' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Diary of a Young Comic (1979)

Friday, April 05, 2024

Friday's Old Fashioned: Diary of a Young Comic (1979)

In appraising Richard Lewis in the wake of his death for The New York Times, Jason Zinoman noted the celebrated comic’s “frenetic, jazzy style…making misery a full-body experience, slumping, pacing, and most of all, gesticulating. To say he talked with his hands seems insufficient. His whole body never shut up.” That makes it interesting, it not also disappointing, to revisit Lewis’s first feature film “Diary of a Young Comic” 45 years later. Because what Zinoman is writing about there, the very specific presence of Lewis, aside from a few isolated moments, like an early one in which Lewis’s character ribs and riffs with another comedian at a bar, is not really found in director Gary Weis’s movie. No, the script that Lewis and Weis co-wrote with Bennett Tramer weirdly zaps Lewis’s character, comedian Billy Gondola née Gondolstein, of the comic’s patented energy by turning him into an observer more than an instigator and opting for an overall laid-back vibe mirroring the character’s geographical trajectory from New York to Los Angeles. 

Essentially, “Diary of a Young Comic” is the Left Coast scenes of “Annie Hall” mixed with Steve Martin’s “L.A. Story,” meaning that rather than looking inward, as Lewis’s comedy on the stage tended to do, it was taking in the absurdity of the world around him and its virtual conveyor belt of eccentrics. When Billy arrives at the residence of the cousin, Shirley, with whom he’s going to stay, he discovers she has literally nothing in her apartment. “It’s the essence of the apartment,” she says. When Billy goes to therapy, it doesn’t unlock anything within himself, it just builds to a pretty good Flipper joke. He is not really a full-fledged character just as Shirley and the therapist never really become full-fledged characters, just as no one else does, more like characters as excuses to shuffle comics and comic actors on screen. Sometimes, the pretense dissolves completely, like when Dom DeLuise appears as himself. 

It’s all as funny as it would have needed to be, I imagine, given the movie was made-for-TV and was specifically made to occupy the time slot of Saturday Night Live when that venerable sketch show went on hiatus in February of 1975. On that score, and in a three-channel universe, I don’t think “Diary of a Young Comic” would have made me change the channel. And even if it’s short on revelation, it ends with Billy telling jokes onstage, as if somewhere in the middle of filming Lewis really did realize that was the best vessel for his material. 

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