The art of bringing stand-up comedy to the big screen
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NEW YORK, Oct 17 ― Before walking onstage at the Terrace Theatre in Long Beach, California, one December night in 1978 for a performance that would become Richard Pryor: Live in Concert, the first full-length stand-up comedy film, Pryor approached the director Jeff Margolis near his dressing room. “Make me look good,” he said. “Make magic.”
Until then, stand-up lived in nightclubs and the equally cramped confines of television sets. Now a comedian would fill the big screen.
“Richard was really excited about it,” Margolis recalled in a recent interview. “He knew he was making a movie instead of a television show.”
How did Margolis, and other filmmakers, transform the experience of one person on one stage for moviegoers? What works, and what can go wrong? And what are some tricks of the trade? (The Original Kings of Comedy was shot over two nights.) Margolis and other comedians and filmmakers explained the art of bringing stand-up to the big screen.
Kevin Hart needed to raise the stakes for his third stand-up film, Kevin Hart: What Now?.“I wanted to improve on the typical black curtain and mike stand set dressing,” Hart wrote in a recent email. “I really wanted to give the fans an experience that they would go home and talk about afterwards.” So he booked a football stadium.
Filmed at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia in front of 53,000 people, What Now? looks like an event, with 84 cameras capturing the action and massive LED screens backing Hart. And when the director, Leslie Small, discovered there wasn’t a spotlight for centre stage, a lighting truck was built and placed in the audience to create the effect.
Kevin Hart wasn’t the first comedian to push production values. David Raynr, the director of Martin Lawrence Live: Runteldat! (2002), remembered: “Martin wanted to go big, a big set. Our production values were very expensive. We also spent a lot of money on music; Martin wanted certain songs. Ice Cube didn’t ask for a fee for his publishing, but I still think we spent US$1 million (RM4.2 million) on music.”
For What Now, Small hired a helicopter to fly over the stadium and film certain segments of the show.
“I’m trying to give you a sense of the spectacular of the moment,” he said, “and we had a lot of tools to do that with.”
The Original Kings of Comedy — Steve Harvey, D.L. Hughley, Cedric the Entertainer and Bernie Mac — didn’t think they needed an experienced filmmaker for their 2000 film.
“We kind of took the attitude that anybody could shoot this, just go get any director out of film school,” Cedric the Entertainer said. But they wound up going with Spike Lee, who brought a vision. “He said, ‘I’m going to make it feel like everyone can relate to you guys.'”
He placed a dolly that he moved left to right subtly in front of the stage, giving the film audience a roving, close-up view of the comics. Lee also may have impelled one of the film’s most memorable moments, a confrontation between Steve Harvey and an audience member named Boogie who left his front-row seat during Harvey’s set. “Hey dog, where y’all going?” Harvey said. “This a movie — we shooting! We can’t just have the front row empty!” Harvey would have his revenge after stealing Boogie’s coat and razzing him.
“I’m not sure if there was some collaboration on that,” Cedric the Entertainer said with a laugh. “But [Mr. Lee] was prepared for them.”
Shoot the audience — if permitted
Harvey’s faceoff with Boogie wasn’t the first time an audience member nudged a comedian to improvise: The opening minutes of Richard Pryor: Live in Concert consisted of Pryor’s heckling of late-arriving audience members.
“I took a reverse shot so you could see the people from Richard’s point of view,” Margolis said. “Then I took a wider shot from the balcony so you could see more of the audience.”
Audience shots were limited in Eddie Murphy: Raw for a specific reason: “When one of our producers, Keenan Wayans, saw that we had lights on the patrons, he said, ‘Nah, Eddie can’t really perform if he can see the audience,” said Ernest Dickerson, the film’s cinematographer. “He basically said that Eddie Murphy could not have eye contact with his audience.”
Raynr spent a year on tour with Lawrence, absorbing his set before shooting Runteldat!.
“As a director, my job is to help Martin tell his story,” Raynr said. “I knew every moment, every nuance, every smile, so I could bring everything together to really communicate Martin’s vision.”
Because he was an expert on the material, Raynr knew how to pace the filming of each joke: When to go to a wide shot or zoom in for a close-up during the punch line. That was experience the comic appreciated.
“When you spend time on the road with someone, you learn their marks,” Lawrence wrote in an email. “David grew to know the beats of my facial expressions, where I was going to move, where I may be on the stage, how my body language was going to play out.”
But also prepare for the unexpected
Forecasts called for rain in the week before Hart’s concert at Lincoln Financial Field, so Small devised a contingency plan.
“Those LED monitors were not graded for rain. The cameras we were using were not graded for rain,” he said. “But we had dual sets of cameras, dual sets of screens, so if it rained we could switch out the whole set.”
The filmmakers also placed ponchos under every seat. “We had 50,000 ponchos, colour-coordinated ponchos,” Small said. “Thank God it didn’t rain.”
Keep it simple
Margolis’ plan for directing the first stand-up comedy film was to replicate what made the form successful on TV.
“Instead of trying to reinvent the wheel, I thought, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” Margolis said. “With stand-up comedy, I don’t look for fancy, artsy-fartsy shots, because that’s not what it’s about. It’s about seeing the comedian tell a joke and get a laugh — seeing their eyes, their mouth, their body. That’s what it’s about it.”
Dickerson, the cinematographer on Eddie Murphy: Raw, agreed.
“It’s up to the comedian to do his thing. Eddie and Eddie’s jokes were what the audience was responding to. It wasn’t anything we did. It was all Eddie.” — The New York Times