How To Make A Stand-Up Movie

Funny People is out on DVD and Blu-ray this week. To celebrate, we figured it would be a good time to explore the weird world of the stand-up comedian.

So, we sat down and watched every stand-up flick going then, for some reason, decided to enter a stand-up competition.

We're still not sure why we did that. But here's what happened.

Find A Stand-Up Comedian

Seen In: Funny People, Eddie Murphy: Raw, Festival

The Movies:
There aren’t that many stand-up movies centred around actual stand-up comedians, which is a bit of a surprise.

Funny People is one excellent exception, starring Adam Sandler as a stand-up mentor to amateur laughsman Seth Rogen.

As demonstrated by the genuinely stunning documentary on the DVD, both Adam and Seth have been stand-ups for years. Many years in Seth’s case. He started when he was 13.

Generally, the stand-up flicks that feature actual stand-ups are the best. So, if you’re making your own, head down to your local open mike night, and if there’s someone there that makes you giggle, sign them up for your Bill Hicks biopic immediately.

Real Life: To find out what it’d be like to be perform a comedy routine, we found ourselves a stand-up school and enrolled.

We’re not sure why either. We think it had something to do with how much we enjoyed Funny People.

We joined a gang of other journalists and DJs who had been invited to take part in a School Of Comedy day, to celebrate the release of Judd Apatow's latest film on DVD and Blu-ray.

Sean Keavney from BBC 6Music, Minnie Stephenson from Live At Studio Five, Caroline Cook and Ant Nichols from Kiss 101 and Tommy Holgate at The Sun, had all decided to step up to the funny mic.

We were going to be taught how to tell jokes by current comedy legend Micky Flanagan, then perform an actual routine in front of paying punters, to be judged in a clapometer format.

So, let’s just make this clear. We would be performing, for the first-time ever, stand-up material we’d written ourselves in a day, to a room of around 150 people who all regularly attend proper comedy nights. And they’d be picking a winner, using the medium of applause.

Nothing scary about that. If a 13-year old can do it, surely we can, right? Right?

Next: Fake It


If You Can’t Find One, Fake One

Seen In: King Of Comedy, Punchline , Raging Bull

The Movies:
Some directors prefer to cast actors instead of proper comedians in their stand-up flicks. Which doesn’t seem fair to us.

It’s like asking a fireman to bake you a cake when your kitchen’s on fire. Surely you’d get the fireman to put out the fire, then bring in a baker to help him make the cake. That's just common sense. We’re not sure where we’re going with that.

But sometimes the actors are up to the task –De Niro’s King Of Comedy character Rupert Pupkin would get on laugh on any circuit.

And why Hanks didn’t switch careers following his Punchline turn baffles us. Every joke in the trailer alone is enough for a headline slot at the Apollo.

Still, we’d recommend our first bit of advice over this one. Actors are great, but our favourite stand-up flicks all feature actual stand-ups in lead roles, even when they’re playing other stand-ups. Man On The Moon and Funny People are two of our favourite examples.

Real Life: After we signed up for the School Of Comedy, we found out that a genuine stand-up would be warming up for us: Markus Birdman.

And then, after us, more proper comedians – the people the audience had actually paid to see – would perform.

So… the audience would be exposed to real comedy before experiencing our fake comedy.

And they’d be forced to sit through our pretend jokes before seeing the routines they’d given up their valuable time to see. Brilliant.

For some reason, this didn’t exactly soothe our already frazzled nerves…

Next: No Boats


Avoid Boats

Seen In: Going Overboard, Weekend Pass

The Movies: Two of the worst films ever to feature stand-up comedy also feature boats. This is probably not a coincidence.

Weekend Pass centres around a bunch of Navy cadets who leave their boat on a ‘weekend pass’ (see what they did there?) and contains a key scene starring the late great Phil Hartman performing a routine in a comedy club.

It’s hideously unfunny. And, considering the fact that Hartman voiced Troy McClure in The Simpsons and can therefore do no wrong, we have to put it down to the curse of the boat.

Going Overboard, another ship-based comedy, about a couple of sailors who decide to go into stand-up, is by far Adam Sandler’s worst movie. We’ll let the trailer speak for itself.

Yep, the lesson from these two films is absolutely obvious. If you want to make a stand-up movie, do not step foot on a boat.

Real Life:
Upon arriving at the venue, one thing was instantly clear. The gig was to take place on a boat. An actual boat. We decided to try and forget everything we’ve learnt from the movies.

We were at the Tattershall Castle to take part in their Monday comedy night. Loads of established acts have played there, both early and late in their careers.

Graham Norton, Jerry Sadowitz, Dylan Moran, Mark Thomas, Harry Hill, Ross Noble, Daniel Kitson, Jeff Green and more have performed on the night, making it a firm favourite amongst die-hard stand-up fans.

So, maybe this boat curse thing only applies to the movies.

That’s what we kept telling ourselves, at least.

