12 Movies That Explore the World of Stand-Up Comedy

1:46 PM 10/27/2019

by Katherine Schaffstall

Netflix's Eddie Murphy starrer 'Dolemite Is My Name' is merely the latest film with a main character trying to make a living telling jokes, following in the tradition of such titles as 'The King of Comedy,' 'Mr. Saturday Night,' 'Funny People' and 'Obvious Child.'

From left: 'Dolemite Is My Name,' 'The King of Comedy' (1983), 'Top Five' (2014)
From left: 'Dolemite Is My Name,' 'The King of Comedy' (1983), 'Top Five' (2014)
Fran├žois Duhamel; Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation/Photofest; Paramount Pictures/Photofest

Sometimes stand-up comics are the best characters to lead films.

While many comedians have stand-up specials, a number of comics have taken inspiration from their stand-up pasts and have portrayed big-screen characters pursuing a career telling jokes. For instance, Adam Sandler, Chris Rock and Jenny Slate are among those that have played fictional comedians in movies.

From the 1983 movie The King of Comedy to the 2019 biographical film Dolemite Is My Name, there are a number of pics that tell the stories of characters that work in the stand-up comedy industry.

While some of the films are specifically about a character's career as a stand-up comic, such as 1992's Mr. Saturday Night and 2009's Funny People, others pay more subtle tribute to the world of stand-up and simply feature characters who take the stage to tell jokes.

In addition to the many movies that feature stand-up comedian characters, TV shows like Seinfeld, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Crashing and Lady Dynamite explore the world of stand-up comedy through the experiences of the main characters.

To mark Dolemite Is My Name's Netflix debut on Oct. 25, The Hollywood Reporter has compiled a list of memorable movies about stand-up comics.

  • 'The King of Comedy' (1983)

    Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation/Photofest

    This 1983 satirical black comedy follows mentally deranged aspiring stand-up comedian Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro). While he is a failure in real life, Rupert is a major celebrity in his mind and hosts an imaginary talk show in his mother's basement. He becomes convinced that talk show host Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis) will provide his big break, though Jerry isn't interested in helping the aspiring comic. Rupert goes to extreme lengths to advance his career and kidnaps Jerry with the intention of only releasing the host in exchange for a guest spot on the talk show.

  • 'Punchline' (1988)

    Courtesy of Photofest

    This 1988 comedy stars Tom Hanks as Steven Gold, a struggling medical school student who moonlights as a stand-up comedian. When Steven meets mother and housewife Lilah Krytsick (Sally Field), the two form an unlikely friendship as he helps her improve her comedy act. While Lilah's family objects to her dreams of becoming a stand-up comic, she focuses on her craft and ultimately competes against Steven for a coveted spot on a television show.

  • 'Talkin' Dirty After Dark' (1991)

    This 1991 comedy follows stand-up comedian Terry Lumbar (Martin Lawrence), who is a regular performer at the comedy club Dukie's. In addition to having trouble launching his comedy career, he is also struggling to pay his $67 phone bill and happens to be having an affair with the club owner's wife. The film takes place over the course of one night and follows Terry's journey to earn enough money to pay his bill.

  • 'This Is My Life' (1992)

    Nora Ephron directed and co-wrote the screenplay for This Is My Life alongside her sister Delia Ephron. The film follows Dottie Ingels (Julie Kavner), a divorcee who works at a cosmetics counter and aspires to become a stand-up comedian. When Dottie's aunt dies and leaves her Queens home to her niece, the struggling comic sells the house in order to afford an apartment in Manhattan. Her comedy career kicks off with the help of her agent (Dan Aykroyd) and his assistant (Carrie Fisher), but the success of her new career ultimately gets in the way of her relationship with her daughters.

