How Cinematic Can Standup Comedy Be?

As Kevin Hart: What Now was projected onto the screen in front me, I realized what a strange experience it was to be in a small movie theater in a small audience watching a much larger audience in a much larger theater watching the same standup comedy show. Isn’t this kind of like quantum physics or something? The audience has conquered space and time in order to be in two theaters at once! Yet, when the movie cameras snatch you from your comfortable multiplex recliner and zoom you from the top of the cheap seats to the middle of the stage, you have to admit that you are getting a very different experience from the one shared by the people who were actually there.

Most reviews of What Now conclude that the movie is funny but that there’s not much more to be said. Standup comedy is not considered to be the most compelling thing to project onto a screen. It’s not much of a visual art form. It’s all about words, performance, and, most importantly, the connection that the performer has with the audience. For that reason, there haven’t been too many standup concert films over the years. Oh, sure, there have been very successful ones, like Richard Pryor Live on the Sunset Strip and Eddie Murphy Raw (which holds the record for most successful standup comedy concert film to this day), but the comedians whose shows get the big screen treatment are usually the wildly popular rockstar comics who are not merely famous but iconic. The general thinking is that expecting an audience to buy a movie ticket to see a filmed comedy show is a fool’s errand unless the performer is a household name. These days, filmed comedy concerts are found on streaming services and are watched from the comfort of one’s own home. It’s a huge advantage for obscure and up-and-coming comics who may not be household names but have a small yet dedicated fanbase.

Kevin Hart is one of the few comedy rock stars left. He can afford to make concert movies that are meant to be movies. They are meant to be experienced in a movie theater with a giant crowd laughing hysterically. What Now is a true cinematic experience, with quick cuts, sound effects, animated visuals, and big, swooping camera movements. As a performer, Hart is full of manic energy. He bounces all around the stage and contorts himself into hundreds of wacky characters. Had director Leslie Small just shot him talking into a microphone, it would have been a disservice. Small has the cameras spin around onstage with him, fly through the audience to capture their faces in mid-guffaw, and zoom to the very top of Lincoln Financial Field so that everyone can see what a massive venue it is. The idea is to capture the energy in the space and filter it through the movie screen so that the audience can get the same high as the ones who were there for the real thing.

There are four or five giant video screens behind Hart that provide visual support. For example, one of Hart’s stories takes place on a boat. A giant image of a vessel at sea appears across the screens. They are filled with meticulous details such as a group of seagulls flying off in the distance, the sail moving back and forth in the wind, and the puffy white clouds dotting a giant blue sky. At another point, Hart talks about being in the dark and seeing only the whites of raccoon eyes in his driveway. Millions of white eyes dot the dark screen behind him. Aziz Ansari used a similar tactic in his most recent Netflix comedy special, but the size of the Hart’s screens are so big that they almost become an inextricable part of the jokes.

Some of the screen visuals are also reconfigured for cinematic purposes. Take, for instance, one passage where Hart charmingly recounts a particularly embarrassing moment in an airport bathroom stall. As he talks about engaging in the activity that such a place was made for, Hart sits down on a stool (get it) and the screens show a giant toilet. Hart then jokes that, as a short man, he is often in danger of falling in. Small frames Hart in such a way that he seems to be sitting on a gigantic porcelain abyss. It adds an extra detail to the joke the audience appreciates because it is clear that the filmmakers are thinking about them. Later, Hart recounts a frenzied argument that he had with his wife through frenzied text messages. While the texts are visible to the theater audience, Small also pops them off of the screens in the form of onscreen graphics.

This got me thinking about the general cinematic nature of standup comedy concert films that were meant to be experienced in a theater. Richard Pryor Live on the Sunset Strip, which is the concert film to which all others are compared, is a much more restrained picture than What Now but it still has a cinematic quality that cannot be denied. Directed by Joe Layton and shot by Academy Award-winning cinematographer Haskell Wexler, it’s not just a perfect standup comedy concert movie, it’s a perfect movie, period. Though shot at the Hollywood Palladium, there is very little emphasis put on the venue. Instead, all of the focus is on Pryor speaking to his audience. The room seems to be in total darkness, which is cut by the spotlight illuminating Pryor. He wears an eye-popping red suit that seems to glow a bit in the light. There are very few shots of audience reactions, aside from an interesting shot where the camera moves behind silhouettes of the audience’s heads, which gives a mysterious quality to Pryor as he flits in and out of view like a drawing in a spinning zoetrope.

