In 1983, Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese followed up their epochal collaboration Raging Bull with The King of Comedy. De Niro played Rupert Pupkin, a mediocre stand-up comedian who, with the help of Sandra Bernhard, kidnaps Jerry Lewis in an attempt to get a break on his nationally viewed talk show. The scheme pretty much works as advertised, and when Rupert gets out of jail, he finds the attention he always craved. The King of Comedy was the biggest bomb of Scorsese's career, but over the years its themes of toxic celebrity culture and its proto-Cohen Bros. inept kidnapping plot has upgraded it from "intriguing misfire" to "cult classic ahead of its time."
There will be no such reappraisal for The Comedian. If there is, I shudder to imagine what a future culture that found this film relevant would look like. De Niro stars as Jackie Burke, a comedian who made his reputation as an Archie Bunker-like TV dad on Eddie's Home. The show had a great run back in the 1980s, with Eddie waging a losing culture war with his liberal wife and gay son, but that was a long time ago. When the movie opens, Jackie is doing TV nostalgia shows hosted by Jimmie "J. J." Walker. Halfway through his set of cut-rate insult humor, he is confronted by a couple of persistent hecklers who, it turns out, have a web series called "Stand Up Take Down." Impulse control not being Jackie's strong suit, the confrontation escalates until Jackie punches out the hecklers on camera. Naturally, this leads to a court date and a plea bargain arrangement which requires 100 hours of community service and an apology.
It's the apology part that causes the problem. When the plaintiff mouths off, Jackie lobs some choice insult comic barbs in open court, offending the judge and landing the 67-year-old comedian in lockup for 30 days. As he's being led to his cell, the prisoners on the cell block sing the theme song to Eddie's Home to greet him.
When he gets out, he's alone, his career is in the toilet, and his agent, Miller (Edie Falco), only agrees to get him gigs out of loyalty to the memory of her father, who was Jackie's best friend until Jackie had him fired from Eddie's Home. He's forced to borrow money from his brother (Danny DeVito), which arises the ire of his sister-in-law, Flo (Patti LuPone).
You can just go ahead and substitute "arising the ire" for the verb in any sentence in which Jackie is the subject, because that's pretty much all he can do. The man's got one drum, and he's gonna bang it. De Niro plays Jackie as a professional jerk who takes his work home with him. He can't stop the flow of sick burns even when he's serving his community service in a soup kitchen. That's where he meets Harmony Schlitz (Leslie Mann), the hot-blonde love interest who might just be as big a jerk as Jackie. They bond over comparing details of their respective assault charges. Here's a sample quip to give you the level of comedy we're dealing with: "What, did your mom have a Nazi barbershop quartet?" To which Mann gives the first of a long series of pained laughs.
Indeed, much of the running time of The Comedian that isn't taken up with long, saxophone-scored montages of De Niro wandering through the rain-slick streets of New York is taken up with people pretending to laugh at his jokes. De Niro, who has been stuck playing grumpy old men for the last few years, is not actually bad in this film. If somebody could get the guy a decent script, he could prove he's still got it. But this script, penned by producer Art Linson and professional insult comedian Jeff Ross, is a stinker for the ages. There's a parade of comedic cameos, from Cloris Leachman to Hannibal Buress to the man who almost single-handedly kept the Borscht Belt comedy tradition alive, Billy Crystal, but director Taylor Hackford seems to have given editor Mark Warner instructions to cut all of the funny parts of their performances. Worst of all, the timing is off, and for comedy, that's death.