The Trouble with Comedian Biopics

Biopics are a Hollywood mainstay, with films based upon an inspiring public figure’s life being a tried-and-true path for stars and filmmakers to gain prestige during awards season. The most common are films about musicians (Walk the Line, Ray), but those based on political figures (Milk, The King’s Speech) and media moguls (The Aviator, The Social Network) also pop up in cineplexes with regularity. Films focusing on comedians are all the more rare, but a small handful been produced, to varying results. With biographical films about Richard Pryor, John Belushi, and Sam Kinison in the early stages of development, now seems an appropriate time to evaluate the state of the comedian biopic.

While there have been a few well-made biopics of comedians in the past that add to the legacy of the performer depicted, rather than tarnishing it, making an enjoyable and respectable film about a comedian’s life is a tricky proposition. When done gracefully, these movies can introduce a comedian’s point of view and body of work to a new audience, serving as a gateway to their comedy for younger generations. A good biopic requires a perfect marriage between the subject and the actor portraying them, as well as a director with a good sense of both comedy and drama and a script that captures the comedian’s sense of humor while catching all of the big events in their life and remaining entertaining the whole way through. The lead actor needs to give a chameleon-like performance, becoming the person they’re playing. Considering all of the factors at play, it’s almost surprising that a few good comedian biopics — Chaplin, Lenny, Man on the Moon — have managed to squeak through.

Comedy is often a coping mechanism for dealing with life’s sadness, so it’s fitting that many of the most-beloved comedians had troubled spots in their lives, particularly in childhood. This makes for interesting cinematic fodder, but this “tears of a clown” angle gets old when it’s shared by every comedian. Treating an art form that’s supposed to be fun and bring joy to people with such a somber attitude seems counter-effective. A weepy, maudlin film about a comedian’s life will begin to emulate the things most comedians rebel against and make fun of. Comedians reject oversentimental and self-serious attitudes like this, which is also the problem with the Comedy Awards and previous attempts to create an awards show for the comedy industry.

Creating a biopic centering on a comedian presents a greater challenge than making one based on a musician — the biopic’s most common subject. When it comes to my favorite singers and musicians, I know their songs well but am not really familiar with their mannerisms, speaking voice, or even what they look like. Because music only plays off one of the senses, it’s tougher to call “bullshit” on a music biopic than a comedy one. Also, originality is more important in comedy than music. There are plenty of singers who don’t write their own songs, but most comedians are expected to generate their own material (but there are exceptions). Cover songs can often be more popular than the original, but when comedies are remade, it’s just embarrassing for everyone involved (The Pink Panther) and hurts the reputation of the original. A beautiful melody works no matter who sings it, as long as they can carry a tune. Comedy is so ingrained in the personality of the person performing it that it’s impossible to replicate a stand-up act or a popular character with the same effect.

The four big comedian biopics

  • Lenny (1974) — Probably the most acclaimed movie about a real-life comedian, director Bob Fosse’s Lenny deserved its multiple Oscar nominations. Dustin Hoffman knocked it out of the park with his recreation of controversial stand-up Lenny Bruce’s act. Bruce led a fascinating life, rife with material to draw from, but having read Lenny Bruce’s autobiography How to Talk Dirty and Influence People, I felt a few worthwhile moments were left out, particularly Bruce’s arrest for impersonating a priest to collect money for a leper colony. Still, Lenny is one of the best comedian biopics in existence, and Hoffman’s delivery of Bruce’s material is very funny, which is quite impressive. Lenny Bruce was so ahead of his time that his viewpoints synced up well with the free-thinking attitudes of the late 60s and early 70s, when Lenny was released, and this depiction of Bruce’s quest to defend the First Amendment is well-worth checking out.
  • Wired (1989) — Not just one of the worst biopics ever, but one of the worst films ever, this ham-fisted account of John Belushi’s life, death, and afterlife is disappointing on many levels. The film was troubled from the start because it was based on Bob Woodward’s controversial book about Belushi, which was deemed a salacious hit job by Dan Aykroyd, Belushi’s brother Jim, and his widow Judith Belushi Pisano, amongst others. Those close to Belushi called for a boycott on the movie too, which starred Michael Chiklis, in his first movie role, as the beloved funnyman.

    The film’s plot involves John Belushi’s ghost traveling around with his guardian angel — who happens to be a walking Hispanic stereotype — as they look back on key moments from Belushi’s life and its aftermath. Needless to say, it’d be absurd to expect a good movie out of that premise, but things just get worse as it goes on. The climax of the film involves Belushi’s ghost in a “Devil Went Down to Georgia” bargain with his guardian angel, agreeing to compete with him in game of Blues Brothers pinball that will determine if Belushi lives or dies. No joke.

