Lawrence O'Toole
October 16, 1992 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Comedy is a dramatic subject, too. And all the serious films about comedians and their craft seem to say, Putting on a happy face for a living can be hell.

The bulk of comedy-themed dramas are biographies, and they are hardly happy affairs. Indeed, the real-life chronicles of comics’ careers are slaphappy with self-destruction ranging from alcoholism (Frank Sinatra as Joe E. Lewis in The Joker Is Wild, 1957) to drug addiction (Dustin Hoffman as Lenny Bruce in Lenny, 1974). Yet fiction is no less felicitous: Take Charlie Chaplin’s broken-down music-hall clown in Limelight (1952) or Laurence Olivier’s overpoweringly self-loathing vaudevillian Archie Rice in The Entertainer (1960).

In recent years, films about the comedy craft have uncovered an even darker, more disturbing dimension, whether it’s Robert De Niro’s creepy aspiring comic Rupert Pupkin in Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy (1983) or Eric Bogosian’s deejay, whose acerbic, provocative wit courts danger and, ultimately, death in Talk Radio (1988). The lesson: Where there’s comedy, crisis is often the punch line.

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