Aside from those moments, though, the audience is usually shown in the context of Pryor talking to them from the stage. What this creates is a very intimate feeling between performer and audience, which makes Pryor’s material about his drug addiction and suicide attempt so much more affecting. You really get the sense that he’s talking to people and not to an audience, especially when he makes them promise to not tell anyone about what they are hearing. As he recounts the gruesome details of that horrifying time, both the theater audience and the movie audience are drawn in by his compassion. Layton and Wexler shoot these moments with Pryor standing tall, highlighting his triumph over adversity. The movie ends with him making fun of people waving lighters and saying “This is Richard Pryor running down the street” and then with, arguably, the most victorious freeze frame in movie history. Pryor has just used humor to annihilate his pain and the freeze frame allows him, the audience, and the viewers to savor the moment.

Eddie Murphy Raw goes even further with its focus on the performer by eliminating audience reaction shots pretty much entirely. Murphy is on stage doing his act while we hear hysterical laughter off camera. In a weird way, it almost feels as if he’s in an empty room with a particularly detailed laugh track. This is an interesting approach from director Robert Townsend and Ernest Dickerson, a frequent collaborator of Spike Lee, because there is a lot of material before the concert that aims to give the movie an epic vibe. It was the first standup comedy concert movie to popularize the idea of an opening sketch. It begins with a child Eddie Murphy telling unbelievably filthy jokes to a gathering of horrified family members while his uncle (Samuel L. Jackson) laughs hysterically. It’s a funny way to open the movie but it’s also significant in the way it attempts to contextualize Murphy’s entire career by showing where he came from.

From there, we are led into a quick-cut credit sequence interspersed with audience interviews and pulsing, electronic music with vocalists shouting “RAW!” over and over and over. We see audience members exclaiming their excitement for the show, waving their tickets around, and naming their favorite Murphy movies. One guy even admits his love for the much-despised Best Defense. This is the only sequence that emphasizes the massiveness of the venue (New York City’s Felt Forum in Madison Square Garden) as we see the huge lines and the merch tables with giant posters of Murphy’s face. We see a car pull up and a pair of feet step out. It’s Eddie Murphy, the king of 1980s comedy. Clad in a purple suit, he walks into the theater and takes the stage. In contrast to Live on the Sunset Strip, which aimed to highlight Pryor as just an ordinary dude, Raw turns Murphy into a giant larger-than-life icon. This hurts the comedy a bit because it then becomes difficult for Murphy to connect with his audience on a human level. That, plus the cringeworthy homophobic and sexist material, is what has kept this movie from aging well. It’s so dated that it almost feels like a Stranger Things-esque homage to the ‘80s rather than an actual product of the ‘80s.

Unlike the previous films, the Spike Lee-directed The Original Kings of Comedy, showcases two concerts over two nights and multiple performers: Steve Harvey, DL Hughley, Bernie Mac, and Cedric the Entertainer. Lee is such a distinctive and iconic filmmaker that you can easily tell that this is a Spike Lee Joint even though all of the focus is on the performers. The camera rarely stops moving as it follows the performers onstage and scopes out the venue. At times, the movements back and forth across the garishly lit stage almost achieve Lee’s trademark “dolly shot” effect in which the subjects onscreen seem to be floating. This gives the comedians a bit more authority because they seem to be controlling all of the energy in the space. The effect also makes them look larger-than-life but is far more effective than Raw because it does not compromise the connection with the audience that the performers have built.

What Now could be said to combine every one of these approaches. Hart is simultaneously an ordinary guy who happens to be a gigantic icon on a massive stage. There are sketches, parodying James Bond movies, that are shot like massive action blockbusters directed by Tim Story (Ride Along). There are huge shots of the venue and cuts to the massive audience laughing their asses off. The breakneck pace perfectly matches Hart’s manic performing style. Cinematically speaking, it’s a pretty accurate representation of Hart’s brand of comedy and why it has connected with so many people.

Standup comedy concert movies should be treated more as collaborations between performers and filmmakers. When people say that there isn’t much to talk about beyond whether the jokes are funny or not, a disservice is being done to all of the work that went into its making. There is still a lot of room to explore. A great performer will connect to their audience, a great director will connect to their performer, and a great standup comedy concert movie accurately connects to the essence of their collaboration. Oh yeah, and it should also be funny.

How Cinematic Can Standup Comedy Be?