Raw – Lessons From The Stand-Up Feature

Thoughts On: Raw (1987)

Eddie Murphy’s second stand-up comedy feature film.


This is a weirdly significant film to me. Being way too young to have been watching this, Murphy’s Raw was my first exposure to stand-up comedy. I can’t even remember how old I was when pushing in the old video tape, but what I will never forget is the full-body reaction, the utter captivation, the drug-like sensation, of watching and listening to the most hilarious shit for an hour and a half straight. I can’t stress, nor explain, how mind-blowing the experience of watching and re-watching this film was to me as a kid. It was basically a kind of magic to me, how someone could stand on stage and ignite a fiery, burning uproar in my gut. And it’s that feeling of pain, of delirious joy as I laughed and laughed and laughed until I was blue in the face, that makes this film significant to me. Never have I howled as much, so wholeheartedly, so purely and thoroughly as I did when watching this film for the first few times.

Raw has then always stuck with me as it’s one of those films that I watch at least a few times every year. And watching the film a few times a year means in totality. I’m constantly watching clips from both Delirious and Raw, showing them to friends and family – even if I’ve shown them a billion times already. What’s more, I’ll often wake up and watch Murphy talking about Michael Jackson, Um-Fufu, girlfriends going on holiday and taking half or Italian guys watching Rocky just to start the day off on some kind of high. So, as should be clear, Eddie Murphy has been a huge influence on me. And I suppose this manifests itself primarily in my sense of humour, but also desire to tell stories. Because Raw was such a revelatory experience to me I obviously had to find more – which meant other comedians. And that yearning or fascination with stand-up has lasted to this day. It was after Eddie Murphy that I went on to find Tim Minchin, Richard Pryor, Aries Spears, Sam Kinison, Chris Rock, Louis CK, Robbin Williams, Sebastian Maniscalco, Dave Chappelle, George Carlin, Chris D’Elia, Joe Rogan, Mitch Hedberg, Kevin Hart, Jim Jefferies, Joey Diaz, Patrice O’Neal, Bill Burr and so much more. Each and every one of these comics hit that special note and ignited that familiar feeling I first felt when watching Eddie Murphy scream, shout and swear in Raw. And with this came this strange philosophy, sensibility or way of thinking.

My favourite comics seem to have two key characteristics. The first is a harsh, unapologetic truth. From Pryor to Kinison to Diaz to Jefferies, I see ‘dirty comics’ that find funny in very human truths that we often don’t like to talk about. The other attribute I’m drawn to is an intellectual commentary. You get this from CK, Carlin, Rogan and Burr. These comics not only tell stories that make you laugh, but expose and talk about thought provoking ideas. But, what I often find is that these two types, the intellectual commentator and un-PC genuine storyteller, are often one and the same. So, whilst Carlin was more of a ranter, he was also focused on a kind of shock, hard-truth kind of commentary. Simultaneously, whilst Joey Diaz has endless stories about his balls, coke, prostitutes and guns, you get to hear the lessons of his life in his comedy. So, what I love in comedy is the visceral storytelling and the personalities that can say shit no other entertainer can. But, plain shock comedy, just like alternative pseudo-intellectual comedy, grows bland real quick. That’s why I like an element of truth or thought in comedy. When that thought meets visceral exposition, you find the purest form of truth in my opinion. This is because, with a non-PC approach, you can say the things we all (many of us) personally think about all the time. You may talk about sexual things, racial topics, subjects of gender, poverty, evil, corruption and selfishness. And by not just bringing up these hidden and pushed aside topics of truth, but having something to add to them with some kind of original thought, the truth and expression demonstrated becomes something so much more precious.

I think the “it’s just comedy” side of comedy off-sets this idea of visceral, probing truth incredibly well as it gives a comic free-range to create stories with hyperboles, which leaves their ideas with an ambiguous cushion around them – one that engages the audience, entertains them and doesn’t assume they’re an utter nit-wit that has to be fed easy to swallow, plain and simple ideas. Louis CK is probably one of the best comedians when it comes to implying a subtle truth within a hyperbolic comedic premise. Whilst CK may talk about “If Murder Was Legal” and suggest that everyone would kill someone if they were allowed as a way of creating something funny, he also implies something about a side of human nature that isn’t so loving, that does get annoyed, fed up and frustrated. Whilst I could go on to talk about this for thousands of words more, this is essentially why I’m so swept away by certain kinds of comedy. Not only is there a pure, unflinching truth, but its delivered and packaged in an intellectual way that engages as well as respects an audience in a manner that no other art form, or form of entertainment, can manage.

Having said this, I bring up Eddie Murphy’s Raw to ask two questions. The first question is, is Raw a film and does it count as cinema? This is a subtly tricky question. The answer seems to simply be, no, not really. This answer would suggest that, whilst this is a 90 minute recording, one that was given a theatrical release, put on tape, DVD and Blu-ray, we go to see this film for an art form that is not cinematic. We watch this ‘film’ for stand-up comedy. And stand-up certainly doesn’t need a camera to function – it just needs a crowd. What this certainly says is that stand-up features, or specials, fit into a weird realm of cinema. However, despite this, in my opinion, I certainly think that they count as films – just not in a strict way. They are loosely cinematic. After all, A Streetcar Named Desire and Dogville are films. These are basically stage plays. We don’t need cinema to experience these stories, however, they are stories expressed on film and so they are movies. This is why I say that Raw counts as a movie, as cinema. Not only is this a ‘story’ captured by a camera. but it is one dictated, facilitated and contorted by cinematography, direction and editing – a uniquely cinematic combination.

