Cinema's best stand-ups

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As 'Funny People' hits cinemas, Adam Lee Davies looks back over a century of cinematic stand-ups

Mickey One

(1965, Arthur Penn)Warren Beatty as Mickey One'I felt if I was playing a comedian I ought to be funny,' was Warren Beatty’s level-headed assessment of his character in Arthur Penn’s scat-jazz homage to the Nouvelle Vague. Penn clearly thought otherwise and Beatty is left spouting tired coffeehouse clichés while his director mines unintentional hilarity from dream sequences involving carnivorous forklift trucks and a Japanese mime artist straight out of ‘The Fast Show’.Watch the opening sequence
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Punchline

(1988, David Seltzer)Tom Hanks as Steven Gold and Sally Field as Lilah Krystick‘Seinfeld’ gets the Movie-of-the-Week treatment in this surprisingly sour but otherwise godawful gong show of upscale Christmas-cracker jokes and gutter-level observations. Like being pummelled with a bag of oranges, it leaves no obvious scars, but the internal damage to your funny bone may never truly heal.Watch the trailer
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Lenny

(1974, Bob Fosse)Dustin Hoffman as Lenny BruceAn extraordinary performance by Hoffman as the potty-mouthed libertarian cannot disguise the problematic nature of a comic facsimile – no matter how precise. Add the fact that, despite his enduring legacy as a radical free-thinker and de facto activist, time has not been kind to many of Bruce’s topical routines makes for a fine drama that fails to find the funny.Watch a routine from the film
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Scarface

(1983, Brian De Palma)Richard Belzer as MC of the Babylon ClubMany in the UK will know Belzer from his term on TV cop show ‘Homicide’, but back in the US he is equally well known as a comedian. A cameo stint as link-man at Miami’s glitzy Babylon Club, however, ends as badly as any stand-up performance can, when a full-scale drug war erupts on the dancefloor and almost everyone in the place eats a hot lead salad. Belzer somehow survives but won’t, you feel, be invited back.Watch the aftermath of Belzer’s ‘turn’
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Mr Saturday Night

(1992, Billy Crystal)Billy Crystal as Buddy Young JrLittle more than a showcase for Crystal’s endless fund of elderly Jewish entertainer schtick, this schmaltzy comedy tour of the past half-century is much better than it has any right to be. Crystal just about manages to keep his most extreme sentimental excesses in check and - like him or not - he really does know his comedy onions.Watch an interview with Buddy Young
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Annie Hall/Broadway Danny Rose

(1977/1984, Woody Allen)Allen as Alvy Singer/Danny RoseIn an earlier incarnation Woody Allen was one of the great stand-ups, and two of his best films find him playing the comedian. Alvy Singer is anxious, neurotic and hung up on his career, while Danny Rose is free of anxiety, self-consciousness and any mote of talent, but Allen’s love for both is clear.Watch a snippet of Danny Rose’s act
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Wired

(1989, Larry Peerce),

Man on the Moon

(1999, Milos Forman)Michael Chiklis as John Belushi and Jim Carrey as Andy KaufmanMaybe you had to grow up with them larking around on late-night TV, but to many British viewers there's something resolutely unfunny about this pair. These biopics do little to straighten the record, with ‘Wired’ focusing on the blow and the blues and Carrey’s film coming off like a pre-school romp. Watch the real Andy Kaufman on ‘Letterman’
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Funny Bones

(1999, Peter Chelsom)Oliver Platt as Tommy Fawkes‘... I fuck ONE goat!!!’ With one mighty, injudicious joke, Tommy Fawkes blows a promising Vegas lounge career. Relocating to the comedy Mecca of Blackpool in order to find a new act, he is swiftly consumed by a world of music hall throwbacks and half-forgotten family entanglements. An utterly charming dissection of the humorous humerus in which even wearisome prank monkey Lee Evans comes up smelling of roses. There's also a dark streak that runs through the film concerning how far a comedian should go for that all-important guffaw. Watch a scene from the film
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The Tall Guy

(1989, Mel Smith)Jeff Goldblum as Dexter KingThe long-suffering second banana comes under the spotlight in the first of screenwriter Richard Curtis’s big-screen toe-curlers. Goldblum is the straight man to Rowan Atkinson’s comedy diva, but it’s all just window dressing to a cloying love story set in some wholly imaginary London populated by Curtis's usual raft of smug turds and wacky bohemians. Atkinson almost saves the show as top-rank bastard Ron Anderson.Watch the desperate trailer
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The King of Comedy

(1983, Martin Scorsese)Robert De Niro as Rupert Pupkin‘Tragedy,’ Mel Brooks once said, ‘is me getting a paper cut. Comedy is you falling down an open elevator shaft and dying.’ It’s a sentiment worth keeping in mind when watching Scorsese’s study of the ends of ambition and the price of fame. De Niro’s no-talent hack uses a golden loophole in the fame game to circumvent the age old requirements for comedy stardom - top material, preternatural timing, balls the size of church bells – by kidnapping chat show host Jerry Lewis and blackmailing his employers into giving him his own show. Rumours that Alan Carr took the same route just won't go away.Watch Rupert’s act

And further down the bill...


Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling
(1986, Richard Pryor)Maudlin semi-autobiographical parable from post-freebase-fire Pryor.Petey Wheatstraw (1977, Cliff Roquemore)Diabolical vehicle for Rudy Ray Moore’s signature blend of kung-fu and scattergun scat.Wonder Man (1945, H Bruce Humberstone)Danny Kaye plays showbiz twins in a so-so comedy workout.Demolition Man (1993, Marco Brambilla)Denis Leary imports his stage act wholesale into this bonkers Stallone/Snipes actioner.The Sunshine Boys (1975, Herbert Ross)George Burns... zingers... Neil Simon... bickering... Walter Matthau...vaudeville... is it morning already?

Author: Adam Lee Davies


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