The news this week that actor Russell Crowe is to direct a biopic of the late American stand-up comedian, Bill Hicks, triggered within me the Pavlovian response that always greets such announcements: whatever the film’s potential merits, it’s highly likely that the scenes depicting the comedian performing his material will fall embarrassingly flat.
That’s not because Hicks wasn’t funny – far from it, at his best he was hilarious – but because few dramatic actors are capable of accurately capturing the unique timing and delivery of the comic persona they happen to be inhabiting.
Take, for instance, Dustin Hoffman in Bob Fosse’s Lenny, who, despite skilfully mimicking the cadences of Lenny Bruce’s speech patterns, singularly failed to emulate the soul of his material. That, after all, is a tough call for any actor, even one as deft as Hoffman, which is presumably why there have been relatively few big screen biopics of comedians over the years, certainly when compared to the amount that have been made about musicians.
It’s easier to recapture the spirit of a great musician on film, if only because lip-syncing to original recordings at least allows an actor to hide behind – and crudely celebrate - the actual art of the person they’re portraying. But without the safety net of miming, an actor playing a comedian needs somehow to channel their comic essence using dramatically trained bones. I don’t envy them.
This is why musical tribute acts are ten-a-penny, and why comedy tribute acts are almost unheard of. You can close your eyes and fleetingly believe in the former, but if the latter deviates even slightly from the familiar, nuanced delivery of the original artist, then it sounds like a woefully off-key cover version. Where the best comedians are concerned, their material is so much a part of their own personal outlook, it sounds awkward and false when emanating from anybody else.
That’s presumably why the only truly successful example, at least as far as I’m concerned, is Jim Carrey’s performance as situationist genius Andy Kaufman in Milos Forman’s Man On The Moon. Carrey actually knows what it’s like to perform comedy on stage, and that background must surely have informed his ability to recreate Kaufman’s idiosyncratic routines and, crucially, make them funny.
It would take a particularly dedicated method actor to put in the years of practical research needed to reach a similar plateau of experience. So if Crowe has any sense – and interviews demonstrate that he at least has a sense of humour - then his best bet is to cast an actor, possibly an unknown, who has a strong understanding of the dynamics of stand-up comedy. Or Michael McIntyre, if he’s available.