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Comics just want to be taken seriously

Since Charlie Chaplin's day, comedians have yearned to do drama -- with varying results. Judd Apatow is the latest, with his dramedy 'Funny People.'

July 19, 2009|Saul Austerlitz

As a director, John "Sully" Sullivan was no stranger to success. His "Ants in Your Plants of 1939" was an enormous comedy hit, and the studio was eager for a follow-up: "Ants in Your Plants of 1940," anyone? Sullivan, however, had different plans for his next effort. He yearned to travel around America, see the real country, and come back with a hard-hitting picture about big issues called "O Brother, Where Art Thou?"

Sully, as you may remember, is only a figment of Preston Sturges' imagination, the protagonist of his 1941 film "Sullivan's Travels," but his predicament is an ever-recurring one in Hollywood. Comic actors and directors, feeling the desire to be taken more seriously, hanker to try their hand at drama, dreaming Sully Sullivan's dream of going deeper than laughs -- and not coincidentally, reaping the benefits in increased prestige.

Comedy doesn't win Oscars. Just ask Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, W.C. Fields, Groucho Marx, Cary Grant or Jerry Lewis, none of whom ever won competitive Academy Awards. The pull of gravity for comedians dates at least to Chaplin, whose 1921 film "The Kid" offered the promise of "a picture with a smile -- and perhaps, a tear." The backlash to same is every bit as enduring; it is not just the space aliens from Woody Allen's "Stardust Memories" that prefer "the early, funny ones" to the later, artistic experiments.

Now, the latest comedic titan has volunteered to navigate the rocky shoals of drama: Judd Apatow, omnipresent purveyor of raunchy male bonding comedies, is about to release "Funny People" (July 31), a dramedy about an extremely successful comic-turned-movie star (Adam Sandler) who is diagnosed with a terminal illness. He hires an up-and-coming comedian (Seth Rogen) to write jokes for him, and the initial hero worship he receives transmutes into a more complex set of emotions as he deals with his sickness. The film is stocked almost exclusively with stand-up comedians, whose coping mechanism for dealing with painful issues is a certain type of gallows humor. Their response to turmoil -- much like Apatow's -- is to tell a joke.

"Dramedy," that awkward hybrid of a word, is perhaps the wrong description for "Funny People." It would be more accurate to describe the film as a stand-up drama, whose emotional core is leavened by a steady stream of jokes, asides and routines. Its characters are themselves comedians, more comfortable with laughter than other, less predictable emotions, grounding Apatow's distinct preference for levity in the sensibilities of its protagonists. It is the kind of film where Sandler's character, awaiting potentially life-changing news, finds the energy to jest with his Scandinavian doctor that "I keep thinking you're going to be torturing James Bond later." In his own fumbling, joshing fashion, though, Apatow is stretching for something just beyond his reach -- something nakedly poignant.

He is hardly the first to feel the tug of the dramatic. Chaplin was in search of respect when he made "The Kid," no longer interested in settling for being the world's greatest comedian but seeking the title of world's foremost tragedian as well.

Later, when Chaplin turned explicitly political with "The Great Dictator," "Monsieur Verdoux" and "A King in New York," it stemmed from an overwhelming desire to speak out on the threats posed by fascism and the atomic bomb. Told by film salesmen that his final speech in 1940's "The Great Dictator -- a humanist plea for peace and internationalism -- would cost him $1 million in box office, Chaplin was unruffled: "I don't care if it's 5 million. I'm gonna do it."

Some comedians' attempts at drama were doomed from the outset. Lewis' never-released "The Day the Clown Cried" (1972), about a German clown who accompanies a train of Jewish children to the Nazi gas chambers, has achieved a cult notoriety in inverse relation to the number of people who have actually seen the film. Lewis had been accused of mawkishness before, but a Holocaust comedy, with Lewis combating the Nazis with clown routines? The very idea seemed the height of narcissistic chutzpah -- that is, until Italian comedian Roberto Benigni essentially remade the film as "Life Is Beautiful" (1997). Opinions were split on "Life," with some objecting to Benigni's exploitation of his material and others saluting his Chaplinesque approach. Either way, the formula was nonrenewable; Robin Williams' strikingly similar "Jakob the Liar" (1999) was a notorious flop.

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