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FOURTH EPISODE : CZECH REPUBLIC 25/09/2009

Funny People  de Judd Apatow

Fuck Facebook, in the face !

stand-up.com

As Judd Apatow recently found out in Paris [Masterclass 1], there is no stand-up comedy in this country, as is also the case in many other countries outside the United States. For instance the Czech Republic, where the film is coming out today, does not have much stand-up. There certainly are other kinds of comic spectacles, but none of this American art. So nobody’s going to know what the film is about, Apatow realized. Indeed. Unless Independencia fixes it. Let us produce the best document to bring audiences outside the States up to speed on the matter. A document that speaks of what it is to grow, as a kid, on stand-up.

It is a wonderful scene from Freaks and Geeks, from one of the episodes directed by Judd Apatow himself, "Dead Dogs and Gym Teachers" (written by Judd Apatow and Bob Nickman). Go and see it now [See here : from 4min20sec to 5mn48sec] while I wait.

Yes, it is one of the best seizure of pure laughter you have ever seen on the screen. Since The Who are playing during the whole scene, you did not get to know what was so funny. Maybe you laughed none the less, as people do, sometimes, without knowing why – just because some laughters are contagious. In the present case, contagion was limited though, because you were not hearing Bill’s voice either. Since you were listening to a soft song, you might have been led to admire the beauty of Bill’s laughter and feel some emotion towards him – this most plausibly happened to you if you saw the previous episodes before, having been acquainted with Bill for quite a while : you did not now he had such moments of grace in store.

Hilarity and tenderness : during this scene of mixed emotions, you probably noticed how good the rhythm was, almost sensual. Getting the toast, cake and milk ready, eating it, being seized by an irrepressible wave of laughter up to a first climax, followed by a quiet moment of miracle, where the man on television seems to personally address Bill, before they cheer and drink together, then the real climax, leaving Bill panting with a piece of toast hanging on the side of his mouth, as the mother comes home and the sound of reality settles back in. Blending emotions requires finding the good rhythm. This whole scene is a commentary upon the art of stand-up and its powers. It is also a key to the aesthetic language of Funny People.

With Bill, we are in 1980, in the best years of stand-up popularity across the States, where this risky art of telling jokes to the public, alone with a microphone in front of the curtain, in music halls, night clubs, resorts, has now spread in many clubs devoted to it and has become a pillar of mainstream TV culture – in 1975 started The NBC show Saturday Night Live, which has revealed so many artists up to this day, including Funny People’s Adam Sandler. So Bill is watching Dinah Shore, who hosted the show Dinah ! & Friends until 1979, as she introduces an act by Garry Shandling, who is quite representative of a successful stand-up artist’s career of the time : he started in a club, then was spotted and invited on TV (his first appearance was on Johnny Carson’s show), until he eventually got his very own show (It’s Garry Shandling’s Show ! 1985-1990), as others from this generation also did (Jay Leno and David Letterman for instance).

Shandling dances with Bill : he has the perfect rhythm that keeps the audience alive, pushing away the threat that is looming over every stand-up artist, and never goes away – not making people laugh, as Funny People’s George Simmons (Adam Sandler), the man who always makes people laugh, experiences the night he returns to the Improv club, after having learnt he is dying from leukemia. When you can hear the street outside, it is a bad night. Funny People is about going back from the success on the screen to the scary place where it all started, the live stage where one needs to find the right pace to slide along with the crowd.

This is where Funny People starts being a film about generations of American comedy. It seems as though Apatow needed all the older guys to rally around George for his return. They all came to support, at least three generations of them : Budd Friedman, who founded the Improvisation Comedy Club in New York in the sixties, the baby-boomers (Charles Fleischer, George Wallace), the generation that bloomed in the eighties (Andy Dick, Monty Hoffman, Norm Macdonald, Carol Leifer, Paul Reiser) and the one that did in the nineties (Ray Romano, Mark Schiff, Dave Attell, Sarah Silverman – Sandler’s and Apatow’s own generation). Here they are to compete with the kids. It’s not always a fair fight : poor Ray Romano only appears to be bullied by Eminem, confirming that not « everybody loves Raymond », as Romano’s show in the nineties was called. George has a fairer encounter with the ones who were born in the eighties, Ira (Seth Rogen), Leo (Jonah Hill), Randy (Aziz Ansari), Daisy (Aubrey Plaza). So what do we learn about these generations ? What do they learn from each other ?

