The sad clown is a famous motif based in reality. Many comedians have cited developing a sharp sense of humor as a coping mechanism at a young age, and others have acknowledged struggles with mental health that were a sharp dichotomy to their laughter–filled public personas. Ultimately, the imperfect private lives of comedians have been fodder for the representation of a cruel irony in film for years.
The comedy world of the 1970s was newly manifold, fueled by cocaine, and revolved around the rise of Saturday Night Live, the National Lampoon organization, and new sitcoms that continually pushed the envelope. But the fast rise to fame in the intense environment took a toll on many creative geniuses of the time. Decades later, the world can now reflect on many of these iconic figures—especially those lost too soon—and create films that celebrate their talents. These movies are remarkable and will enrich the knowledge of any comedy fan looking to learn more about the history behind a classic era of entertainment. Here’s a few to look into:
Man on the Moon (1999)
Man on the Moon, a biopic directed by Milos Forman, stars Jim Carrey as comedian Andy Kaufman. Kaufman is known to many for his role as Latka Gravas on the sitcom Taxi from 1978 to 1983 and his eccentric foray into the world of professional wrestling. Carrey’s performance is dead–on and mesmerizing, and supposedly was the product of significant method acting.
Kaufman was certainly a strange man—and this movie demonstrates that by showing how his tendencies toward tricks, extreme practical jokes, and performance art pushed the people he cared about away and oftentimes hurt his career. It explores his alter ego, unstable lounge singer Tony Clifton, who was often implied to be a separate person entirely. It emphasizes his friendship with Bob Zmuda, often the only person allowed to be “in” on the jokes.
The film is not only a celebration of Kaufman’s bizarre genius, but also an exposition of the intelligence behind his acts. His performances were normally devoid of jokes, and were instead fueled by Kaufman’s unique brand of anti–humor. The cast is a mix of Kaufman’s former castmates playing themselves or important people from his life, and relevant people from his life making cameos. The soundtrack by REM adds to the melancholic celebration of a humor mastermind. All in all, "the blink and you’ll miss it" castings and impressive re–creations of real moments from Kaufman’s career make this movie a comedy fan’s intellectual dream come true.
A Futile and Stupid Gesture (2018)
Even to many comedy aficionados, Doug Kenney is not a familiar name. However, he not only co–founded National Lampoon magazine, but also produced many of the organization's most successful films, such as Animal House and Caddyshack. If A Futile and Stupid Gesture, starring Will Forte, tells us anything, it’s that despite all he accomplished, Kenney never made the transition from being a boy fresh out of Chagrin Falls, Ohio to being a celebrity.
This dramatic role is nothing one would have ever expected from Forte—but prepare to be pleasantly surprised at his ability to balance Kenney’s tortured, cocaine–addicted life, and the jovial attitude that he allowed the world to see. The rest of the cast is similarly skilled, and one of the most fun elements of the film is watching modern actors pop up in the roles of famous comedians in Kenney’s life. A particularly fun casting is Joel McHale as a young version of his Community co–star Chevy Chase, one of Kenney’s best friends. Many comedy legends were part of National Lampoon before they made it big on SNL or in the movies, and a multitude were touched by his creations in the comedy realm.
The movie employs an interesting technique in having Martin Mull narrate the movie as an older Doug Kenney—or at least, older than Kenney ever lived to be, which further defines the sheer size and impact of his legacy.
Love, Gilda (2018)
Love, Gilda is a documentary that uses writings by Gilda Radner herself to examine her life. Throughout the film, comedians of today, including many notable women, read from Gilda’s diaries, clearly starstruck at being so close to the iconic comedienne. With memorable characters such as Roseanne Roseannadanna and Emily Litella, she was the first woman to stand out from the original “Not Ready for Primetime Players” cast of SNL, and became the inspiration for an entire generation of women trying to break into the normally male–dominated world of comedy.
Gilda’s on–screen persona was typically carefree and cheerful, but when you look closer at her life, it's apparent that she was burdened with insecurities. After struggling with her weight as a child, she dealt with eating disorders as an adult. She grappled with her identity, especially her role as a woman. She learned, quicker than anyone should have to, how to deal with fame, even with dangerous fans. She, like many, vied for love over many years—with many men—and eventually found it in her husband Gene Wilder, the one person who could truly support her in all her fragility.
Ultimately, Love, Gilda feels so tragic, because it demonstrates just how much love Gilda had left to give. When her life was cut short by cancer, the actress who lived to bring people happiness ended her career on a film considered to be a failure. But she wouldn’t have wanted tears from us.
Sadly, all three of these movies end with early funerals. However, in the end, they honor the legacies of positivity for which Andy Kaufman, Doug Kenney, and Gilda Radner are remembered. Even though these films expose some of the underlying darkness in an externally jocular world, they truly serve to highlight the joy that comedy can bring to those who need it. Despite all that they were haunted by, these comedians seized their short time on this Earth, and used it to make people happy.