The tribulations of celebrity are well known. Famous people routinely tell us how difficult it is to be them, how stardom is a burden, and how, as Adam Sandler’s George Simmons tells Ira Wright (Seth Rogan), fans “always wanted too much from me.” We want stars always to be “on,” to live up to their finely crafted PR, to remain the same. Imagine always having to be “Brad Pitt,” or “Megan Fox,” or even “Adam Sandler.”
Judd Apatow’s Funny People confronts these conundrums of celebrity and identity via the special case of the celebrity comedian. Unlike more actorly entertainers, the comedian often relies on a specific shtick, quirk, tic, or bodily difference. This foundation solidifies into a fixed persona, one he can never shed. As it happens, George’s stylings and routines are strikingly similar to those of Adam Sandler. He’s a top tier comedian known for his physical hijinks and “funny” voices (actually, all pretty much the same whining, Jewish grandmother voice). Whenever George greets his fans, he feels beset by requests to do one voice or another. It’s clearly exhausting.
The problem — and this is perhaps a fresh angle that Apatow brings to the “perils of celebrity” story — is that George can’t seem to stop himself from retreating into this persona. Even absent any demanding public, whether he’s hanging out with his few friends, leaving a message on voice mail, or communicating in any sort of personal way, George slips into “that voice.” As Gertrude Stein said of her childhood home in Oakland, CA, for George too, “There is no there there.” There is only the public persona of George Simmons.
No surprise, that lack has limited George’s relationships, romantic, sexual, or fraternal. Also no surprise, when he’s handed a rare blood disease diagnosis and suddenly faces seemingly certain decline and death, he realizes he’s alone. Long estranged from his family and prone to one-night stands, he pines for the “one that got away” (Leslie Mann). Cue the generic tropes of the “bromance.” Deciding to return to stand-up in order to reclaim some youthful enthusiasm, George meets Ira at LA’s “Improv.” Thinking he’s found a friend in this up-and-coming comedian, George hires Ira to write material for him.
This setup is immediately a problem for Funny People, a problem that might be identified in the genre of the bromance more generally. First, the bromance must be achingly self-aware; it must draw repeated attention to its own familiar male-bonding antics, or risk seeming even vaguely homoerotic. (Think: Top Gun [and Quentin Tarantino’s riff on it], Point Break, or The Fast and the Furious.) Funny People establishes its so-arch self-awareness by repeatedly referring to other bromantic fare. Upset by Ira’s growing friendship with George, Ira’s pal Leo (Jonah Hill), for instance, snips on the phone that Ira should tell George that “Paul Rudd wants to do a bromance with you.”
Second, and this is connected to that strained self-reflexivity, the bromance must manage any anxiety about straight male intimacy through incessant homophobia and penis jokes. George repeatedly asserts the non-homo status of his bromance with Ira whenever Ira threatens to become too “girly” or emotional by disavowing homosexuality. When Ira gets all blubbery in public about George’s declining health, George chastises him: “People will think we just broke up.”
And yet George is also obsessed with Ira’s dick. George is constantly surmising about the size of Ira’s dick, especially how his own pales in comparison, asking Ira to see it, and then telling other people about how big and scary it is. The routine makes it seem that straight guys can only express emotional investment in their pals through such overkill, acknowledging the other dick in the room, talking about it, and simultaneously denying any sexual interest in it. But I don’t think that this is necessarily true, which means that bromances like Funny People do a disservice to the friendship capabilities of straight men, making them seem stunted. Unfortunately, it seems that until we get past the contemporary moment’s fascination with the bromance, straight guys will continue to be told that the only acceptable avenues to male intimacy are broadly defined homophobia and increasingly predictable jokes.