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Standup in the Spotlight

Punchline
Steve Martin, star of myriad films ranging from the sublime
(Bowfinger, Roxanne) to the ridiculous (The
Jerk
, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid),
is also a prolific writer. His latest
work is "Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life," which chronicles his
early career and the evolution of his comic style.

Martin describes the development of what Elvis Presley once
called his "ob-leek sense of humor" in an audio excerpt from the
book: "At the Birdcage (Theater at Knotts Berry Farm), I formed the soft
primordial core of what became my comedy act. Over the three years I worked there, I strung together everything I
knew, including Dave Stewart’s Glove and the Dove trick, some comedy juggling,
a few standard magic routines, a banjo song and some very old jokes. My act was eclectic, and it took ten more
years for me to make sense of it."

Much of Martin’s 1970s era work was recorded, although to my
knowledge there exists no definitive movie that documents his career. And that’s a shame. Standup comedy is a rich subject for film
because it’s inherently entertaining (at least it’s supposed to be). And the men and women who choose standup as a
career have an intensity and drive that can make for exhilarating – or heartbreaking
– viewing.

Three standouts in standup, after the jump.

Lenny (1974):
directed by Bob Fosse, starring Dustin Hoffman. In this biopic about controversial 1960s comedian Lenny Bruce, the
envelope-pushing antics look tame by today’s standards, but Hoffman’s performance
is excellent. And Fosse brings
dissipation to the screen like no one else.

Punchline (1988):
written and directed by David Seltzer (The
Omen
, Lucas, My Giant), starring Tom Hanks and Sally Field. To prepare for his role as an aspiring
standup comic, Hanks performed over thirty times in New York and Los Angeles venues. The film garnered mixed reviews for its
muddled tone, but it offers a rare behind-the-scenes glimpse of the comedy club
circuit.

Fame (1980): directed by Alan Parker. Standup comedy isn’t the only focus of this
musical about students at New York’s High School for the Performing Arts, but
the stellar ensemble cast includes Barry Miller as Ralph Garcie. Ralph (né Raul) emulates his idol Freddie
Prinze not only onstage as a comic, but offstage as a substance abuser.

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