'Hickory, dickory, dock, it's time to roll back the clock."
It's nostalgia night at a half-filled chuckle hut in the appropriately named town of Hicksville, N.Y. Host Jimmie Walker, from television's Good Times, introduces Brett Butler, the former star of the sitcom Grace Under Fire. She is getting only a smattering of applause. It is painful to watch – take the has-been comedian, please.
The evening's "star" is Jackie, the fictional lead of Taylor Hackford's pizzazz-less dramedy The Comedian. Played without great gusto by Robert De Niro, the faded funny man is beloved for a TV role 20 years in the past. People see him on the street, squint their eyes, jog their memories and insist on addressing him by his old sitcom character's name. Jackie is now a septuagenarian shock comic, but all his fans want to hear is a dorky catchphrase from decades earlier.
So, our titular funny man is not a happy guy to begin with, and when a heckler provokes him, things get uglier. Jackie puts the punch in punchline, the upshot being an assault charge and an eventual community service stint.
But, if you've seen the trailer for The Comedian, you probably already know most all of what you've just read. In fact, if you've seen the trailer, you've pretty much seen the whole movie. You know that Leslie Mann is the sassy love interest, that Danny DeVito plays De Niro's impish brother and that a (pretty damn hilarious) lesbian wedding scene happens. Throw in a role for Harvey Keitel and an uproarious gig at an old folk's home and stop me if you've heard this one before.
Darkish comedies about comedy have been made before. Punchline (with Tom Hanks and Sally Field) comes to mind. And, of course, given De Niro's involvement here, Martin Scorsese's excellent black satire The King of Comedy from 1982 is hard not to recall. Hard not to fondly recall, I should say, because The Comedian doesn't match it on any level except for a strong cast. Besides the aforementioned actors, credits include Edie Falco as Jackie's long-suffering agent and Cloris Leachman as a brassy old performer of note.
With its jazzy score and drizzly nighttime moods, where The Comedian works best is as a salute to New York stand-up scene, with looks into the Comedy Cellar in Greenwich Village and the New York Friars Club. There's something warm-hearted about the fraternity of comics as presented, and yet The Comedian is decidedly unsentimental. De Niro isn't always funny, but he's quick with an insult, with no jab too soon or too cutting. Audiences of a certain vintage may well gasp at the shocking oldness of Walker, Charles Grodin and Richard Belzer, to name three.
As for De Niro's comeback-seeking comic, he still has some juice in the tank. (That's a double entendre; you'll laugh at it on the way home, after you've seen the film). On both a personal and professional level, Jackie's looking for a second chance. Will he get it? Let's just say, that in comedy, as in life, timing is everything.