sensibilities and interests fit better in dramatic films, particularly in the edgy productions of the New Hollywood era, when Pryor was at the peak of his powers.
The oft-discussed golden rule of filmmaking is “show, don’t tell.” By its nature, stand-up comedy is a medium of telling stories, but some comedians do more “showing” than others, an idea that gets us back to dividing comedians into “performers” and “actors.” Would “showers” and “tellers” be a better division? And here’s another question for you, Nathan: Are there any movie stars out there that you think could succeed as stand-up comedians?
Nathan: Getting back to your observations on the differences between Pryor and Murphy, I think it once again comes down to commitment. After Pryor stopped trying to be Bill Cosby, he bared his soul onstage. He put his entire being into his act, whereas Murphy, even at his height, was a joke-telling professional who revealed as little about himself as possible onstage. Stand-up isn’t an existential calling to Murphy the way it was to Pryor: It was something he did successfully, then stopped. Pryor brought those confessional, soul-baring qualities to his performances, even in genre movies like The Mack and schlock like The Toy; I felt for him in a way I don’t with Murphy, who invariably holds audiences at a distance.
I think the genius of Kevin Hart as a movie star is that he’s figured out a way to be himself in big commercial movies. He’s figured out how to assert a specific, unique stand-up voice in his acting roles, even if it sometimes feels, as it often felt with Rock, like he was simply shoehorning stand-up into the movies. In the awful Think Like A Man, Hart was employed as a soloist, the one-man Greek chorus commenting irreverently on the action. That’s a common role for a comedian to play, since it calls upon a gift for manic invention, and doesn’t require much acting chops; Think Like A Man director Tim Story previously used Cedric The Entertainer in Barbershop in an extremely similar role.
As to what movie stars might make for good stand-ups… Tom Hanks springs to the top of the list, but that’s a bit of a cheat, since he actually developed a stand-up act while preparing to play a self-destructive comedian in Punchline. But I would love to see James Franco do stand-up, partially out of morbid curiosity, and partially because it seems like that’s just about the only thing he hasn’t tried his hand at, for better or worse.
Noel: I’m thinking about the actors who do really well on talk shows: Paul Rudd, for example, or Jennifer Lawrence. I bet they could be funny onstage, just talking about their lives. Though even that isn’t as easy as it may seem to non-comics. I recently saw Nick Offerman perform his lecture/stand-up act American Ham live, and while Offerman is a likable dude with some solid, amusing points to make about how people should behave, his show had no sense of pace. It was just a long ramble, fitfully funny.
You know who I’d like to see do stand-up? Will Ferrell. He came up through improv, not stand-up, but he has such a weird sense of humor—and again, he’s so good on late-night talk shows—that he’d probably put together a set that’d be more than just “Did’ya ever notice?” jokes. He’d be more like Steve Martin in reverse: moving from movies to absurdist stagecraft.
Matt, you asked this question like you had an answer in mind. Who’s your movie star who you think should be doing stand-up?
Matt: I didn’t actually have anyone in mind, I just thought it might be an interesting notion to explore. Ferrell is a good suggestion; while it wouldn’t technically qualify as “stand-up,” I did see his (nearly) one-man show on Broadway, You’re Welcome America: A Final Night With George W. Bush, which blew up his Bush impression from Saturday Night Live to feature-length, and it was absolutely fantastic. True, Ferrell had the advantage of a background in theater; nonetheless, his Broadway show had all the absurdist stagecraft you could ever want.
Nathan’s mention of Hanks and Punchline reminds me of Seth Rogen playing a believable stand-up comedian in Judd Apatow’s Funny People. But Rogen actually had a fair amount of stand-up experience as a teenager prior to his casting on Apatow and Paul Feig’s short-lived but much-loved television series Freaks And Geeks, so he might actually qualify as a stand-up who became a successful actor, rather than the other way around. He wasn’t by any means a famous comic, but he did have some success onstage (including winning the Vancouver Amateur Comedy Contest at the age of 16) before he switched to television, and then filmmaking.
This Conversation keeps nudging closer and closer to the world of stand-up comedy on film, and while that’s probably a discussion best saved for a later date, I’d love to return one more time to Kevin Hart, who managed to buck the trend toward stand-up “specials” on cable, and released two successful stand-up movies to theaters; 2011’s Laugh At My Pain and 2013’s Kevin Hart: Let Me Explain, which grossed $32.2 million in theaters. That makes it the fourth-highest-grossing stand-up movie in history, behind Eddie Murphy Raw, The Original Kings Of Comedy, and Richard Pryor: Live On The Sunset Strip. Nathan, you talked a little about why Hart has succeeded in fiction films; why do you think he’s also been successful in stand-up films at a time when that genre is so out of fashion?
Nathan: Because his stand-up, which I quite enjoy, is broad and physical enough to fill the giant arenas he plays these days, yet very specifically rooted in his persona. If Eddie Murphy’s shtick was in being the swaggering alpha male, Hart is a quintessential beta male; he uses his body and his physicality in a self-deprecating, self-effacing way that really plays up his shortness and slightness.
One of the reasons Hart has been so successful is because the tradition of stand-up films for black comics is stronger, and always has been stronger, than the tradition of stand-up movies for white comics. Looking at box-office charts, Eddie Murphy, Richard Pryor, Martin Lawrence, and Kevin Hart are responsible for seven of the top 10 highest-grossing stand-up concert films ever. The Original Kings Of Comedy—the second-highest-grossing stand-up concert film ever, after Raw—shocked people by making tens of millions of dollars in 2000. Hart has succeeded with his stand-up films in part because he has spent the last 15 years cultivating an enormous grassroots following outside the mainstream of American culture (i.e, white people), who are loyal enough to pay money for the inherently ersatz experience of watching a filmed representation of a stand-up performance.
His films, both stand-up and narrative, have become communal experiences best shared with a packed theater actively engaging with Hart’s material; the same cannot necessarily be said of, say, Louis C.K., who is as hot as you can get these days without being Kevin Hart, but who, after debuting one of his films at Sundance, now releases them straight to his audience online via his website. I’ve enjoyed what I’ve seen of Hart’s stand-up on Comedy Central, and watching him destroy a huge auditorium, I realized I was missing out by not actually being at the show. There’s an electricity to live performances in general, and his in particular, that’s difficult to capture onscreen. That, I think, is the measure of a real star, in stand-up or in film, that desire for a connection that’s as direct and intense as possible. Hart has that electric connection to the masses; he isn’t going away any time soon. To borrow Scott Tobias’ favorite turn of phrase, he has cracked the code, both as an actor and a stand-up, so we might as well get used to him.