There is a documentary about stand-up in this film. We see a lot of acts during the two and a half hours it lasts, some old style, more new style. But we also see the backstage. We have known the recipe at least since Scorsese’s King of Comedy, Woody Allen’s Broadway Danny Rose, or Seinfeld : since stand-up is about observing daily life, let’s see the artist’s daily life, let’s try and see where and how it all comes from. How is he at home ? How he is with women ? We sure get a lot of that in Funny People. But if you watch close, you realise private life never is the explanation of the art here. Daily life is only an occasion for expanding the walls of the theatre, broadening the diversity of the audience and the spectrum of emotions. Ira and George, in the tall Swedish doctor’s examination room, where George is being explained about the progression of his disease, perform, seating, a radical stand-up piece, against rhythm, against their audience – the necessary violence to bring laughter in tune with the emotion at stake in this survival piece of stand-up. This is cinema, with its own affinity with life : the daily is not off stage, it is still the stage.

Funny People thereby builds a more complex circulation between the stage and the private, through the very simple claim that stand-up artists spend much of their daily life trying to come up with good jokes and much of their time on stage trying to reach for themselves. Let us have a look at both sides of the exchange.

A PRIVATE LIFE SPENT PRACTISING

Funny People actually shows us how one works the jokes as a team. Ira gathers materials on small pieces of paper (a yellow post-it for instance, very trivially), writing a few words here and there, in different directions. That’s the raw stuff, like seeds that need to be further developed – for instance : « grand-parents having sex ; hand cream and masturbation ». Then the expansion comes orally in the exchange with a partner (Leo, George) : « grand-father thinks he is titty-fucking but actually masturbates in his own balls » ; « I have used hand cream so much to masturbate that whenever people take some out I think oh god what are they doing ». The partner is either the first audience, or the one that will take it from there, for himself. Jokes circulate from one to another, build a collective pool (Ira uses up all the jokes made for both George and himself at the My Space party) and sometimes come to several minds at the same time (« Fuck Facebook, in the face ! »).

GROWING TO BE YOURSELF ON STAGE

As George notices, Ira reveals in his routines, all of them revolving around farting and masturbating, the unspoken truth that however sweet he appears, he does not want to seduce women. George reveals on stage he is more sentimental than he pretends to be at home. Working together on jokes opens an affective communication between the two and a process of level equalization. Ira enters a personal journey on stage, that leads him from masturbation jokes to the sentimental subversion of boys’ vulgarity (« I want to “friend” that chick, man, so hard, I’m gonna “friend” her all night long »). Reciprocally, cynical bitter George learns to catch some of the tenderness Ira brings around with him, up to the point where he finds it in himself to write a post-it of jokes for Ira – jokes that would fit Ira’s spectrum of emotions. The change in life happens through the process of stand-up : stand-up is life, too, a way of living, and a good one too.

So what does cinema to stand-up ? From stage to house, girlfriends to parents, doctors to ex-wives, dogs to kids, friends to ex-friends, summer to thanks-giving, it expands the surface where energies circulate – the energies encompassed in the delicate affective tuning that enables one to connect all emotions together on the base of laughter – how does laughter become a key to circulate between all human emotions, from the tenderness of friendship to the rush of desire, from love for kids to fear for death ? This is exactly what the encounter of generations of comedy is about. Whether cynical, physical, mechanical, freaky, sexual, anxious, spiritual, linguistic or hypochondriac, how can various breeds of comedy learn from each other to expand and share their sentimental spectrum ? This is called dancing with oneself, and it is a condition for dancing together, as Bill knows so well.
You too have a good time.

par Arnaud Macé
jeudi 28 juin 2012

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