  • 'Mr. Saturday Night' (1992)

    Photofest

    This comedy-drama follows stand-up comedian Buddy Young Jr.'s (Billy Crystal) journey to becoming a television star with the help of his brother and manager, Stan (David Paymer). Through a series of flashbacks, the pic details the brothers' childhood and Buddy's rise to fame as he has his big break by booking his own television show. Following the decline of Buddy's career, the comic attempts to reconnect with Stan while he also tries to make a comeback by accepting a role in a top director's new film. In addition to starring in Mr. Saturday Night, Crystal also directed, produced and co-wrote the pic alongside Babaloo Mandel and Lowell Ganz.

  • 'Funny People' (2009)

    Universal Pictures

    The Judd Apatow dark comedy-drama Funny People follows comic George Simmons (Adam Sandler), who takes struggling comedian Ira (Seth Rogen) under his wing after he learns that he has a fatal disease. The men bond as George helps Ira perfect his craft and they work to define George's legacy. The veteran comedian goes into remission as an old flame (Leslie Mann) reappears, which gives him the opportunity to re-evaluate his life and figure out what truly matters to him.

  • 'Sleepwalk With Me' (2012)

    Adam Beckman

    Based on Mike Birbiglia's one-man off-Broadway show, the 2012 comedy Sleepwalk With Me stars Birbiglia as an aspiring comedian who's in denial about the state of his relationship, his goals for the future and his rapid eye movement sleep behavior disorder. The comic experiences intense anxiety and keeps his feelings a secret, which leads to humorous and dangerous sleepwalking experiences. In addition to starring in and directing the film, Birbiglia co-wrote the script alongside Ira Glass, Joe Birbiglia and Seth Barrish.

  • 'Obvious Child' (2014)

    Gillian Robespierre's feature directorial debut follows immature stand-up comic Donna (Jenny Slate), whose one-night stand with graduate student Max (Jake Lacy) ends with an unplanned pregnancy. Donna decides to have an abortion and talks about what she's going to do during one of her sets.

  • 'Top Five' (2014)

    Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival

    Chris Rock wrote, directed and stars in this 2014 comedy. While Andre Allen (Rock) has found success as the star of an action-comedy trilogy series, he originally got his start in the entertainment industry as a stand-up comic. When Andre is forced to spend the day with New York Times profile writer Chelsea (Rosario Dawson), he unexpectedly opens up to her and gives her a tour of New York City as he reconnects with his comedic roots.

  • 'The Comedian' (2016)

    Courtesy of Alison Cohen Rosa/Sony Pictures Classics

    Robert De Niro once again plays a stand-up comedian in this comedy-drama. Despite aging comic Jackie Burke's (De Niro) efforts to reinvent himself and his comedy act, he learns that audiences only see him as the former television character that made him famous. After accosting an audience member at a comedy show, Jackie is sentenced to 30 days in jail and is forced to complete 100 hours of community service. While doing his community service, he meets and forms a bond with Harmony (Leslie Mann) and the two find inspiration in each other.

  • 'The Big Sick' (2017)

    Courtesy of Lionsgate

    This 2017 film follows Pakistani comic Kumail (Kumail Nanjiani) and American graduate school student Emily (Zoe Kazan), who meet when she heckles him during one of his stand-up sets. As they grow closer, Kumail worries that their cultural differences will get in the way of their relationship. Emily soon contracts an illness that leaves her in a coma, which forces Kumail to get to know her parents (Ray Romano and Holly Hunter). In addition to starring in the film, Nanjiani wrote the autobiographical screenplay with his wife, Emily V. Gordon.

  • 'Dolemite Is My Name' (2019)

    Courtesy of Netflix

    The biographical comedy film follows struggling comedian Rudy Ray Moore (Eddie Murphy) after he finds success performing stand-up under the persona of Dolemite, a pimp with a cane known for his collection of obscene jokes and stories. After successfully selling bootlegs of his performances, Moore enlists social justice-minded dramatist Jerry Jones (Keegan-Michael Key) to write the 1975 blaxploitation crime film Dolemite. Dolemite Is My Name follows the process of producing and filming that movie, as well as Moore's rise to fame.