Louis C.K: Stand-Up and Its Place in Hollywood
For someone whose acting credits have previously included ‘man wearing Richard Nixon Mask’, ‘Sneezing Man’ and ‘Apple Tree’, outrageous comedian Louis C.K’s most recent ventures in to movie acting have been pretty awesome. I first saw him in David O’Russell’s heist hit American Hustle as uptight Agent Thorsen; the counterpoint to Bradley Cooper’s energetic and reckless Richie DiMaso. However he had starred before that in Woody Allen’s strikingly emotional Blue Jasmine, granted this performance wasn’t as notable. What I noticed with both films, however, was that I found myself completely unsurprised that Louis C.K is a naturally great actor.
In American Hustle I would go as far as to say he stole a couple of scenes from Cooper himself, particularly with his ‘Ice Fishing’ story (which, by the way he has now finished on Jay Leno’s show). He pulls off his scenes with the same kind of seething indifference and frustration which makes his stand-up so popular. Beyond his performance, the exchanges between Thorsen and DiMaso are so well-written and well-crafted that the tension and comedy which defines their relationship throughout the film flows and builds so effortlessly that it fast becomes the most believable relationship in the film. As David C. Cutler notes in this article, though Thorsen is the most sensible and sane character in the film, he “plays it somewhat straight, but Louis gives Thorsen a goofy quality that a non-comedic actor wouldn’t have been able to nail naturally.”
His performance in this got me thinking about that little bit of surprising magic other stand-up comedians have brought to movie roles. While many of these ex-comedians are obvious such as Eddie Murphy, Steve Martin, Jim Carrey and Robin Williams but there are those more surprising ones. Though this falls under the category of obvious, I have already mentioned stand-up’s greatest contribution to Hollywood in this article because it is undoubtedly Woody Allen. Long before he became the auteur we all know, Allen was a successful and unsurprisingly hilarious stand-up comedian and comedy writer for such shows as The Tonight Show and The Ed Sullivan Show. It’s easy to see how this stand-up translated in to that recognisable Allen flair as it was this background in comedy that gave us that trademark neurotic facet that can be found in most – if not all – of his films. In particular, his stand-up experience is what gave us my favourite part of his films, which are his famously self-deprecating monologues in such films as Annie Hall, Manhattan, Hannah and Her Sisters, Love & Death, Deconstructing Harry (you get the idea).
If you have ever read my blog before, you’ll know that I have a profound and undying love for this next, highly surprising ex-stand-up actor that is Frank Underwood himself – Kevin Spacey. Yes, the man known for his incredibly resonantly deadpan and eerily tortured performances in such films as Usual Suspects, American Beauty and Se7en started his career in the world of stand-up performing impressions and skits in bowling alley comedy contests (yes that was a thing in the 80s). Of course, Spacey then transitioned in to theater, sparking his involvement with the Old Vic from 2003 onwards. It’s notable that even in his many dramatic roles, House of Cards included, that he brings such a sense of awareness of timing and how hard to play a scene, and when to back off. All traits of the comedy trade.
On this side of the pond, perhaps the biggest surprise start in stand-up was the charming, dry-witted and oh-so-British Emma Thompson. Long before she’d shown her acting metal in Sense and Sensibility, Howard’s End and Love Actually she tried her hand at stand-up until, in her words she “realised that if I carried on doing it I would be dead of a heart attack before I was thirty, because I’ve never…nothing is so frightening, nothing.” Yes, before the days of being a beacon of British-ness along side Helen Mirren and Dame Judi she kept company with Hugh and Laurie in her University’s comedy group.
The last of my surprising stand-up start-ups is none other than Hellboy, motorbike gang leader, Marv and all-round hardman Ron Perlman who tried his hand at stand-up in high school. Perlman shares an aptitude for natural comedy that – like Lous C.K, Spacey and Thompson – shines through all manner of performances in their career and culminates in the charisma that indisputably emanates from all these actors. Whether it’s shown in their comedic timing, their aptitude for improvisation or their ability to bring a different layer to a scene, their past in comedy ultimately seems to have given these the ability to deliver such a diverse range of roles – which I’m sure we’re all more than grateful for. Whether obvious or surprising, the success stories which came out of the stand-up world make me inclined to think there’s a profound compatibility between acting and comedy that has been and still is a vein of talent waiting to be tapped.
As a bonus, here’s Kevin Spacey doing lots of impressions: