Comedy and Comedians in the Films of Martin Scorsese

This somewhat impulsive post arises from the fact that we re-watched Martin Scorsese’s Casino (1995) last night and were reminded of the unusually large number of comedians there are throughout the movie: Don Rickles, Alan King, Kevin Pollak, Steve Allen (with wife Jane Meadows), and Dick Smothers (almost as revenge for his brother Tom working with Brian De Palma in Get to Know Your Rabbit.) As we wrote here recently, Joe Pesci and Frank Vincent were a comedy duo on stage prior to being discovered by Scorsese. Their sort of banter and byplay had been a theme in Scorsese’s movies already, though, as early as DeNiro and Keitel in Mean Streets (1973). Anyway it put me in mind of the degree to which comedy forms a kind of interesting subtheme throughout his directing career.

This post is also prompted by the fact that The King of Comedy (1982) is about to turn 40 years old. This is the most obvious and straightforward example in his body of work, with Robert DeNiro playing an aspiring comedian, and Jerry Lewis in one of his best roles, as well as Sandra Bernhard, Tony Randall, Victor Borge and others in the cast. The film was wedged in between two other important examples: in Raging Bull (1980) DeNiro as Jake La Motta takes the stage as a stand-up comic after his boxing career is over; and After Hours (1985) was actually a comedy film, if a black one, with Griffin Dunne being harried through the downtown streets by the likes of Catherine O’Hara, Teri Garr, and Cheech and Chong.

Goodfellas (1990) has a scene with Henny Youngman (pictured above) performing his stand-up act. The great Jack Haley has a cameo as an emcee in New York, New York (1976). Albert Brooks is comically memorable in Taxi Driver (1976). Sacha Baron Cohen is the villain in Hugo (2011).

Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974) was adapted into a TV sitcom. The kid in the film (Alfred Lutter), the movie’s funniest ongoing element, later appeared in Woody Allen’s Love and Death (1975). And of course Scorsese and Woody teamed up (with Coppola) on the trilogy of shorts called New York Stories (1989). (Woody’s Broadway Danny Rose is probably his most Scorseseque movie).

Jackie Gleason is sadly absent from The Color of Money, the 1986 sequel to The Hustler, though including him was strongly considered by all parties involved. It’s a shame, because Gleason died the following year, and his presence would have added some badly needed magic to the film that the final product sorely lacked. Another sad coulda been: it was widely reported that Marty was developing a movie version of Richard Pryor’s book Pryor Convictions: And Other Life Sentences in the mid-90s, to star Damon Wayans, but he eventually got distracted and moved on to other projects.

We could add the many other actors normally associated with comedy who appear in his films, but it would be stretching a point. Scorsese’s recent streaming series with the hilarious Fran Lebowitz Pretend It’s a City (2021), in which the director acted almost as a kind of Ed McMahon style sidekick to the famous wit, seems to me a key to the motivating spirit behind the comic thread in all his work. Not a comedian himself, Scorsese is clearly a major comedy fan, and loves to promote the funny any chance he gets.

But there’s also another dimension, once closer to the darker themes that normally occupy Scorsese’s imagination. Thanks, Ben Fentington, for sending this Scorsese quote from an old issue of Film Comment, with reference to the Milton Berle movie Always Leave Them Laughing.

Milton Berle is the archetype of the comedian who’s really tough and nasty. This film depicts in no uncertain terms the kind of character Milton Berle — the real Milton Berle — is. I find comedians fascinating. There’s so much pain and fear that goes into the trade and this is one of the most honest films about comedians. I admire the guts it took for Berle to make this autobiographical film about a completely dislikable guy. In fact, I believe Berle completed direction of the film after Roy Del Ruth got sick.”

Something about aggression, self-loathing, brutal honesty; there’s a lot of overlap to chew on there.

For more on show business history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on classic comedy read  Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.  

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