    Belushi biographer Bob Woodward is also a character in the film, and the guardian angel warns Belushi, “He’s gonna trash your good name… He’s gonna do for you what he did for Nixon.” This brings to light the lack of logic in Woodward setting his sights on the late comedian in the same way he did on the corrupt President. Belushi’s only victim was himself; he wasn’t abusing the trust of the American people as Nixon was. Oh, and also Belushi wasn’t alive to face the criticism, so it seems all-the-more unnecessary to try to take him down. The film, completely void of an understanding of addiction or sympathy for the troubled star, just comes off as kicking a man when he’s down — or dead, for that matter. Roger Ebert compared the movie’s treatment of Belushi’s addiction to the way pot is portrayed in Reefer Madness, and it’s an apt assessment. “You couldn’t even wait ‘till my body was cold!” Belushi’s ghost cries out at Woodward in the film. My thoughts exactly.

    I haven’t even mentioned Michael Chiklis’s energy-lacking recreations of Belushi’s comedy scenes, which makes one wonder if Chiklis or the director had even seen Belushi’s samurai sketch before attempting to redo it. But Chiklis was an odd choice for the role in the first place. While Dustin Hoffman and Jim Carrey have backgrounds in comedy that justify them being cast in similar biopics, Chiklis’s merits as a comedic actor are negligible. I’m not really sure who this movie was supposed to satisfy, and it’s the type of comedian biopic that filmmakers should strive to avoid making.

  • Chaplin (1992) — Richard Attenborough already had a successful biopic under his belt with Gandhi when he took on directing duties with Chaplin. The finished product is an outstanding achievement, and Robert Downey Jr.’s work as Charlie Chaplin is just the kind of transformative performance that a great biopic necessitates. The movie’s greatest asset is that Chaplin himself looks so different from his famous screen character, the Tramp. This allows the filmmakers to play footage from Charlie Chaplin’s movies whenever they’re necessary to the plot, rather than having Downey Jr. recreate these famous scenes. Although Downey Jr. shows here that he can handle physical comedy well, nobody could do Chaplin’s movies quite like Chaplin. The filmmakers sidestep a typical biopic weak point by not trying to emulate Chaplin’s iconic film scenes.

    Perhaps no comedian in history has been more worthy of a biopic than Charlie Chaplin. He was a worldwide celebrity, a pop cultural icon, and a pioneer in the movie industry who paved the way for every big screen comedian to follow. With his traumatic childhood, turbulent marriages, and exile from the United States only being the tip of the iceberg, there’s too much in this man’s life to cram into one movie. Richard Attenborough somehow manages to do so, and it’s a remarkable and inspiring film.

  • Man on the Moon (1999) — Jim Carrey practically becomes Andy Kaufman in director Miloš Forman’s biopic of the actor, comedian, and anti-humor trailblazer. The film captures the spirit of Kaufman’s thought-provoking but childlike brand of humor, managing to recreate his impressive history of pranks and in-jokes. This was a major step in Jim Carrey’s transition to dramatic acting, his second foray into the field after The Truman Show, and he gives a warm and endearing performance, bringing out the humanity in the enigmatic entertainer.
  • On television

    Biopics of comedians are more common in television than in film these days, but these TV versions rarely have the scope and impact of Chaplin or Man on the Moon. They tend to be low-budget efforts that focus on less-famous comedians who only led mildly-fascinating lives. Jami Gertz played Gilda Radner, Sean Hayes and Jeremy Northam portrayed comedy duo Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin, respectively, Brad Garrett starred as Jackie Gleason, and ABC made a Three Stooges biopic, featuring Michael Chiklis, in a less-offensive performance as Curly. BBC4 has also made a big move in the biopic game beginning with 2006’s Fabulosa!, which starred Michael Sheen as Kenneth Williams. The film received more than its fair share of awards and acclaim and inspired BBC4 to produce an entire series of biopic — many of which focused on comedians, including Frankie Howerd, Hattie Jacques, and duo Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise.

    HBO’s track record for comedian biopics is a little stronger than its competitors. While The Late Shift, an Emmy-nominated adaptation of Bill Carter’s book, isn’t a traditional biopic, it still focuses on two major forces in American comedy during one hectic period of time. The movie depicts the turf battle over The Tonight Show hosting gig between Jay Leno and David Letterman, and it’s especially interesting viewing now since history just repeated itself last year. There are no plans to make a sequel about the Leno-Conan debacle, but Conan O’Brien has joked that he wants actress Tilda Swinton to play him. Another HBO film, The Life and Death of Peter Sellers is a high-water mark in the TV biopic field, starring Geoffrey Rush as Sellers. Rush gives a fantastic performance, and this is one that’s worthy of a theatrical release.

    What’s on the horizon

    “I think it falls into that trap of when a comedian is playing a comedian it’s just less funny. His (Belushi’s) life is not as funny as his work, and watching me do an imitation of him doing his Saturday Night Live bits won’t be as funny as watching him do his SNL bits.”

