Last month we assembled a gallery of thirty-two directorial debuts by comedians and comedy writers in the wake of the enormous success of Jordan Peele’s debut, Get Out. We promised a follow-up ranking the ten best debuts from that list, and Get Out has only received more Oscar buzz and an extra couple million dollars over the past two weeks, so it’s as appropriate now as it’s ever been
It’s worth noting that among these higher-achieving films (either in box-office dollars or critical/cult opinion), the three that are not straight forward comedies were both made in the past few years—which is indicative of our changing perceptions of comedians’ output on the whole. Pigeonholing, it seems, occurs less often, and it’s less surprising than ever for a comedian to take on a more serious role.
Regardless of tone, however, here are the ten strongest outings by comedians directing their first movie.
I know this seems like an inauspicious start to this list, but stay with me. I will be the first to admit that the reoccurring “MacGruber” SNL sketch—also created by Taccone—was not for everybody. Though it pulled through on the strength of committed performances from Will Forte (who, to his credit, resisted participating in the initial sketch on the grounds that it was way too dumb) and Kristin Wiig, this bizarre MacGyver parody was the last sketch you’d want to watch for ninety minutes. When a MacGruber movie was announced, it felt like the first SNL film in ten years would be more It’s Pat than The Blues Brothers. But it wasn’t. With the sleep deprivation from producing a feature length film alongside a weekly TV show reportedly inspiring the film’s more insane sequences (like the “celery-in-ass” distraction), Taccone had the film lean so far into action movie clichés that it ended up being undeniable. What resulted was one of the most effectively hilarious films in recent memory. With MacGruber routinely tearing throats out, fucking his ghost-wife (Maya Rudolph) in a graveyard, assembling and then losing a team of WWE wrestling stars in about five minutes, and battling a villain named Dieter Von Cunth (Val Kilmer), it was no surprise that critics despised this film and audiences stayed away. That’s a shame, because as far as belly-laughs go, it’s pretty hard to beat “just tell me what you want me to fu-uck!”
It sucks that some of the shine has been taken off Holy Grail by its own overwhelming ubiquity. Nowadays, when we hear a “flesh wound,” a “ni!” or a “huge tracts of land,” our first thoughts are often of having full scenes repeated to us by clueless, obsessive nerds. Or, in my case, of repeating full scenes to people as a clueless, obsessive nerd. But, if you try and distance yourself from the over-saturation factor, and revisit the film after a few years, you’ll find new jokes that feel as fresh and hysterical as the ones we all know. Holy Grail is, indeed, the most densely packed comedy in the Python canon. There are so many jokes in this movie, and it’s surprising how easily we forget that, considering its reputation. If you’re truly and irreversibly burnt out from this movie, watch it again with commentary, and discover the second level of appreciation that comes from the inventiveness with which it was made. It certainly doesn’t look like a $400,000 movie, and it’s delightful to discover which of the gags (like the coconut halves) were born from a need for low-budget workarounds. The first-time co-direction from onscreen performer Terry Jones (who only sporadically directed after Python broke up) and lone American Terry Gilliam (who prolifically bent Python’s cinematic style into his own unique brand of nightmarish fantasy) moves with a surreal efficiency.
Birbiglia thoroughly outdid his debut with its improv-themed follow up, Don’t Think Twice, and this first film is not nearly as devastating, but it benefits from the audience’s base understanding of the art form. Sleepwalk with Me, adapted from Birbiglia’s stage show and memoir, doesn’t spend time explaining stand-up, and the movie moves briskly as a result. The formal playfulness (fourth wall breaks and sudden dream sequences) and transparent autobiography (Mike is “Matt Pandamiglio,” while Marc Maron is “Marc Mulheren”) led many to compare it to Annie Hall and declare Birbiglia as the next Woody Allen. But, as a filmmaker, Birbiglia has more in common with Allen’s more deliberate peer, Albert Brooks. The film’s emotional acuity is largely thanks to Birbiglia’s strength as an actor, and to date it is still (along with Obvious Child) the most refreshingly honest portrayal of life as a stand-up.
If you’re looking for a devastating debut, look no further than SNL head writer Chris Kelly’s dramatization of the death of his mother. Jesse Plemons plays Kelly’s stand-in, a UCB improviser named David who moves back to Sacramento to be with his dying mother (a really, really good Molly Shannon). The cast is packed with excellent turns, from Bradley Whitford as the dad who quietly disapproves of his son’s sexuality, Zach Woods as David’s sort-of-ex, John Early as David’s one hometown friend, and child-actor J.J. Totah as Early’s spectacularly flamboyant younger brother. But Plemons and Shannon simply can’t be topped in this movie, and the physical effect of her illness on both of them is incredibly hard to watch. Kelly—additionally lauded as a writer on Broad City—answers the question of Shannon’s fate by starting the movie with her long-expected death, but then immediately shows off the film’s morbid humor by having her receive a clueless voicemail hoping she feels better. Melodrama is nimbly avoided at every turn, but that doesn’t stop the fucking waterworks when the time comes. I cried so hard at this movie I couldn’t really believe it.
Apatow made a million movies before he made one. After writing/directing/creating for The Larry Sanders Show, The Ben Stiller Show, The Critic, Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared, writing Heavyweights, doing re-writes on a ton of comedy movies, and then producing Anchorman, Apatow finally directed The 40 Year Old Virgin, making a movie star of Steve Carell, and kickstarting the ongoing wave of partially improvised, man-boy, hang-out films. In fact, so much dialogue was improvised that Apatow eventually shot over a million feet of film. All the things people love and/or hate about Apatow’s films—a too-long running time, arrested development, disarming sweetness—are here in full force, but regardless, this film was a huge hit. The 40 Year Old Virgin is slightly wackier than Apatow’s later films, but still displays that ensemble charm that has proven to be pretty durable.
