The first thing to keep in mind about The Comedian is that it is not a comedy. To be sure there are spots of humor, but it is really a drama focusing on a man at odds with the world—and perhaps with himself as well.
Jackie Burke (Robert De Niro) is an aging comedian who does abusive standup comedy in clubs. He is popular with the public because of a role in a TV series many years ago. He hates that when he takes the stage crowds call out “Eddie! Eddie!”, thinking of him more as that old character than who he really is. Jackie has grown very misanthropic over the years. His comedy routines focus on insulting people. When Jackie discovers a heckler is recording the routine to put online, he assaults him, which leads to a thirty day jail term after he refuses to apologize.
After getting out of jail he must do community service. While working at a soup kitchen for the homeless he meets Harmony (Leslie Mann) who is also doing community service. Despite their difference in age, they hit it off, becoming friends. Both Jackie and Harmony have issues with family. For Jackie it is his brother Jimmy (Danny DeVito) and sister-in-law Florence (Patti LuPone). Florence is especially difficult with Jackie. Harmony struggles with her father Mac (Harvey Keitel) who has the money and connections to get her community service transferred to Florida where he owns a retirement community. After she leaves, Jackie struggles to find work and happiness.
It is often hard to like Jackie. His comedy is crude. He is just as abrasive off stage as on. His struggle to redefine himself after becoming a celebrity has been hard—and the public isn’t cooperative. Our antipathy toward Jackie is by design. We aren’t supposed to laugh at his routines. We are expected to think him boorish. Yet as the film progresses we are able to see the humanity that underlies the rough exterior. Often that happens in the midst of his comedy. While he us often rude, when in Florida trying to impress Harmony and Mac, he performs for the residents in the Senior facility. The scatological routine he develops (highlighted by singing a parody, “Making Poopie”) he is able to connect with the people. Little by little Jackie learns that even though people often love him for who they think he is more than for who he really is, there is something there to love.
Being able to love someone who is abhorrent to us is a difficult task to master. There are so many ways people build walls to protect themselves, but also isolate themselves. For Jackie, Harmony created a crack in the artifice. For many people we meet, we may need to work to discover the way in to meet the child of God within.
Photos courtesy Sony Pictures Classics