Aug 15, 2022
Anthony Giordano, Zach Garner, Malorie Bryant, Jessica Ritacco
If you've ever taken a wander around the Edinburgh Fringe and popped your head into a few of the free shows you will more than likely know already that comedy is not always about the laughs. Lower down, towards the business end of things, away from the bright lights, big stages and clued-up audiences are the raw performers – the ones who use comedy as their own personal therapy session, who want to rant and rave about their own pet peeves, air their dirty linen, and who mostly just want to get in front of an audience (no matter how small) and be accepted. There is a lot of darkness which surrounds the comedy world, so where better to set a new, modern, edgy psychological thriller than the New York comedy scene?
In his new feature The Improviser, writer/director Daniel Florio introduces us to Brett Sugarman (Giordano), a struggling comedian nearing his 30's who's been trying for years to make a name for himself. He's been taking plenty of classes in Improv and has even managed to get himself accepted as part of a troupe, The Gigglypuffs, although they still do not have a residency at any of the clubs or theatres.
Frustrated at his lack of work and perceived lack of talent in the rest of the troupe, Brett has also started up his own podcast which he calls Damn Funny. Now all he has to do is actually come up with some material and content for the show and convince someone/anyone to appear as a special guest. Naturally, this is not so easy for young Brett as his social awkwardness and overbearing behaviour isn't helpful in making him any friends.
Shot in HD and adopting a Dogme 95 style of filming, the audience is invited to view The Improviser as if they were at a live event. Everything is fresh and raw as we watch the actors rehearse and perform, and the resulting improv shows display all the missed beats, insecurities and cringeworthiness that these events can bring. Being so close to the action, and so embedded in the scenes being shown, makes it easy for the viewer to be carried away by the characters, who seem for all intents and purposes to be real live people, and to be affected by the dark turns which inevitably come.
It is an incredible trick of direction and cinematography that as Brett releases more of his frustration and ire and becomes more of who he really is that the film takes on more of a cinematic feel. It is almost as if we feel Brett's star rising within him the more he becomes infamous for the things which are not his comedy, and we see along with him how his perception is shifting as the world begins to point their gaze in his direction.
It is clear that Daniel Florio and co-director Chris Sciacco are familiar with the world they are portraying on screen, giving us an insight into the green rooms, backstages and inner workings of some of the New York comedy clubs. Things will feel very familiar to anybody who has watched any number of comedy specials on streaming services and the tension is palpable as the relationship between the audience and performers becomes strained. There are plenty of references to famous comedy performers and as you may expect from a film that looks and plays much like an episode of Louie (2010-2015) – the ghost of Louis C.K. still hangs heavy over the New York comedy scene.
With this in mind it should be stated that certain scenes and behaviours in The Improviser are extremely disturbing and should be approached with caution by the casual viewer. Brett is dealing with barely contained issues relating to homophobia and misogyny and watching these play out in what feels like a hyper-real environment, so close that you feel like you can touch it, isn't an easy or comfortable watch.
Taking most of its beats from Joker (2019) or its infinitely superior predecessor The King Of Comedy (1982), as well as from real life, The Improviser won't win any awards for originality. However, its style, presentation and narrative have all been tweaked to update the story for a modern generation. It is at turns bitingly funny, unflinchingly real and supremely dark which all come together to make it a valuable commentary on a murky, underground world which attracts more than its fair share of misanthropes. Just don't ask for your money back if you don't quite get the show you were looking for.