Louis C.K.’s 2009 stand-up film opens like a retro-episode of Miami Vice as a car drives into a neon-colored alley and drops off the comedian at the venue (which is actually the Pabst Theater in Milwaukee), set to music that sounds like an instrumental remix of Led Zeppelin’s eerie “No Quarter.” The “cool” wears off pretty quickly, though, as Louis takes the stage, dressed in a jeans and black T-shirt and almost immediately diving into one of his favorite topics: death, and how we’re all destined for it (“Mostly what you’re ever going to be is dead — you’re all just dead people who haven’t died yet”). Despite his sometimes morbid and almost always cynical observations, this 41-year-old divorcee is one of the funniest comedians on the scene today as he criticizes contemporary parenting in a world of video games and chemically-enhanced food, describes getting mad while watching Girls Gone Wild (“Get the oil off your tits and study!”) and navigates the rocky road of being middle-aged and suddenly single again (“The only honest thing you can ever really say to a girl in a bar is “I wanna fu** your face”). A terrific companion piece to his television series, Louie, which is also available on Netflix; this is also the first stand-up film to ever screen at the Sundance Film Festival.
Definitely one of the best-ever stand-up films, Richard Pryor: Live on the Sunset Strip (1982) features one of the greatest comedians of the 20th century at the top of his game; witty, mischievous and in prime fighting shape after recovering from a certain incident involving doing a lot of drugs and setting himself on fire. Pryor jumps right in with “I wanna talk about fu**ing” (and the apparent lack of it during the Reagan administration) and from there good-naturedly criticizes his own infidelities and various romantic entanglements (“I admit I’m no day at the beach”) before sharing some truly hilarious experiences he had at the Arizona State Penitentiary while filming Stir Crazy with Gene Wilder. His then-recent trip to Africa inspires some very funny imitations (of rabbits, lions, cheetahs and doomed gazelles that are hard of hearing) and some rather surprisingly touching observations, but it’s the show’s last act that makes Sunset Strip a classic as Pryor comes clean about his former freebasing habit and the accident that led to his extended stay at a hospital as a burn victim — and to sobriety. The comedian relates this harrowing life-changing series of events with humor, grace and barely contained emotion, turning a stand-up routine into a must-see confessional.
The heir apparent to Lenny Bruce shares his many “major psychotic fu**ing hatreds” in this 1999 stand-up film shot at New York City’s Beacon Theatre, including America’s out-of-control fear of germs that’s giving us “fu**in’ weak immune systems,” cigars (“white pussy business smoking on a big brown dick”), belief in angels (for which he blames rampant drug use) and the encouragement of the “pussification of the American male” that is Harley Davidson theme restaurants. However, what makes You Are All Diseased quite the darkly ironic period piece is Carlin’s opening rant about airport security; there’s something rather sad about the comedian telling an audience of New Yorkers just two years before a couple of planes crashed into the World Trade Center that “There are no bombs — the whole thing is fu**in’ pointless” and that the “odds of being killed by a terrorist are practically zero.” Still, Carlin makes a good point about the “illusion of safety,” and the tragedy of 9/11 only provided more fuel to the Carlin fire before he took his final bow in 2008; until then, he found strength in “worshipping the sun” and praying to Joe Pesci, because he “doesn’t fu** around.”
Wanda Sykes takes the stage in Seattle in this modest yet endearing 2006 stand-up film in which the comedian offers her observations on dogs, sex, American Idol and dead hookers, to name but a few of several topics she covers in just a little over an hour. Wanda’s voice has a naturally exasperated tone that actually serves her quite well, making her extremely likable even when she isn’t being as funny as she was a few minutes earlier; her best bits are her out-of-nowhere and completely outrageous musings, such as how her love of Lost inspires plane-crash fantasies (which include eating the motormouthed kid sitting next to her in order to survive on whatever isolated island she may end up on) and a rather bizarre rift on her hatred of dolphins, which she considers to be rather racist animals. The show gets dirtier as it goes on, with Wanda eventually describing the joys of watching porn in the privacy of one’s hotel room and how the “right titty” always looks better than the “left titty” (something to keep in mind while undressing for one’s lover); watch closely and you’ll see the frame from at least one camera set-up rattle a bit every now and then as the cameraman can’t help but crack up himself.
Zach Galifianakis, the bearded and perpetually exhausted hipster of comedy, mumbles his way (and tickles the ivories) through this strange 2006 stand-up film in which the future “Hangover” star makes random, often just one-sentence observations (“It’s hard to get a table at Chuck E. Cheese when you look like I do”), usually while mugging to one of the handful of cameras set up at the small Purple Onion venue (located in “Chinese Town,” which is what he claims the neighborhood has been renamed); intercut with the stand-up/musical act is footage from a mock documentary in which Zach’s (fictional) twin brother Seth (played by Galifianakis with a moustache rather than a beard) visits the siblings’ childhood home. Much of the comedy here comes from completely bizarre concepts (he mentions a “Natalie Merchant laser show” at one point) and low-key yet playful pokes at political correctness (“I drank so much that I African-Americaned out”); Zach’s certainly an acquired taste, but there’s no denying that he’s definitely a one-of-a-kind. One of our favorite jokes: “One of my favorite pastimes is reading the Bible in a public place and every once in a while shouting out, ‘Oh, bullshit!'”