There is an assumption that comes along with being a comedian. If you were to be walking down the street and see, for example, Louis C.K., you’d want to have your moment with him. You want a picture or an autograph or a quick conversation – but that moment isn’t going to be enough. You’re going to want something more. You’re going to be looking at him to be funny.
This is how the average person tends to view a “funny person.” If you do comedy for a living, you have to inhabit being funny. You have to be on the job 24/7, always trying to make people laugh, regardless of whether you’re in the mood or not. That doesn’t matter. You’re supposed to be funny, goddammit.
Funny People shatters that assumption. Yes, there is a lot of ribbing amongst comics, (particularly between a trio of roommates), but you also see so much more that hasn’t been conveyed before in film. The comedians are no longer looked upon as “the funny friend” here, they serve an entirely different purpose all their own.
Funny People tells the story of George Simmons (Adam Sandler), a comedian who has just been diagnosed with cancer. At this stage in his life, when it looks as if the end is approaching, he circles back to the world of stand-up comedy, where he meets Ira Wright (Seth Rogen), a younger aspiring comedian. As Simmons brings Wright on to write jokes and open for him on the road, the viewer sees an intimate portrait of a man who is re-examining his life. It turns out, he really isn’t learning as much from the entire experience as one would expect. He’s just living through it.
Judd Apatow clearly knows funny people, having gotten his start as a comedian himself. He knows what makes them tick, what makes them light up, and so forth. In other portrayals of comedians on film, it comes across rather one-dimensional. You see certain aspects, but you don’t see a life outside of joke-telling. You don’t see anything of substance, really. If they’re not onstage telling jokes, they’re offstage joking and clowning around with each other. There’s no growth beyond their persona. There’s no journey into who they are as a person, what they want out of life, nothing. And while some comedians have a reputation for being a bit stand-offish, that doesn’t mean that there’s nothing else going on. That just means they aren’t letting you in to witness it all.
When most movies deal with the subject of cancer, they are done completely seriously, and the character discovers what is most important in life, and what they’ve been essentially missing. The cancer is merely a tool of reflection. In Funny People, there is reflection. But there’s no change. On the surface, there’s a need for change. There’s a character who is craving change. But underneath, nothing is changing. He is the same exact person going into cancer as he is coming out, if not worse.
So, the question is, if this is supposed to be a dark comedy, where does the comedy come from? The sickness is not the joke of the film. The laughs come organically, just as they would in every day situations. Offstage, there are no real set-up, punch line jokes. The laughs are the laughs that you would have sitting around with your friends. The humor is genuine in that way. The movie never makes light of cancer, never even going anywhere near such a thing. However, by surrounding itself within the world of comedy, you are able to see the two conditions of life: comedy and tragedy. That is not just something that comedians can relate to. That is something that can be said for all of us.
The characters all have more layers than you’d maybe expect to see from a comedy. Every single character has the chance to show off a wide range comedic and dramatic chops here, from Jason Schwartzman to Aubrey Plaza to Jonah Hill. Seth Rogen is particularly more grounded here than he had been prior to this. This was his first time playing the straight man in the film, and you really have a deep sympathy with Ira. Ira is the eye of the audience, and you view just how messed up not so much the world of comedy, but more life in general is.
The darkest moment of the film actually happens onstage. Simmons, realizing how sick he is, and just what he is (or isn’t) leaving behind, sits behind a piano. What follows is something that is somewhat comedic on the surface, but it lingers deeper. It is the most honest, brutally honest to where you don’t want it to be the case, moment of the film. Simmons opens up and bares his soul with the audience. Only they’re not sure what to make of it. Their tepid laughter suggests they think he’s merely making some sort of a comment or a statement. He’s not. This is real.