France, amongst many other things, is the cradle of cinephilia. As we reach these shores, bathed in the fading Indian summer sun, after more than a month spent following the European release of Funny People through the UK, Spain, Germany, the Czech republic, it seems fair to warn the French before they get the knickers in a twist about it : Funny People is maybe not cinema. It has already been said in Spanish – see Carlos Losilla’s critic – : « Estamos en otra cosa, aunque no se sepa muy bien qué » – we are in something else and we do not know exactly what. Let us try and make it very simple though : Apatow once left the stage to try and make films ; today, he has gone back : he is using the recording device to expand the stage. In the process, the very meaning of “cinema” has been modified.
So far, as Apatow was directing, producing or writing for television and cinema, he worked to create a certain type of comedies, soon to be recognized as a new, well identified kind of Hollywood comedy. More tenderness for losers and geeks than ever before, plots designed to portray their heroism and beauty : following a 40 years old virgin on his glorious path to love or an everlasting teenager on his journey towards happy fatherhood (Knocked-up), or a bunch of geeky teenagers on a mission to prove they are worth inviting to a groovy party (Superbad). Maybe some more affectionate moments led to alter the well designed structures, letting the camera roll when nothing much happens, as when Seth Rogen and Paul Rudd, in Knocked-up, escaped to Las Vegas and hung out in a hotel room. But on the whole, these were just moments – maybe awkward to some – in a general frame that otherwise made use of traditional and efficient elements of comedy building.
With Funny People, Apatow is killing the Apatow style comedy, the good old geeks and their heroic quests, thereby also evading the historical codes of Hollywood comedy, restarting afresh from where he started : the scene, the live audience, where he made his actors rehearse before shooting the film. What is convenient with cameras, microphones, and knowing the right people you need to record stuff properly, organize, produce, distribute what people call a film, is that you do not need to respect the unity of time and space that most human activities require, for instance theatre. If you can record a play staged one given night, then you can show it to people who missed it. Or if you love actors, you can also choose to spend the night with them after the show and make a spectacle out of it for the many who could not follow you. Cinema is thereby less used as a narrative art with its own genres, codes and history, than as a mere recording tool, that is a device allowing you to make experiences shared beyond their usual time and space limits.
This is what happens here with stand-up comedy. If you like the way life sounds when tackled by funny people who come on stage, if you think stand-up comedy is possibly the best human art there is to bring to expression, through the means of laughter, all possible experiences people go through in their daily life, then, if you know how to record and broadcast, there is no reason to be confined to the sole moment when they do come on the stage to share their humorous ways with a crowd. You can also follow them backstage, why not to the parking lot, or maybe, while you are at it, just follow them at home, with friends, lovers, on the road doing other shows, going to see their doctor when they are ill, etc. If funny people have a key to cast the right light upon life, why don’t you use the recording device to follow them out of the stage and interact with all the possible events life might provide for ? Take actors who are/were professional stand-up artists/writers like Adam Sandler, Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill, Aubrey Plaza, and let the camera follow them home (a fictional home, maybe, but simply providing a surface for them to make further jokes, and work at them). Cinema survives and lives here as a device to make the stage bigger, not bigger than life, only as big as it is.
Is this really new ? Television did it, Seinfeld did it. Despite the difference there is between a TV show, spun over nine seasons, and a two hours twenty minutes film, there could most certainly be a comparison. Seinfeld was supposed to be a “show about nothing”, about daily life as it is, the very stuff stand-up uses and transfigures on stage. But Funny People reverses the relationship between the stage and life. Each Seinfeld episode shows the daily life of several characters, one of them being an artist, whom we also see on stage, opening and closing the show with an act drawing the moral out of what we have seen. In Funny People, we follow a bunch of stand-up artists out of the scene into their daily life, mixing the public and private beyond the usual limits (read our previous episode). So, in the comparison at hand, TV showed how life becomes art, cinema, as a recording power, shows here how art is also a life. It is not about the world already being a stage, it is about the stage already being a world, the element of someone’s world, that unfolds out of it. Funny people leave the stage, and they go on being mostly funny.
There is price to pay : the dissolution of the narrative machine of comedy, of its traditional ways of producing laughter. There surely remains a minimal thread : George (Adam Sandler), a famous comic artist is dying from leukemia, which is not funny, and we are going to accompany this funny guy joking his way through unfunny stuff, bitter jokes, fresher one jokes, good jokes, bad jokes. But laughter is not made easy, often mixed with various emotions. We are not told where to laughed as we are used to watching comedy. The engine has moved. It is not structural and narrative any more, but atomistic and rhythmic : each scene is its own centre (atomism), receiving its tempo (rhythm) from the funny ones. The act is its measure and the joke its rhythm. Being funny, whether on stage or anywhere else, is like curing cancer with molecules, as explained by the tall Swedish doctor : you slowly get the patient ready, geared up to receive the blow, measuring how much he can take before you start again. Sometimes you give them the full measure, at the limit of what they can take, sometimes you have to take it easy on them. If you followed our previous episode, you have met Bill, a young person responding very well to the treatment. Taking the stand-up artists out of the theatre is exactly to be measured on this scale : are they up tempo, down tempo, attacking too hard, attacking too low ? Are they in tune with the emotional state of the patients, or, on the contrary playing too hard or too mellow on them ? Up tempo – like Leo on Mark and his grandfather’s death (mountain scene), or Ira and George giving the Ikea treatment to the Swedish doctor. Down tempo, like Ira on Audrey inviting her to the Wilco concert (“so we will... go to the concert together ?”). If you have seen the film, you measured it on yourself, taken from one level to the next, scene after scene, one mix of emotions after another.
There is the question of the last third. Carlos Losilla has very well described it : there is at some point, in Funny People, a return to cinema – meaning here the narrative art of the moving image known under that name in the 20th century – , more precisely a return to the classical type of pre-war Hollywood comedy labelled « comedy of remarriage » by Stanley Cavell, as George tries to reconquer his previous wife Laura (Leslie Mann). What are we to make of this ? I would say cinema becomes a possible option among others on these new atomistic grounds. It can exist as anything else does here, that is as an inner episode of its own. Only it cannot rule over the structure. Meaning : the remarriage cannot happen. George’s chances disappear when he does not react positively to the footage of Apatow & Mann’s daughter being taped singing at a school performance. Cinema confronted with real life recorded knows it has to give way. The world that the stage is resumes its rhythmic business, up and down tempo.