You’d never expect to see him telling jokes with mic in hand, but Robert De Niro knows something about stand-up comedy. The taciturn Oscar winner drew on his collaborations with legends like Billy Crystal, Robin Williams, and Don Rickles — as well as his immortal role as Rupert Pupkin in The King of Comedy — for The Comedian (opening in limited release in December before going wide Jan. 13).
In the film, De Niro, 73, plays a once-edgy comic named Jackie Burke whose material goes soft when he gains success on a popular sitcom called Eddie’s Home. “He tries to go back to the comedy clubs, but he’s haunted by the ghost of his TV character,” director Taylor Hackford (Ray) says of the movie, which also stars Leslie Mann (above, with De Niro), Danny DeVito, Harvey Keitel, and Cloris Leachman. “But he refuses to be thrown on the scrap heap. He really aspires to get up and practice his art in front of an audience and still be relevant.”
That’s fairly self-aware subject matter for De Niro to tackle — and audiences should expect a dose of pathos along with the humor. “It’s a movie that was made by older guys,” De Niro tells EW with a laugh, citing himself, Hackford, and producer/co-screenwriter Art Linson, all men in their 70s. “And it’s about getting older — seen through this very interesting form of expression, stand-up, which is a lot of work even when you’re old.”
Hackford mentions that De Niro, who’s known much more in his legendary career for his onscreen presence than his verbal energy, might have channeled some of Jackie Burke into the actor’s delightfully vulgar outtake about presidential candidate Donald Trump from a recent voting PSA.
And The Comedian promises to be a humorous look at a world full of crusty, loony characters. “I saw the movie as a dark drama with some comedy,” Hackford says, “but then we tested it with an audience, and they really laughed hard. So better to call it a dark comedy with drama.”
Either way, De Niro’s sad clown is sure to garner applause — perhaps even on Oscar night.