Beneath the blinding glare of a comedy club’s spotlight, clown-for-hire and stand-up comedian for the night Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), joke book in hand, takes a leap in front of a live audience and bombs. Hard. The Joker-to-be of Todd Phillips’s new film fails so spectacularly that he catches the attention of late-night TV host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro), who mocks the tape of his performance. It’s painful to watch, but then again, fake stand-up comedy in movies nearly always is.
Movie stand-up frequently feels plasticine, in contrast with that electricity that comes from live comedy in the wild. And intentionally bad comedy is so rigid, but in a frequently boring and alienating way. There’s no pity to be had because there’s not really a person there. An exception might be Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy, which heavily inspired Joker, in which Rupert Pupkin’s (De Niro) jokes are as hollow as his character (“I was born in Clifton, NJ, which at that time was not a federal offense”).
However unrealistic it might be for an amateur comic’s terrible set to get him a primetime TV booking—as it does for Fleck in Joker—perhaps bombing that badly isn’t so far removed from reality. Queens-based comedian Jourdain Searles says there’s something recognizable in Fleck’s material. “He spends all of his time writing jokes, he has a full joke book, and then he goes up on stage and he absolutely bombs. He bombs like guys I’ve seen bomb before,” she says.
In a masochistic way, bombing is as exciting as killing your first set. I sit here, writing this at 1 a.m., thinking fondly of the time I told a joke during sex, and the guys around us watching didn’t think it was funny. (True story!) A non-reaction to your routine, something that initially leaves you more vulnerable than ever, is still a reaction; it’s proof that you’re doing something live and that the experience is electric, even when it fails. In Joker, stand-up is supposed to make Arthur feel alive, with the film borrowing from an origin story used in the graphic novel Batman: The Killing Joke, by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland. But it just makes him feel more alone.
Scorsese’s The King of Comedy is one of the few examples where the badness justifies itself: The bad jokes are “supposed” to be bad to make sense for the character—he kidnaps a late-night host, performs his tight five on a fake talk-show set—and the intent is to be alienating, to indicate that, for Pumpkin, there’s not a there there. It’s uncomfortable to watch because it doesn’t sound like any kind of comedy set you’d hear on TV or at a comedy club. But if intentionally bad comedy is hard to capture on film, what about the rest of it?
Stand-up comedy is notoriously hard to capture in an authentic manner on screen because not only is it about the jokes themselves, it's about the persona and the relationship to plot and character. If you don’t have an established persona that exists, like Seinfeld or Lenny, there’s a discernible flatness to the material. Los Angeles–based comedian Guy Branum notes that stand-up is derived from a sense of personality, which is difficult with a made-up character: “Nobody knows [the fictional character] well enough to be able to write seven minutes of concentrated jokes for them on stage that are [as] good as a random mediocre stand-up knowing who they are.”
Additionally, it’s especially difficult to write stand-up for fictional characters because of how those sets are supposed to function within the work, to say nothing of the immense hurdle of making it feel like a craft that’s been honed. “Stand-up is the presentation of one's effort. Stand-up is just a venture that doesn't really relate to what's going on around you, but [screenwriters] always kind of want to see it work for the plot,” Branum says.
Comedian John Early echoes that sentiment: “It's also this thing of, like, when you see a Mrs. Maisel and these people who are kind of ‘killing,’ you're just like, no, the jokes themselves didn't kill, the writer just needed them to kill so that they could take that confidence from the set and take it into the next scene. It's never about the comedy itself.” From the wooden sets of the pilot of the rebooted Twilight Zone (with Kumail Nanjiani) to films like It Chapter Two, The Big Sick, and This Is My Life, fictional portrayals of comedy are infamous for the stiffness of the jokes, serving the plot and not the comic.
For comedian and Robot Chicken staff writer Jamie Loftus, figuring out how to find the balance between jokes that successfully stood alone and simultaneously moved the plot forward became its own job. She served as the comedy consultant for Eva Vives’s film All About Nina, which tracks the ups and downs of a recent L.A. transplant and comedian (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and her quest to audition for an SNL-like show, Comedy Prime. Collaborating with Vives and Winstead, Loftus was careful to make sure that the jokes didn’t just move the plot forward, but reflected Nina’s personality and stage presence. “It was like we were writing funny jokes and working with a writer but also keeping in mind that you've got Mary Elizabeth Winstead playing a stand-up,” Loftus said. “You have to test it so that works for them specifically.” She and her team also collaborated on body language, and what kind of comic Nina was, as well as figuring out what kind of response her jokes would get. “She's going to be changing her material as she goes along. Some people will get her and some people won't.”
But a major reason why a lot of fictional stand-up never registers as real is because it seldom looks like labor. “If I could see the effort and if I could see people in the audience responding to that effort, whether I find it funny on a joke-level or not, maybe I would be like hell yeah, or you'd at least understand why people are freaking out,” Early says. “On the first episode of the new Twilight Zone with Kumail, there’s a black lady comic [played by Diarra Kilpatrick] who thinks she’s better than him, and when she performs, you can tell she works harder to write her jokes and to create her persona,” Searles adds.
Of the handful of films that gesture towards some truth and reality of stand-up comedy, Obvious Child might have landed it best. Its smallness allowed the film to convey the intimacy that exists between the performer and the audience in a thoughtful way. Jenny Slate and Gabe Liebman use chunks of their own material, but more importantly, they have a preexisting relationship to the space around them. As with the best parts of Punchline, where Sally Field does crowd work (!), there is a trace of authenticity to the experience, where jokes don’t just land or bomb, but bounce off the walls or deflate like day-old balloons on the floor.
Personally, I like to dip my toes into the chemically polluted waters of stand-up just to remind myself that I can feel something; downwardly mobile life decisions keep my reflexes keen. Writing is a very solitary act with no accurate measure for response. You write a piece and it goes out into the ether. You don’t really know how people respond to it unless they take time out of their lives to send you hate for “spoiling” an Avengers movie. With stand-up, you get in front of people, you tell a joke, and you know if it works. It’s a fun visceral experience, and I am nothing if not a glutton for punishment. But film is a different experience; it can be visceral, but it’s difficult to capture the visceral nature of another experience and translate that into something just as raw.
Is the most honest, warts and all version of stand-up just impossible to portray? “I think the big thing is: there's already something inherently cheesy about stand-up and this is coming from someone who does stand-up and loves stand-up,” Early says. “I think there's something about filming stand-up where you're adding another layer of cheese. You're adding another layer of artifice, which is that it's not real.” In a way, the artificiality of fictional stand-up is like performing into the void, an emptiness that satisfies neither the audience nor the comic. Joker, caught between sympathizing with Arthur and indicting a society in chaos, tries to frame Arthur’s stand-up dreams as his key to real happiness. Being in front of the mic would be the proof to himself that he exists. But Arthur doesn’t understand the complexities of stand-up—few of us do! It looks so easy. But it’s not just telling a joke in front of people, but a modulated persona and act and creation of tension, something he only truly begins to understand when he’s traded in comedy for crime.
If stand-up can be at once both nakedness and masked performance, artifice and truth-telling, the problem with fictional stand-up comedy is frequently an inability to answer this question: Who’s laughing now?
Originally Appeared on GQ