Imagine, for a moment, that a stand-up comic is just like a superhero. On stage, he’s a master of the universe, armored and impervious, slinging jokes like lightning bolts. He defeats all adversaries, from hecklers to the potential indifference of the audience; laughter, of course, is his way of killing. If that’s what a stand-up comic is, then “The Opening Act,” Steve Byrne’s wryly likable shoestring indie comedy about a young man trying to make it in the world of stand-up, might be described as a stand-up-comedy origin story.
Will Chu, played by Jimmy O. Yang of “Silicon Valley,” is an aspiring comic who’s been doing open-mic nights in his small hometown of Steubenville, Ohio. He’s got some funny material. He grew up watching stand-up on TV with his immigrant father (they bonded over it like sports), and he knows the form, works on his bits, and has the instinct for playing off his appearance and persona — in his case, the fact that he’s an extremely youthful-looking Asian-American with long hair parted down the middle and the face of an impish angel. “I’m not, like, the macho guy,” says Will in one of his establishing jokes. “I wish I could be that guy. Like, I’m really good-looking if you’re into anime.”
Watching Will, we want him to succeed, because he’s a sweet dude, and he wants it so much. He’s got a day job working as a cubicle drone at a car-insurance company. So when he gets the chance to MC a four-night stretch of shows at the Pennsylvania Improv in Pittsburgh, it’s a potential big break, his first rung up the ladder to a career as a professional stand-up. He’s so bent on doing the shows that when his boss (Bill Burr) won’t give him a day off, he quits his job to take the gig.
Will has the desire and, we hope, the material. But does he have the attitude? The world of stand-up comedy is a fascinating and, in many ways, scurrilous place, and Will, arriving at the Improv (where he looks up to see his name on the marquee spelled “Will Chew”), is like the virgin at a frat-house party. He doesn’t smoke pot, do blow, or go to strip clubs. That makes him, at this club, odd nerd out.
Chris (Alex Moffat), the other featured comic under the headliner, is a reckless womanizer, a party dude who wears his sleaze on his sleeve. Yet he’s also a total pro who’s comfortable in his skin on stage; he’s always killing. Even Chip (Neal Brennan), the quizzical club manager, has an in-your-face way about him (when he asks for Will’s cell-phone number, it turns out he’s flirting with him). What everyone at the club has is a certain aggro quality that’s wound into the DNA of stand-up.
Will, by contrast, is a polite dweeb who totes his joke notebook onstage with him like a security blanket. The first night, he gets through his set just fine, muffing only the easy part: his intro to the headliner, Billy G (Cedric the Entertainer), a blustery former sitcom star who is one of Will’s idols. And Will has three more nights to make up for it.
But then the unthinkable happens. He starts to bomb.
After a wild, dissolute night that begins with him playing wingman for the horndog Chris, he accompanies Chris to a radio interview the following morning. Will’s only job, during the 10-minute PR spot, is to toss a few jokes around. He tries, but doesn’t cut it. He’s cringingly earnest, and that dead air is more mesmerizing than any of the jokes.
What’s gripping about Will’s failure isn’t just that he blows the spot (and gets mocked for it on the radio afterward). It’s that everything that’s wrong about his approach seems to emerge from what a nice guy he is. He has lunch at a diner with Billy G, played by Cedric with a perfect fusion of encouragement and worldly indifference. Billy tells him, “Even being a headliner don’t mean you’re a comic.” You’ve got to “find your own point-of-view, get your own voice, get selfish with that shit.” And he’s right. Good stand-up comics don’t just make you laugh — they electrify the air around them, drawing you into their own heads.
It’s that selfishness that Will lacks. Jimmy O. Yang gives a slyly appealing performance as a comic who may be too good a person to be a nightclub star. Having heard Billy’s advice, we expect Will to go on stage and get better, but instead he falls down a rabbit hole of his own dithering — right on stage. It’s cringe-inducing. (The hecklers who keep saying “Ohio sucks!” seem to be right.) And in its way, it’s an authentic scene of the sort I’ve never quite encountered before in a movie about stand-up.
Becoming a successful stand-up comic is an uphill climb, one that not everybody is cut out for, and “The Opening Act” is a likable ode to those hard knocks. The film is full of comedians who speak in peppery patter — like Ken Jeong, as the mentor of Will’s who sets up the Improv gig for him, or “SNL’s” Alex Moffat, who incarnates a certain breed of prankish masculine club-stage bravado that’s searching for the humanity beneath the toxicity. The aggression of stand-up comedy is the fuel that’s needed to be funny, the fuel that lets you survive. But seeing Will creep up to embracing the X factor of comedy is more than funny — it’s moving. It’s learning how to play yourself and turning that into a hilarious state of grace.