“Don’t be an asshole and review this on the internet,” Seth Rogen told the sold out* audience at LA’s historic Orpheum Theater tonight. The event: A Night of Funny People, a stand-up concert being filmed for Judd Apatow’s Funny People, opening July 31st.
Okay, Seth, I won’t review it.** But I will talk about it a little bit.
The event was really interesting: while the draws were Seth Rogen and Adam Sandler, they weren’t performing as themselves, but rather their Funny People characters. The film is set in the world of stand-up comedy, and Sandler is playing George Simmons, a wildly popular comedian and movie star whose lonely, empty life gets shaken up by a serious health scare. Rogen is Ira, an up and coming comic who sells some jokes to George and ends up becoming friends with him. The script is hilarious, but also surprisingly serious and touching; the word is dramedy, but that makes it sound like a Very Special Episode of The Facts of Life. Funny People is simply a funny movie about real things and emotions.
Anyway, Sandler and Rogen were performing as George and Ira. There was some heckling at the beginning of Sandler’s set from a jerk in the balcony, but thankfully the audience was otherwise on point with the concept and played along. Sandler’s set was long – nearly an hour, if I had to guess (and I have to guess since I had my phone confiscated) – and raunchy, funny and most of all very, very in character. This was maybe what surprised me the most – his jokes, which apparently he wrote over the last three months, felt very organically part of the character. Having read the script I got the references he was making to his health and to a woman he once loved. Even without that knowledge I think the set worked as comedy, but with that knowledge the set worked as storytelling.
Rogen’s set was less about storytelling and more reflective of his character’s situation at the beginning of the film. Ira’s not supposed to be a honed performer, and if this sequence falls where I think it does in the script, he’s maybe not supposed to have the strongest act, but the crowd just loves Rogen. While bantering in between takes Sandler noted how much Rogen has killed in all of the stand-up they’ve filmed, despite the character not being so polished. Rogen’s an incredibly gifted performer who seems to just connect with the audience.
The person who really killed, though, was Human Giant’s Aziz Ansari. He plays Randy, whose act is hip hop comedy complete with a DJ and amazingly overblown attitude and confidence. I don’t know if Randy is supposed to be unaware of how goofy his act is or if the character is in on the joke – either way, Anzari is breaking out huge in this film. He’s big in comedy circles already, but his Randy set was so transcendently good (with a strong, strong assist from DJ Old Young’n, played by Brandon Johnson. Thanks to a delightful, publicity shy reader for the info) that I think people will walk out of this film buzzing about him. This was a crowd that had come for Rogen and Sandler, and they had already done their acts (people had started leaving, in fact), but Ansari’s Randy brought a huge jolt of energy to everyone. There was chatter about whether this night would end up on the eventual DVD or not, and I have to take one moment to make a plea:
Judd, please please please release all of Randy’s set, be it on DVD or Funny or Die or something. The demands of a movie mean that very little of that set will be on screen, but the good people of America deserve to see all of it.
What may have been most surprising was how the night moved. While I was at the Orpheum for four hours, I didn’t feel like there was much down time. Having been on my share of movie sets, I know that filmmaking is all about down time. There were a zillion cameras there – at least two on cranes – and a small army of production staffers, but the whole show zipped along. It felt like I was at a concert taping as opposed to a movie shoot. One thing that set the night apart from a concert taping, though, was the occasional booming voice of God – Judd Apatow – telling Rogen or Sandler which bit to try next. In fact the illusion that I was seeing George and Ira perform was rarely broken, and only badly at the end, when a Steadicam came out to shoot footage of Sandler from behind. I think Apatow’s ad lib shooting style and looseness makes some people think that he doesn’t run a tight ship – this night showed that his ship is totally seaworthy.
David Spade, Sarah Silverman and the great Patton Oswalt all did sets as well, all being great (especially Patton. Anyone who can work Jeff Goldblum as The Fly into a bit about getting fat has my eternal devotion), and Judd himself warmed us up a bit with a little routine, which was pretty exciting. Judd started out on stage, but I never imagined I’d have a chance to see him do an act. He’s got a genial storyteller style, although his stories are about his daughter doing vagina ventriloquism.
As a fan it was an incredible way to spend the night, but as a movie guy it was fascinating to see it all in action (Apatow referenced The Last Waltz at one point, which is a pretty great point of comparison), and even more fascinating to see how the reality of the movie was reflected in the stand-up without ever seeming forced, fake or on the nose. Of course only a minute of Sandler’s near hour will end up in the film, but all of the act was unabashedly audience worthy (another argument for a DVD of the evening’s performances, although I don’t think anybody has to convince Judd Apatow that DVDs sell). The level of craft, professionalism and talent on display was pretty amazing, and I’m sure that A Night of Funny People is going to go down as one of the better events I do in all of 2009. And more than ever, I can’t wait to see the actual film.
* Proceeds went to charity.
** But if I were to review it I would say it was great, hilarious and a blast.