As a lifelong admirer of (and one-time dabbler in) stand-up comedy, I’m all for documentarian R.J. Cutler delving into the cutthroat medium with a filmed version of Richard Zoglin’s recently released non-fiction tome Comedy at the Edge. As he notes in this Variety story, there haven’t been too many worthwhile documentaries on the subject of stand-up comedy. Though I found much to admire in Comedian and The Aristocrats, those films were very limited in their scope, while only the former dealt with the vile narcissism that infects both the most and least successful practitioners of the art form. You don’t have to be an outright prick to be a great stand-up comic, but you probably won’t get too far if you’ve any real affection for your fellow man (or an aversion to pot).
His film may feel incomplete if he skirts the misanthropy issue, but it’ll be a complete travesty if he truly makes this a “Lenny Bruce to Jerry Seinfeld” affair. Though they were essentially contemporaries, you’ve got to start with Mort Sahl; he may not have been as outrageous as Bruce, but Sahl did his part to subvert the status quo of the staid 1950s with his sharp political commentary. And while there is some disagreement on the timeline, folks who were around at the time generally agree that Sahl got there first.
I’m only hammering away at this because the passage of time has been extremely unkind to Sahl; his best material hasn’t aged all that well, and, even when it was current, it wasn’t all that funny. But the man was unusually smart (and, in his way, candid) about politics and human nature at a time when the nation’s favorite comics – namely Bob Hope – were chummy with the powers that be. It’s just that his form of dissent wasn’t as sexy as Bruce’s – and he didn’t end up dead on a bathroom floor at the age of forty.
Another cause for concern w/r/t Comedy at the Edge: it’s being developed by Zoglin and Richard “Shasta McNasty” Gurman. I sure hope we get Jake Busey’s thoughts on Stan Freberg (if we get any thoughts at all on Stan Freberg).
Cutler, who hasn’t committed to directing just yet, should try to interest HBO in a miniseries version of this subject; a two-hour feature film just can’t do it justice. I mean, how do you not do an hour on Wayland Flowers and Madame? Maybe I’m expecting too much from the producer of America’s Favorite Dog.