    Todd Phillips (director of Old School and The Hangover) was announced last year to be producing a biopic about John Belushi’s life. Steven Conrad (writer of The Pursuit of Happyness) will be writing the script, which is based on Belushi: A Biography, written by the actor’s widow Judy Belushi Pisano, who will be onboard as a producer. There’s no way this one could be any worse than Wired, and I like that Judy Belushi is involved. No word yet on who’ll be playing Belushi, but Jack Black has already taken himself out of the running, telling the press:

    Tom Shadyac (director of Bruce Almighty and Ace Ventura) is preparing to direct the bigscreen story of Pentecostal preacher-turned screaming stand-up Sam Kinison. The project was first developed as a TV movie for HBO, with Dan Fogler starring, but it looks to be headed to theaters instead. I’m not sure if Shadyac’s the right person for the job, as he typically directs broad comedies, but time will tell if he’s capable of telling Kinison’s story well. It’s not known whether Fogler is still attached to the project, but he’s got Sam Kinison’s act down, as evidenced by his screen test for the role, in front of a live audience:

    Bill Hader is signed on to play comedian/impressionist Vaughn Meader, best known for his JFK impression, in a biopic entitled Vaughn Meader. Meader shot to fame overnight with a hit comedy record, but his celebrity evaporated just as quickly when JFK’s assassination cut his career short. The project is set up at Ben Stiller’s company, Red Hour Films, and will be written and directed by The Onion veteran Rob Siegel, who wrote The Wrestler and wrote/directed Big Fan. Siegel’s track record is impeccable so far, and this definitely sounds intriguing. Meader is the perfect subject for a biopic, as he’s someone who led an interesting life but his story isn’t widely-known.

    Bill Condon (director of Dreamgirls and Kinsey) has written a script to a Richard Pryor biopic, entitled Richard Pryor: Is It Something I Said? Condon was gearing up to direct the film with Eddie Murphy in the starring role. When Murphy dropped out over creative differences, Marlon Wayans took his place. Condon’s taken a hiatus from the project to direct the final two installments of the Twilight franchise, but hopefully, he’ll return to it afterwards. I have mixed feelings about Marlon Wayans in the role, but according to Entertainment Weekly, the producers were very pleased with his “13-min screen test where he ‘transforms into Pryor.’” That’s quite an endorsement, and I’m eager to see how this one turns out.

    Other comedians deserving of a biopic

    Biopics have a tendency to mythologize their subjects, creating an exaggerated legacy that the work of the person depicted can’t possibly live up to. It’s so difficult to avoid upsetting fans with just a casting choice alone, but studios are nevertheless going to continue to produce biographical films, as long as they remain awards magnets. As far as past comedian biopics, three of the four big ones were high-quality and respectful of the legacies of their subjects and the other one was an unholy mess. That inspires some confidence, showing that as long as the right director and star take on the project, it will more than likely turn out satisfying. Of the current crop of in-development comedian biopics, Richard Pryor, Sam Kinison, Vaughn Meader, and John Belushi are great selections, and they’re more deserving of the biopic treatment than most of their peers.

    But what comes next? After these four, which stand-ups, comedy writers or actors are most worthy of a biopic? As far as Pryor’s stand-up contemporaries go, George Carlin is the next most prolific. It’d be interesting to see Carlin’s early career and his struggles with censorship, but the rest of his life wasn’t extraordinary enough to warrant a movie. Woody Allen? It’d be creepy watching the whole Soon-Yi relationship develop, and there’s not much of note in his personal life beyond that.

    The obvious choice for a comedian biopic is Bill Hicks, but as a longtime fan of Hicks’s work, I don’t want to see that happen. A project based on Hicks’s life was in development back in 2008 with Russell Crowe circling the role, but luckily, it seems to have dissipated. Hopefully, Hollywood leaves Bill Hicks’s life alone, as his material speaks for itself and still holds up fine. The recent documentary about him, American: The Bill Hicks Story, does a fine job of telling his story.

    My vote for biopic subject goes to Michael O’Donoghue, Saturday Night Live’s first head writer. While O’Donoghue is a cult figure and not widely-known these days, his impact on American humor is vast. His dark brand of humor helped to establish SNL and National Lampoon magazine in their heydays, and his stormy personal life, detailed in Dennis Perrin’s excellent biography Mr. Mike, is just as fascinating as his professional accomplishments. I’d also like to see biopics on Rodney Dangerfield, Redd Foxx, and Peter Cook, and revisiting Lenny Bruce’s life in a modern context could prove worthwhile.

    No one wants to see their favorite comedian’s legacy tainted by a shoddy movie, but comedian biopics have turned out good more often than bad. The simple fact of the matter is that the actors and filmmakers who devote several years of their lives to telling the story of your favorite comedic figure will put enough work in to make it satisfying. This next crop of comedian biopics sounds very promising, if any of them make it through the production process, but there are still plenty of stories to be told. Who in the comedy world would you most like to see a film about?

    Bradford Evans is a writer living in Los Angeles.

    The Trouble with Comedian Biopics