Comics no longer king

Cable bulldozes once-lucrative standup genre

A funny thing has happened to standup comedy films — they’ve nearly disappeared.

Three years ago, “The Original Kings of Comedy” grossed nearly $40 million domestically; “Martin Lawrence Live: Runteldat” grossed nearly $20 million last year. Both pics cost a modest $3 million each to produce.

At first glance, one might conclude the combo of reasonably low costs and respectable upside would have led to a flood of similar concert films.

Instead, the standup pipeline is dry. Studios now treat standup as a sort of stepchild, releasing concert performances only as direct-to-video titles.

“It’s a great genre, and it feels like they’re should be a lot more going on in it,” muses MTV Films exec VP David Gale, a producer on both films. “But there’s only a tiny handful of comedians that can carry a feature, especially with HBO and Showtime offering so many comedians all the time.”

One recent example of a potential film that wasn’t: “The Latin Kings of Comedy,” starring George Lopez, Paul Rodriguez, Cheech Marin, Alex Reymundo and Joey Medina. Rodriguez financed the pic, filmed at a concert in El Paso, but found only Paramount was interested.

That led to “Latin Kings” test screenings in Fresno, Calif., and Albuquerque, but Par ultimately decided to go small.

“We thought very carefully about a theatrical release, but the economics made more sense to go the other way,” notes Par vice chair Rob Friedman. “It was a different situation from ‘Kings of Comedy,’ where Bernie Mac and Cedric were already household names.”

Rodriguez’ agent Doug Warner stresses Par has strongly supported the “Latin Kings” DVD campaign, but laments that studios have lost the desire to exploit the niche, particularly with the recognizability of Lopez, Marin and Rodriguez.

There was a time when standup comedy films seemed like a quick and easy way to get rich.

In 1979, David Permut and the late Bill Sargent arranged for filming two nights of Richard Pryor’s performances at Long Beach Arena, which became “Richard Pryor: Live in Concert” with Jeff Margolis directing and Del Jack and Mark Travis producing. Permut and Sargent released the film on their own through their Special Events Entertainment and grossed a then-massive $32 million, according to Permut’s estimate.

Sargent, who died in October after making and spending several fortunes, pioneered the concept of videotaping live events and transforming them into films such as “Hamlet” with Richard Burton, “Give ‘Em Hell Harry” with James Whitmore and “The TAMI Show” rock concert.

“Bill Sargent was the kind of showman that you really don’t see anymore because he had a unique ability to recognize when something was going to peak long before everyone else,” Permut remembers. “We really caught lightning in a bottle.”

Pryor would do two more concert films — “Live on the Sunset Strip,” which grossed $36 million in 1982 and “Here and Now,” which took in $16 million three years later.

Then Eddie Murphy followed up on his superstardom in “Beverly Hills Cop” with “Raw” in 1987, which topped $50 million. But that turned out to be the peak for the incipient genre.

tudios have lost interest for a quartet of reasons:

  • Comedies, more than any other genre, suffer from bureaucracy. “You’ve got agents, managers, publicists and talent all having to agree on what’s funny, so the process is much harder for any comedy film than it would be for dramas or action-thrillers, unless you have a big star attached,” one insider notes. n It’s easy to say no to comedy — “All you have to do to kill it is say, ‘It’s not funny.’ How can you argue with that?” one agent muses.

  • There was a time when standup comedy generally and taboo subjects weren’t nearly as accessible as they are now, with the explosion of cable TV nets.

  • P&A expenses are so high now that studios find the prospect of a $3 million film grossing $38 million far less enticing than previously.

In the meantime, the standup genre of movies has basically disappeared, except for docu-style projects such as last year’s “Comedian” with Jerry Seinfield and this year’s “Dysfunktional Family” with Eddie Griffin, which Permut produced. Respective grosses were $2.5 million and $1.5 million.

It’s a far cry from the 1980s when Permut offered Rodney Dangerfield $5 million to simply shoot a concert film to take advantage of his popularity from “Back to School” and “Caddyshack.”

“I think a Rodney Dangerfield concert movie would have done extremely well,” Permut opines. “He’s got such a crossover appeal, but he just didn’t want to.”

But Permut’s not done yet.

He’s financing “Rodney Exposed,” a docu-concert project about Dangerfield, and is hustling to match the release with the publication of Dangerfield’s autobio, “It’s Not Easy Bein’ Me: A Lifetime of No Respect but Plenty of Sex and Drugs,” in May by HarperCollins.

“The documentary’s very dark and hysterically funny,” says Permut, who began shooting footage in 1992. “I’ve got 100 hours that started at the reception when he married his wife Joan in Ogden, Utah; her brother was in high school. My big challenge is editing it.”

There’s also a Ray Romano docu, “95 Miles to Go,” that’s being shopped by “Everybody Loves Raymond” writer and fellow stand-up Tom Caltabiano. Romano and Caltabiano are seeking distribution for the pic, which is self-financed through their Mr. Clown Prods.

The title is derived from Romano’s butchering the title of Edwin Starr’s hit single “25 Miles to Go.”

“Ray’s as bad at singing as he is good at comedy,” Caltabiano admits. “It’s just me and Ray dealing with eight days of touring by car, since Ray hates to fly. It’s definitely not a concert film, and in theory, it shouldn’t be as entertaining as it actually is.”

Jack Black is attached as a producer on another long-percolating docu, “Sixty Spins Around the Sun,” focusing on the life of stand-up comic-turned-political activist Randy Credico. Laura Kightlinger, a producer and writer on “Will & Grace,” began shooting footage seven years ago when Kightlinger was letting Credico crash on her couch.

The pic, which delves into Credico’s work to reduce the prison sentences of first-time drug offenders, recently screened to positive responses at the Boston Film Fest and AFI Fest Los Angeles. Kightlinger and Black are seeking a distributor for the hourlong pic but admit their best shot is cable TV.

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