Will Ferrell was a movie star before 2004, carrying both Old School and Elf, but he is still inseparable from his role as San Diego newscaster Ron Burgundy, a character so closely tied to our perception of Ferrell as an actor that every subsequent role seems to contain shades of him. Now that McKay has an Oscar under his belt, he’s getting more recognition than he did when he was simply the man behind the camera on Ferrell’s best movies. Anchorman upped the ante on Zoolander’s sheer lunacy, and ended up being a better movie for it, but true to McKay’s Chicago improv routes, it is a plane forming itself mid-flight, and Anchorman would be two seconds from falling apart without McKay’s steady hand. Ferrell is a certifiable genius in his own right, and is undoubtedly the center of the universe in each of these films, but the world around Ferrell belongs to McKay, and Anchorman announced his arrival as an uncompromising comedy world-builder.
There’s something about Wet Hot American Summer, right down to the poster, that seems to insist it’s just a humble, raunchy summer camp movie—a simple Meatballs update. For years before watching it, that’s what I assumed it was, the way I assumed Donnie Darko was a slasher flick. Wain and Michael Showalter, the masters of making the joke the fact that they’re doing the joke, probably wouldn’t mind this, but it does a disservice to the content of Wet Hot American Summer, which more resembles an aggressively stupid Dazed and Confused and admirably follows through on Wain’s intention to make his own version of an Altman-esque ensemble picture. For his debut, Wain managed not only to wrangle a cast that was half alums of The State and half future celebrities—he reportedly was able to make a summer camp movie over twenty-eight days of continuous rain. That alone should earn him a place on this list.
Not only is Get Out one of the most acclaimed directorial debuts ever—period—it’s also definitely the least expected. As far as directorial debuts by comedians, Rosewater at least fit with Jon Stewart’s journalistic interests. Especially after Keanu, I doubt anyone expected a social thriller from either half of Key & Peele. But Get Out’s premise—a young black man is terrorized by his white girlfriend’s affluent liberal parents—does spring from the same satirical genome as sketches like “Hoodie,” “White Zombies” and even “Power Falcons.” Now that it’s out and we know how amazing it is, we can’t imagine it being made by anyone else. In updating The Stepford Wives for the era of Black Lives Matter, Peele made a horror film as relevant as Invasion of the Body Snatchers was in its own time. The film’s combination of incisive satirical commentary on race and genuine terror has made Peele a rumored option for the long-delayed live action remake of Akira (one that would presumably avoid Ghost in the Shell’s colossal whitewashing fuck up). But Peele has insisted he has four more social thrillers in him first, and as much as I’d love to see Jordan Peele’s Akira, I’m not missing those four films for the world.
In the ‘50s and ‘60s Mel Brooks was just a comedian, albeit a particularly brilliant one. He wrote for TV shows like Your Show of Shows and Get Smart, and had a hit comedy duo with Carl Reiner that spawned three records in two years. But in writing and directing The Producers—the now-iconic story of a Broadway producer known for his flops (Zero Mostel) and a meek accountant (Gene Wilder) who team up to rob investors by deliberately sinking a musical about Adolph Hitler—Mel Brooks may have become the prototypical comedian-director as we currently understand the phrase (for talkies, at least. Let’s say Chaplin doesn’t count for now). The Producers is just as funny as ever, though amusingly tame in comparison to the uproar it caused and the producers who refused to touch it. It’s also completely different from the meta-gag-fests of Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles. But it announced Brooks as the champion of weird comedy on film for the rest of the 20th century, and, due to its release as an art-house film, made him a new kind of auteur.
This Is Spinal Tap may be regarded as the godfather of the mockumentary, but ten years earlier Albert Brooks was pushing the limits of post-modern comedy, developing a signature persona through his experimental albums and classic appearances on Carson. He was the egotistical, obnoxious, show-biz blowhard before Steve Martin, and, in leaving stand-up to focus on filmmaking, became America’s first great mockumentarian. His early short films, like The Famous Comedian’s School, made him the unsung hero of SNL’s first season, but it wasn’t until 1979 that he would direct his first of four perfect movies. (Modern Romance, Lost in America and Defending Your Life are the other three, Mother and The Muse are missteps and Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World is actually pretty underrated). Real Life isn’t just brilliant, though. It’s prescient. Brooks plays himself as a Hollywood asshole who plans to make a movie that documents the real life of a regular American family for one year (the premise spoofs the 1971 PBS documentary, An American Family). But Brooks doesn’t just want a documentary; he wants a movie so brilliant and truthful that it wins both an Oscar and the Nobel Prize. The disruptive presence of the film crew among the family not only proves the experiment’s confirmation bias; Brooks’s psychotic interference effectively destroys their lives completely. Back when the first iteration of “reality TV” was insisting that it was a bold new frontier for documentary film, Brooks clearly foresaw the not-so-distant future when it would become a manipulative editing exercise, deceptive and potentially dangerous to its subjects. God, even its trailer is an amazing short film by itself, featuring Brooks hooking potential viewers in with cheesy 3-D effects and world champion paddleball player Randy Brown. Brooks’s film roles in Finding Nemo, Broadcast News, Taxi Driver, Out of Sight and Drive will probably ensure that he’s known more as a character actor than a director on a long enough timeline. But Real Life will always be the best entry point for those curious about his career, and the first full realization of his genius (his birth name was literally Albert Einstein). “What-ah lucky break.”
Graham Techler is a New York-based writer and actor. Follow him at @grahamtechler.