Comedies about comedians aren’t always the greatest films. They tend to try too hard, without ever being as captivating as a real, live, quality stand-up set. So when a comedy about a stand-up comedian succeeds, it’s not just an accomplishment in the world of movies—it’s also one in the world of comedy.
Chris Rock’s Top Five (out Dec. 12) is the latest film focused on a comedian, and it’s already getting good reviews: The film currently has a 92-percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and EW gave it an A-. But while Top Five is undeniably a comedy, other films about the profession aren’t as clear-cut: Martin Scorsese’s King of Comedy and Judd Apatow’s Funny People are more dramatic, contrasting the hilarity of comedians’ work with the darker parts of their real lives.
Whether it’s roaringly funny or not, though, a good film about a comedian won’t try to simplify the profession. Instead, it’ll portray comedy as an art just as complicated and personal as any other—hopefully while making the audience laugh at least a little. Here, on the occasion of Top Five‘s release, are five such films.
Top Five (2014)
How funny is it? At its core, Top Five is a rom-com built around Chris Rock’s Andre, a comedian who wants to get away from comedy, and Rosario Dawson’s Chelsea, a journalist interviewing Andre. And, unlike many current rom-coms, it succeeds as both a romance and a comedy: Andre and Chelsea galavant around New York during the interview and meet multiple quirky characters (played by big stars) who bring added humor to the film, and Rock’s performance alone is proof that he shouldn’t quit comedy. Top Five isn’t just a rom-com, but also a look at what it’s like to be a highly visible artist—and what that means for the artist.
The King of Comedy (1983)
How funny is it? Despite its title, Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy is not overwhelmingly comedic—nor does it intend to be. Robert De Niro’s character, Rupert, wants to be a successful stand-up, so he kidnaps a talk show host so he can spend one night as “king.” The film is surreal and strange—and once Rupert does have his time onstage, we find out he isn’t even all that funny. Some viewers find King of Comedy hilarious despite its darker aspects, while others see it as more of an eccentric horror movie of sorts. This divide alone is why King of Comedy is successful as a movie about a comedian: By combining humor and the pain of Rupert, a struggling man who just wants to find success by whatever means necessary, the film illustrates the brighter and darker sides of being a stand-up and the lengths artists go to accomplish their goals.
Obvious Child (2014)
How funny is it? Obvious Child is, in a word, delightful—despite the fact that the entire movie hinges on the main character’s abortion, a topic that strikes many as something other than delightful. Jenny Slate’s character, Donna, is a comedian who starts off the film by delivering a monologue about how women’s underwear looks after a day of wear—a taboo topic that’s hilarious in its unapologetic grossness. The film succeeds as a comedy not just because Donna is a comedian whose stand-up bits are actually worthy of laughter, but because Donna’s career is just one aspect of the story. It’s easy to see comedians as people who spend their days thinking of jokes for the sole purpose of entertaining us, but Obvious Child shows that comedians have just as much going on in their lives as anyone else does—and how intertwined their lives are with their comedy.
Sleepwalk With Me (2012)
How funny is it? Sleepwalk With Me follows a stand-up comedian as he struggles both to make people laugh and to fight a worsening sleepwalking disorder—a condition funny in itself (unless, you know, you hurt yourself badly doing it). Mike Birbiglia’s character starts off not very funny at all: He’s trying to make it as a stand-up but failing to make anyone actually laugh at gigs, until he starts telling not-nice-to-share stories about his girlfriend. These bits are genuinely funny, good enough to stand on their own even outside the context of the movie (which makes sense, since it’s based on Birbiglia’s actual standup), and even the failed ones succeed in their awkwardness: Comedians bomb, and Sleepwalk With Me proves that sometimes that alone can be funny.
Funny People (2009)
How funny is it? Unlike other Judd Apatow films, Funny People is more drama than comedy—and even its comedic parts tend to fall flat. But where the movie succeeds is in its portrayal of a lonely comedian (Adam Sandler) who is commercially successful but battling intense personal dilemmas, most notably a deadly disease. In this role, Sandler gets to show that he can do more than blubber about like he does in films like Jack and Jill, and he gets to do it alongside fellow comedians: Sarah Silverman, Ray Romano, and Aubrey Plaza are just a few who show up to deliver stand-up bits that give the film a dose of reality. Funny People’s length—it’s a too-long two-and-a-half hours—prevents the film from being a great one, but its highlights could satisfy someone looking for a grimmer look at the lives of comedians.