Insult comedy started in the 1950s when Jack E. Leonard realized there was money in making people cringe. He once told beloved TV host Ed Sullivan, “There’s nothing wrong with you that reincarnation won’t cure.” Audiences forgave Leonard’s jabs because he was graceful. He wore glasses and a smile, squeezing his 300-pound belly into tuxedo jackets and too-short pants that pointed out his small feet. He didn’t look like a bully. He looked like a fancy popsicle, and at the end of his act, he’d dance on his tiptoes.
In The Comedian, Robert De Niro’s struggling stand-up comic Jackie Burke seems like a relic from the past. Director Taylor Hackford kicks off the film with cheerful jazz, that buzzy collision of trumpets and cymbals, as Jackie not only reads the newspaper, but tears out an article to save for later. If he had family, they’d dread getting grandpa’s useless mail. Alas — or, really, of course — Jackie is alone. His brother (Danny DeVito) is sick of loaning him cash; his marriages were so insignificant that none of his ex-wives get mentioned by name. All Jackie has now is his agent, Miller (Edie Falco), who can’t get him better gigs than Nostalgia Night at nowheresville clubs where customers just want him to resurrect his character from his long-canceled sitcom, Eddie’s Home, in which Jackie played a foulmouthed dad who, back then, could still pick on his 11-year-old son for being gay. He’s not embarrassed by the old jokes. He just hates that fans yell, “Eddie!” instead of his real name.
Jackie’s from that middle stretch between old-school roasters like Leonard, who skewered each other with class, and the shock comics of the late ’80s, who dressed like scuzzballs that could barely afford their bar tabs. He’s slick, not suave. Picture De Niro’s wannabe stand-up comedian Rupert Pupkin from Martin Scorsese’s 1982 The King of Comedy in his tacky suit after years of failure have made him a drag. Where Pupkin cracked sad jokes about his childhood while waving his arms like it’s no big deal, here De Niro’s comedy bubbles up from inside uncontrollably, like rancid stomach acid.
Onstage, Jackie makes a show of trying to stay calm, hiding behind his hands and telling himself to shut up. He can’t. “Marriage will suck every speck of life out of your soul till it’s one big, festering sore!” he screams into the mic. People chuckle nervously. No one can tell if he’s kidding. Does he even know?
There’s menace in the air. The only reason insult comedy works is the rush of relief audiences feel when the joke isn’t on them. Done right, it’s the closest thing the civilized world has to a public execution. Picture Trump’s face during the 2011 White House Correspondents’ Dinner when President Obama applauded his improbable successor’s “credentials and breadth of experience” and the room started to howl. Trump couldn’t fake a smile, even though he’d had practice being a laughingstock. One month earlier he’d had his own roast on Comedy Central, in which he looked so miserable that the camera avoided his reaction shots to keep from spoiling the mood. When comic Jeff Ross, who also did a joke pass on The Comedian, took the stage, he asked, “This is exciting, Trump. Are you having a good time? Then tell your face.”
Since then, things have gotten less funny. Comedy changes fast and we’re less amused by the aggro schtick that helped Trump, as Jeb Bush sighed, “insult [his] way to the nomination.” Here, Jackie’s too old to fit in at the new clubs where black, brown, gay, and female comedians have grabbed the mic from their angry white male elders. He’s still the rudest guy in the room, but he insists, hypocritically, on respect, or at least deference to his fame. When Miller gets him a pitch meeting with a young TV network producer, Eddie is outraged that this twentysomething kid plunks her sneakers on the conference table.
The ironic thing is that offense comedy is now on the defense. It’s hard to define the border between hilarious and harassment, leaving comics to navigate choppy waters. On one segment on Inside Amy Schumer, a Make-A-Wish kid asks her to roast him before he dies. “Why don’t you get some more tubes in your nose, weirdo?” Schumer quavers, and his parents roll their eyes in disgust: “Enough with the softballs, please.” I love the Key and Peele sketch in which Keegan-Michael Key plays an insult comedian who stumbles into a showdown with Jordan Peele’s black, gay, handicapped man disfigured by facial burns. He’s mean if he ridicules him, discriminatory if he doesn’t. When he finally gives in and gets mean, Peele immediately bursts into sobs. “How do we even know if he’s crying right now?” complains Key — a line we just heard from Trump about Amy Schumer’s second cousin, Chuck, a senator and descendant of Holocaust survivors who misted up while arguing against the new administration’s Muslim ban. In Key and Peele’s world, the crowd is furious. Fiction is more sensitive than fact.
It’s hard to spend time with Jackie, and Hackford doesn’t make a convincing case as to why we should. Instead, the script attempts to justify his bitterness by lowering the rest of the world to his level. The Comedian would have a semblance of a theme if Jackie was the only force ruining his career comeback. He inflicts plenty of self-harm, but the movie can’t resist dog-piling on haters and morons and cruel twists of fate, extra punch lines that fall flat. It’s all so glum that Hackford has to add in lightning strikes of YouTube fame — a trope he uses more than once — just to give Jackie’s future a glint of hope.
Even so, Jackie seems as unaffected by his small rises and falls as a garbage truck rolling over speed bumps. His mind is on a screwed-up rich girl named Harmony (Leslie Mann) who finds him hysterical. We learn that her father (Harvey Keitel) is roughly Jackie’s age and of the same temperament. They’re both gray-haired creeps. There’s a whole movie to be made from her perspective as a weakling who trades in one jerk for another, but we’re stuck seeing her from Jackie’s point of view as a chick he can’t believe he might get in the sack. It’s a pity, because Mann is one of my favorite loons. Here she plays a Barbie-doll freak with her own unhinged mean streak. When she gets upset, she has a magical way of channeling all of her heat into her nose until she’s all red and stuffy.
Mann knows comics. I won’t mention her husband because her talents are overdue to be recognized on their own. De Niro knows them, too — he’s been playing stand-up comics for 35 years — which is why it’s a disappointment that The Comedian trips over its own clown shoes. When will De Niro take on a real acting role after decades of getting by on intimidation and smarm? Recently, the actor endured his own roast, where a combatant joked that when De Niro was handed a menu, “he immediately signed on to star in it.” Unlike Trump, De Niro knew how to laugh. And he ended the night with his own bleak joke: “There are lots of bad movies left to make.”