Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Pain Behind the Comedy -- Reflections on "Funny People"

Recently I was watching a Biography channel documentary about famous comedians who met tragic ends. John Belushi and Chris Farley died of drug overdoses. Phil Hartman was killed by his own wife after years stuck in a horrible marriage. Richard Pryor set himself on fire because he was so fucked up on drugs.

Comedy and tragedy have always been intertwined because humor comes from pain. The t-shirt says, "If you fall down, it's not funny -- it's HILARIOUS!" TV shows like "The Soup" and late night talk show hosts make their bacon taking potshots at the pains in the lives of celebrities. For me, when I see people crying in public, before a wave of sympathy (and guilt) hit me, I usually have to swallow a couple laughs because people just look so fucking funny when they make the crying face.

Turning pain into laughs...that's the job of the stand-up comic. You're afraid your cock is too small? Got a joke for that. Think your man is cheating on you? Here's a joke for that. Got daddy issues. Have I got a yuck for you!

Judd Apatow's comedy, aptly named Funny People, is about the pain behind the humor. Adam Sandler (in a career defining role) plays George Simmons, a movie funny man who discovers he has a blood disease like leukemia. In the face of death, George takes stock of his life and discovers that he is woefully miserable. He lives in a mansion, alone and lifeless. He's already a dead man in so many ways. The only woman he ever loved he drove away because of his own narcissism. So George decides to return to the only place he could remember having any fun -- the comedy stage.

Enter Ira Wright (Seth Rogen, proving there's more to him than just the stoner straight man), a struggling comedian with no confidence and roommates more successful than himself. Ira needs a break, both professionally and personally, but he doesn't have the stones to make it happen for himself. Hell, he's in love with a fellow comic and his roommate has to give him 10 days to make a move before going after her himself.

George and Ira find themselves brought together when George sees something in Ira's material. Does he really see something genuine, or does he just realize that Ira's lacking such confidence that he's an easy mark to make a friend, kind of like the skinny girl that picks out a fat chick for a friend so everyone will A) think she's a good person and B) make her feel better about her own body image? Regardless, the two become friends, and George hires Ira to write material for him.

Apatow's comedy, which is very funny (but in that bitter, not-everyone-will-like-it, way), is about relationships and connection. It's also deeply personal. Like any good comic, Apatow is obviously drawing from the well of his own regrets to create some remarkably well-developed characters, something we don't often see in comedies.

The personal nature of the film is ultimately what makes it the best of his triumvirate of comedies (The 40-Year Old Virgin, and Knocked Up being the other two). Is it the most re-watchable? Will people be cuing this movie up when their buddies come over so they can have a comfort laugh?

No. Funny People is the movie we will watch when we're down in the dumps, and need a reminder that it's okay to laugh at our pain, even when it's the last thing we want to do.