Henry Phillips’ sequel to Punching the Clown revisits the difficulties of performing stand-up comedy (with his guitar,) but doesn't pose new questions about that experience.
The comedy landscape has shifted since real-life comic troubadour Henry Phillips starred in the film Punching the Clown. In 2009, the movie approximating his career at that point laid out how difficult it was to perform stand-up, specifically, to perform with an acoustic guitar. Even then, the mid-aughts gag songs of Bo Burnham and Demetri Martin were beginning to feel artificial in a time when self-aware improv ruled the day.
The sequel, Punching Henry, probes a new fad: the endless film and television wave of comedians’ semi-autobiographical personal and professional lives. Louis CK popularized and transcended the form with his FX sitcom. Marc Maron followed suit with Maron. Just last week, Pete Holmes began embellishing his early stand-up career in HBO’s Crashing. And Tig Notaro, who appears in Punching Henry, has portrayed her struggles with illness and loss in the Amazon series, One Mississippi. With all this activity preceding him, Phillips' return to this now familiar world in Punching Henry hardly feels novel.
We pick up with Henry numbly working the national dive bar circuit, playing for a few dozen people per town. Then, his manager calls him to Los Angeles to meet with producer Jay Warren (J.K. Simmons). With the new appetite for digital content, there’s a chance Phillips’ unconventional and middling career is worthy of a cable show. This premise is only a slight update of Punching the Clown: fame knocks on the door of an oblivious loser and he tries to withstand the Hollywood spin cycle until he’s spat out.
At their best, these lightly fictionalized approaches to comedians’ lives illuminate a curious industry where all comics must negotiate their personal identities in relation to their acts. But as anything other than charming vanity projects, such stories have a difficult time arguing for their necessity.
The strongest scene of Punching Henry skewers this existential problem. Phillips sits silently on the fringes of a conference room listening to Warren pitch a show about his failure to make it big in comedy with the logline, “Charlie Brown meets Sisyphus.” But the network needs more. What’s the audience’s stake in Henry as a character? Warren boils it down further: “We care about him simply because he’s doing it.”
It’s a terribly smart line, and it prompts us to wonder about the point of Punching Henry. Is there a reason to care about Henry other than his being in front of us for 90 minutes? Is this some twisted entertainment creator’s riff on Descartes? I am streaming content, therefore, consume me?
Fortunately, Phillips has a lot of show business compatriots who’ve considered these questions and are eager to help him stage prickly, in-the-know moments. The film’s framing device is a podcast host (Sarah Silverman) interviewing Phillips for her show called “Mouthfuck.” Later, Michael Watkins plays a network suit who brags of adapting a viral video called “Idiot Dad” into a TV show called “An Idiot Dad.” Note the added, front-of-the-alphabet article adjective for VOD search optimization, she says. Clifton Collins Jr. appears for 45 seconds as a stand-up who melts down on stage about his brother’s recent death and then heckles Henry for his contrived musical material.
So, show business is a detailed circus. But why does the man who formerly called himself "the clown" still want to be part of it? Here, the film slams into a conceptual wall. Phillips knows full well that he's packaging his own history for entertainment, but he looks reluctant to participate on screen. As an actor, he's droll and unavailable, but not aggressively enough to turn it into shtick. As a comedian, he's devoid of persona, which has to be the main attraction for viewers when comedians throw their hats into the autobiography ring. This genre of humor leverages the protagonists’ flaws against the falls they take from tipping the world’s moral scales. Without Marc Maron’s attitude and worldview, for example, his sitcom would be an exercise in beating down a middle-aged person who doesn’t appear to deserve it.
With regard to Henry, without a cult of personality, we’re left to assume that his professional failures are due to his material simply not being good enough. This makes Punching Henry a film about the issues artists confront when the fictional art isn’t convincing. Often in the film, a crowd of extras laughs at Henry’s parody ballads right before something awful happens to him. But if the film's audience isn't taken with the retrograde humor (I wasn't; his most famous song is about wishing he had a girlfriend who behaves like a dog) mixed with advanced guitar-picking, then we face a confusing ambiguity.
It's unclear whether the quality or value of Henry's art has anything to do with what happens to him. And if it does, and the film admits deep down that he is kind of a mediocre performer, then why does Henry keep grinding himself down for beer money?
If the film is a true labor of love, Phillips’ love for his craft, or the personal well of emotion that births the songs, isn’t apparent. Missing too is the formal desperation of the first film, a grimy docu-realism that at least had the artist’s struggle baked into the lo-fi visual. By contrast, Punching Henry is filmed with the crispness of any single-camera sitcom.
Yet, it doesn't seem like the fictional Henry has earned this brighter, higher definition movie. He appears closer than ever to hanging it up. There are pressing question here the movie merely circles with its self-flagellation. Who is Henry if he decides he can’t hack it? And, why does the real man constantly dangle the carrot of success in front of a fictional self who has no discernible feelings about fame? Through all the indignities he endures from producers, hecklers, and drunk strangers, the best thing that could happen to the man in the movie isn’t a TV deal. It’s probably making a friend. Even if he’s not funny, you don’t want to see him punished anymore. Henry has walloped Henry enough.