Next: Write Jokes


Write Some Jokes

Seen In: Lenny, Man On The Moon, Funny People

The Movies: We can’t stress this enough. Even if you’re making a disturbing flick about the most controversial stand-up of all time, you have to include a laugh or two.

If anything, the jokes can make the darkness even more disturbing.

The following sequence from Lenny proves the point.

It takes a typical stand-up subject – pioneered by controversial ‘60s comic Lenny Bruce – about cheating on your girlfriend, and intersperses it with talking head footage that exposes the sad truth behind the punchlines.

It doesn’t make the gags any less funny, or the film any less moving – get the balance between chuckles and sobs right, and you’ll have a hit on your hands.

Real Life : As part of our School Of Comedy day, we were given a tutorial by Micky Flanagan on the dos and don’ts of stand-up. Advice included

Do - “Make sure you start strong and end clearly – try and get the audience onside straight away.”

Don’t – “Get onto the stage and start crying and apologising before curling up into the foetal position, gently sobbing to yourself and murmuring your mother’s name over and over again .”

Okay, we may have made that second one up, but, by this point, that’s pretty much what we felt like doing.

That is, until we sat down and started to write our jokes.

After about half an hour of scrawling one-liners onto the back of our hand, we realised that, no matter how disturbing our eventual performance could end up being, if we managed to get at least three gags out before collapsing, we might do okay.

At least, that’s what we kept mumbling to ourselves as the performance time got closer and closer...

Next: The Performance


Seen In: Man On The Moon, Funny People

The Movies:
This one is easily as important as the jokes. If you want to make a stand-up movie you need to decide early how you’re going to film the routine.

Because if a stand-up is only as good as his last joke, a stand-up movie is only as good as its last routine.

Milos Forman knew this when he set out to make Man On The Moon.

Check out the trailer below to catch glimpses of all the different styles of routine covered by his brilliant Andy Kauffman biopic.

Moon managed to put all of Andy’s most famous routines on-screen without ever stylistically repeating itself; no mean feat.

If you want to make a stand-up movie, whether it’s a biographical adaptation or a brand-new creation, you have to decide how to express your lead’s on-stage persona in a way that’s cinematically compelling.

Performing a routine in front of a camcorder just won’t cut it, we’re afraid.

Real Life:
The moment had arrived. Sean from 6music had performed his set, Minnie from Live At Studio 5 had performed hers. And, by this point, we were pretty sure the audience was tired of media folk getting in the way of the actual comedians.

We turned to the PR in charge of the event, to explain that, although we understand it’s probably a bit late to be pulling out, we’ve changed our mind and if they wouldn’t mind finding a replacement we’d be very...

But suddenly the compere for the night, Rufus Hound, was announcing our name, we were pulling back the curtain and we were stepping out on the stage for the longest five minutes of our life.

And, a couple of jokes in, the audience started to... laugh. A few jokes in, and we’d had our first smattering of spontaneous applause.

Admittedly, when this happened, we got a bit distracted and nearly messed up the next punchline, but we managed to make it through without stammering, or fainting, or some sort of weird combination of both.

Next: Have no Fear


Don’t Be Scared

Seen In: All of them...

The Movies: One thing categorises all stand-up movie heroes – they’re all brave beyond belief.

Whether they’re confronting serious illness (Funny People, Man On The Moon), fighting the system (Lenny) or simply going after their deranged dreams (The King Of Comedy), movie stand-ups generally have guts to spare.

And you’ll need to be brave too if you’re going to make that Bill Hicks biopic you’ve always dreamed about.

Stand-up flicks are few and far between. Great stand-up flicks are even rarer.

But get it right, and you’ll win the respect and admiration of your friends, family and, with a bit of luck, the Academy.

Real Life: Jimmy Carr’s book on comedy, The Naked Jape, puts it best:

“Being on stage at a comedy club is a nightmarish amplification of that moment at a dinner party when you’ve just launched into a spicy little anecdote and you suddenly realise the whole room has gone quiet. Everyone else is not only listening to you, but judging you too and you have no choice but to plough wildly on with your story.”

Performing stand-up comedy is an absolutely terrifying experience. But it’s one we’ll never forget. Not least because we ended up winning the clapometer contest.

Yep, your resident Total Film internet comedian took home the top prize. A couple of days later, on BBC 6Music, we were labelled a ‘Deadpan genius.’

But then, on the same radio show, our mentor Micky Flanagan also said: “I knew he’d do well because he looked funny and he had a funny way about him.”

So, stand-up comedy. Do it, and you’ll get laughs, public acclaim and, eventually, you might even get called a weirdo on national radio.

One thing's for sure, you'll have fun doing it.

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Sam Ashurst is a London-based film maker, journalist, and podcast host. He's the director of Frankenstein's Creature, A Little More Flesh + A Little More Flesh 2, and co-hosts the Arrow Podcast. His words have appeared on HuffPost, MSN, The Independent, Yahoo, Cosmopolitan, and many more, as well as of course for us here at GamesRadar+.