January 14, 2009

Written by Peter Debruge

You open up a night of shooting on Judd Apatow’s new comedy to the public (even going so far as to charge them for the privilege of being extras in the movie), and you pretty much guarantee some internet joker will write up the whole experience — except that plan ain’t half bad when you stack the evening with comedians such as David Spade, Adam Sandler, Seth Rogen, Sarah Silverman, Aziz Ansari and Patton Oswalt, only a fraction of whom are planned to appear in the film itself.

Now, if Funny People is half as funny as the night of standup comedy Apatow orchestrated January 13 in downtown Los Angeles, then the 40-Year-Old Virgin maestro has another hit on his hands. Of course, it’s hard to say how much of the evening’s 3 1/2 hours of comedy will actually appear in the film (Apatow made it sound like the whole show was designed to generate about three minutes worth of screen time), but there’s plenty to work with. Nearly packing the 2,200-seat Orpheum theater (the same venue used for L.A.-based tapings of American Idol), the production had cameras swooping over the audience’s heads on cranes and backstage on Steadicams to simulate a Marin County (that’s the San Francisco area to you non-locals) show.

As one might expect from Apatow, most of the humor ran pretty blue, with favorite topics ranging from dick size (Sandler: “Mine’s medium rare —medium in length, rare in taste”) to pubic hair (Rogen: “It kinda looks like Princess Leia in profile”) to oral sex (Ansari: “There are a lot of people not getting their dick sucked or eating pussy who care a lot about stuff like Darfur”). But the others mixed in some new material, including a few timely Obama jokes. “I think he’ll actually have the easiest adjustment of any President. He already knows what it’s like to be followed everywhere by security guards,” Silverman quipped, going on to share the most intelligent question she could think to ask Obama when she met him in person at a campaign event: “When you were a student in Boston, did you ever encounter any racism?” According to Silverman, “He said something very, very interesting. He said, ‘I’m Kanye West.’”

Spade and Oswalt were there to open and close the show as a favor to Apatow, who would run out between acts, field questions from the audience (to a Freaks & Geeks fan’s demand for a reunion movie/show, he said, “Those things never turn out right. [As for what happened to the characters,] I think they’re all dead or in prison.”) and introduce the next performer. Once Spade had gotten the crowd warmed up, Sandler came out in character as George Simmons, the headliner for the show-within-the-movie. Apatow asked for big applause, a standing ovation and all that to convey just what a big deal this George Simmons guy is (by contrast, Rogen plays Ira Wright, an up-and-coming comedian who gets a polite smattering of claps from the crowd).

In the movie, Simmons has suffered a near-death experience that forces him to reevaluate his priorities. According to Apatow, Sandler wrote most of his material himself, delivering an in-character routine that alternated between melancholy reflections on death (angry with film critics who hate on his movies, “Simmons” followed a nastycomment about Roger Ebert’s post-op appearance with the line, “The only beautiful thing about almost dying is you can say things about people who are dying”), only slightly less depressing reflections on Laura (“the one that got away” — a quip he followed up with, “Serial killers say that, too. ‘I had the trunk lined with garbage bags. She was a slippery one!’”) and some pretty hilarious gross-out jokes (“I Botoxed my balls. … You can’t live in Los Angeles with balls that wrinkledy.”). At one point, someone in the balcony yells out “Merman!” and Sandler responded with a silly blub-blub breathing underwater routine, no doubt referencing the film role that made Simmons famous within the film. As for “Laura,” Simmons’ lost love (played by Apatow’s wife Leslie Mann) spent the entire set sitting beside Rogen’s character in the front row.

When it came time for Rogen’s set, he killed it, bringing down the house with his raunchy jokes (the majority of which he cooked up for the character). “I think I would be a good gay guy,” Ira Wright muses on stage, “just playing video games and blowing each other all day — that doesn’t even sound gay to me.” Rogen has lost weight for the role, but figured he was still hirsute enough to qualify for bear status: “It must be weird when your weird fetish gets given a cute animal name.” Other off-color highlights included an ode to vaginal flatulence (“If I could pick any superpower, that’s what I’d want: to queef. I wouldn’t want to teleport or fly. I’d want to be able to blow out my birthday candles with my pee-hole.”) and a funny bit about farting on airplanes, followed by observations meant to stress his character’s poverty. Whereas Simmons complains about being rich and childless, Wright bemoans living on a pull-out couch and having none of his friends’ sexual confidence.

But when it comes to earning real laughs, neither comic could compare to Ansari, who plays a gimmicky Next Big Thing comedian named Randy (“one word, kinda like Cher,” Apatow’s assistant told the crowd). One can only guess how Randy fits into Simmons and Wright’s emo story, but it seems fair to assume that in Apatow’s world of professional joke-telling, he basically represents the End of Standup Comedy As We Know It — not that the audience minded. Shamelessly narcissistic (Randy interrupts his own jokes to tell “Randy fucktales,” but only after making the audience beg for it “I can’t hear you”-style), Randy hops and spins around the stage like a Ritalin case, relying on a personal DJ to repeat or expand on his punchlines, stoking the crowd with in-your-face sound effects. “You guys like impressions?” he asks, before proceeding to share “my impression of me, Randy, getting my dick sucked at Ikea/Six Flags/White Castle/you-name-it.” As obnoxious as his routine may be in concept, it was easily the funniest segment in a consistently hilarious evening. In fact, as the youngish, overwhelmingly hetero crowd spilled out into the streets after the show, it was Randy’s routine that had multiple guys openly admitting to crying themselves silly with laughter. From the look of things, Apatow will have to be careful that Ansari’s scenes don’t run away with the film.

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