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11 Great Performance Films
by Karma Waltonen

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I've been writing this column for a little over a year now. Thanks to my two loyal readers for their attention (1).

We've been talking about movies and comedy—today, let's really talk about the subjects as I nominate 11 must-see performance (stand-up) films. I limited myself to 11 (cool people know why things should go to 11), feature-length productions, and to one film per artist, which is basically so not every suggestion is Eddie Izzard.

1. Speaking of whom, if you haven't seen him, you haven't been taking any of my advice. I recommend either starting or ending with DRESS TO KILL. I started with it, but others have suggested that you end with it so that you end on the highest note. This is not to say that the other films couldn't kick most performance films' asses (yes, even in heels). Eddie Izzard is everything. After you watch it, say ciao to sub par comedy.

2. One of my other favorite performers is Margaret Cho. While many comedians make their living by impersonating their mothers, Cho has proven that impersonating herself can be even better. Check out NOTORIOUS C.H.O. Cho shows us that comedy can be touching and empowering, but never loses the humor. I recommend especially the parts about her "gay" daddy (he wasn't) and about her own entry into bisexuality (hint: make sure you can finish that pussy when you order it).

3. Now that Sarah Silverman's show is doing its second season on Comedy Central, a lot more people have been introduced to her particular brand of humor. Silverman's work on the standup circuit is worth noting. JESUS IS MAGIC illustrates all that is Silverman—the music, the costumes, the genre subversion. Although she gets in trouble for her politically incorrect humor, Silverman is questioning
language. When, for example, she got in trouble for making a joke involving the word "chink" on late night television, she was actually making a commentary on racism.

4. This one is an oldie, but it's a goodie. I first saw BILL COSBY HIMSELF when I was little. How young was I? When Cosby says he and his wife planned to have children, "we got into the backseat of the car and we planned it," I thought that's literally what he did (I pictured a clipboard). The routine is divided into three basic parts: drugs/alcohol; the dentist; parenthood. Every line is gold.

This is Bill Cosby's take on dentists:

Notice the simple use of color, a chair, a microphone, and body language. I don't know about you, but my butt can walk under duress as well.

5. I teach a section of George Carlin's DOIN' IT AGAIN in almost every class. Carlin's mother instilled in him a love of language and he used it in his comedy. If you've ever watched him, you know he often made fun of what we say and how we say it. While I like all of his shows, this is my favorite because it allows him to discuss whether there is such a thing as "bad" language, whether any words or topics are really off-limits, and why euphemisms are invented by "smug, greedy, well-fed white people . . . to conceal their sins."

6. Richard Pryor is cited by every other
he always looks so pained--is it because I'm there?

he always looks so pained--is it because I'm there?
comedian as a forefather of note. My favorite routine is LIVE ON THE SUNSET STRIP because Pryor is able to maintain his high sense of performance and timing while exploring some deeply personal subjects. Two important things had happened since Pryor's previous performance—he had visited Africa and had lit himself on fire. His willingness to share these stories coupled with the way he tells them makes this stand out.

7. Zach Galifianakis's live show has lower production values than most of these films. It was filmed at a small place in San Francisco. I've been a fan of Zach for a while. I love his turn of phrase, his use of the piano, and his strange characters. He shines here in his interactions with the audience. I would be hard pressed to say that this film merits recognition for its composition, but there's a bonus that you don't get with anything else on this list. You can see me, in the audience, around minute 40. Zach is talking about his shirt. I'm to his left, in jeans and a grey sleeveless shirt. My leg is doing its characteristic wag. (I think it's called Restless Leg Syndrome now).

8. It was difficult to choose between John Leguizamo's FREAK and SEXAHOLIC (sometimes spelled SEXAHOLIX). The first is about his childhood and the latter about his adulthood (including his becoming a father). I'm going to have to go with SEXAHOLIC, but you should really watch both. Leguizamo is a really inventive actor, but if you haven't seen his one-man shows, you don't know that he's a wonderful writer. You may also not quite get how well he uses his body. While many comedians use their body for pratfalls, Leguizamo is doing much more—he'll make you laugh, even when you really want to cry.

9. It's also difficult to pick Eddie
he always looks so pained--is it because I'm there?
Murphy's RAW or DELIRIOUS—they're both really good and they're both really dirty (for the time, anyway). If you've been unhappy with Murphy's work lately (and who hasn't been?), go back in time to one of these.

10. The title of ELLEN DEGENERES: THE BEGINNING may be slightly misleading. This special came well after Ellen had had a TV career and after she came out. This is the beginning of Ellen as out and off TV (she'd go back to TV eventually, of course). This piece starts with Ellen doing an interpretive dance of what happened when she came out. She then decides to tell the truth . . . about shampoo bottles and animals and whatever else comes to mind. What I've always loved about her is her ability to take a story to its illogical conclusion.

11. Circling back to British comedy gods, if you haven't seen Ricky Gervais's OUT OF ENGLAND HBO special, you're missing something truly great. Gervais is known from his work in THE OFFICE, EXTRAS, and THE SIMPSONS (he wrote the episode he had a role in); I didn't know what to expect from his stand-up (not everyone can move through genres). Gervais was amazing and funny and amazingly funny. Probably the best bit was his description of his favorite leaflet. You can see a version of that routine here:

(1) Want to prove there are more than two of you? That's what the new comment option is for.

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Jan 29, 2009 11:56 AM
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I love you Karma! You are a brilliant writer and teach us so much every time.

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Comedies with Dr. Karma
Every other Wednesday

Dr. Karma discusses all things comic, from the classics to what may become classics. Laugh with, but not at, her, please.

Other Columns
Other columns by Karma Waltonen:

Goodbye -- Dr. Karma

The Dictator and Dark Shadows

Pirates and Whedon Movies: In Theatres Now!

A Touch of Cult

Our Random Favorites

All Columns

Karma Waltonen
Dr. Karma is a silly, nerdy know-it-all, but in a good way. She brings all her overeducation to discuss that which truly matters: comedy. As some famous guy once said: “And if I laugh at any mortal thing, ‘tis that I may not weep.” Or something like that.

If you have a comment, question, or suggestion, you can send a message to Karma Waltonen by clicking here.

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