Having asserted that Raw is a film – though a strange one – we can move onto the next, and more pressing, question: so what? What can we learn from Raw as a movie?

With the introduction, I’ve tried to convey what the stand-up comedy and comedians I like have taught me. Primarily, the likes of Pryor, Diaz, CK, Burr and O’Neal have taught me a key idea of truth. What the mentioned comics do like no other artist can is, within the comedic realm, expose hidden truths and provide commentary on them. They are allowed to do this as their form of storytelling is entirely focused on making a succinct point. I repeat, entirely focused. A joke will only work if the audience gets it. And to get a joke you must understand how it tries to manipulate and misguide you. A pretty flat example would be as follows:

What do you call a boy about to stand up to his bullies?
An ambulance.

What this very simple joke does is set up a narrative of a boy about to rise up against his conflicts – be a hero of his story. However, the laugh lies in a sharp turn. Reality barges its way in with the implimence that the boy is about to be beaten to a pulp as he tries to pull on the tights and spandex of a hero. We then laugh because we understand that bullied kids are bullied for a reason – they’re usually weak. Our recognition of this is the laugh. It’s kind of fucked up when you think of comedy in these terms, but that’s simply how it is. And it’s not a form of sadism or hatred to laugh at these kind of jokes as, as previously said, “it’s just comedy”. What this much repeated phrase suggests is the obvious: the boy, his bullies and the ambulance don’t exist. This means that a joke is, to push towards slightly pretension depths, a form of philosophical questioning.

As a philosopher, you may, without flinching, ask: why don’t we just rape the women we’re attracted to? The reason why a philosopher asks this question has nothing to do with actual rape. The question means to expose a hidden truth. After all, if you were to ask an average passing person why we don’t just rape women, you’d likely get a very unsatisfactory answer: it’s not right. With “it’s not right” being the only answer one could provide to this question, you can see a tremendous problem. To explain, imagine you stand with your best friend before a red button. You are in an empty room without windows, without a door, just the button. You have the urge to push the button. Your friend says not to. You ask why. They said “it’s not right”. Where do you go from here? You’ll eventually push the button, right? However, you wouldn’t if your friend explained that the button has a wire that’s connected to him and that if you push that button, a bomb strapped to his chest would go off.

Now, I don’t mean to compare rape with pushing a button out of curiosity – not so plainly anyhow. What I mean to suggest is that asking questions and providing answers provides clarity and so reason to a rhyme. So, whilst no one (blindly holding onto optimism) raised in modern society really needs to be told not to rape someone, we can imagine an alien civilisation landing on Earth who have no mating rituals, instead, just inseminate anyone who catches their eye. Assuming these aliens are intelligent and empathetic, we’d have to explain what rape is, why it’s bad, such and so on. You couldn’t do this by simply saying “it’s not right”. You’re going to need the philosopher.

Comedy works in a similar way to philosophy in this respect. A great example would be found in the works of Bill Burr. A great bit of his is him confronting the assertion that “there is no reason to hit a woman“. Burr accepts, as we all do (again, blindly holding onto optimism) that you just shouldn’t hit women. However, we are all told this in a “it’s not right” manner. Burr questions this, exposing the truth, that is so easily glossed over, that women are humans, that they can be infuriating, that they can certainly be deserving of a punch. He repeats that you shouldn’t hit a woman, but, asserts that there is reason to nonetheless. This is funny in the same manner that explaining why rape is wrong to aliens is helpful. Just as explaining rape to the aliens would ignite a reaction of understanding in them, Burr exposing a caveat in a subject of domestic abuse is funny. There is thus, in both cases, a reflex response to validate these intellectual assertions, which demonstrates how there is both a philosophical questioning going on in comedy, but also the need for the joke/questioning.

Taking this concept of jokes as philosophy, we can extrapolate our first lesson from the stand-up feature film. A great way to approach a story is with this focus on making a point that all comedians have. What makes a joke great is the profundity of its point. What often makes films great is also their profundity, however, there is a reliance on image and action in film that allows weak points to be made. For example, just look to Michael Bay. His films have no profound point to them – not in my view. However, millions have seen and paid for them. Ask yourself this though: if Transformers had to be performed as a stand-up routine, would it get any laughs? I say no – not a chance. Look to a film like Dogtooth, however. There is a succinct and powerful point made in this film about the control parents have over their children…

Could this movie be adapted into a stand-up comedian’s set and be funny? I certainly think so. This is not just because Dogtooth is a slight dark comedy, however, but because there is a conflicting and probing truth exposed by this story that a comedian could capitalise on. What this says about Dogtooth and the approach to cinema that Lanthimos takes is that poignant stories have a point, one that exposes a visceral, easily looked over truth. If you appreciate this kind of filmmaking, I think stand-up comedy is a great source of inspiration and lessons. It’s watching Burr, Diaz, Rogan, Hedberg and Pryor that you’ll then learn the importance of a premise, its twist and its resolution. If you can put this into a script, I believe you’ll have the tools and means to create something special. And you don’t have to be inspired to write a comedy. In simply recognising how comedians expose truth, you can construct powerful dramas, fantasies, crime-mysteries – anything. What comedy will teach you is how to make those stories profound and how to get a reaction out of an audience.

The next lesson that a film like Raw may teach you, which is connected to the previous, is the importance of words or dialogue. Whilst you could learn this from a play, say for instance the 2001 version of Waiting For Godot, stand-up is a much more expressive example of the power of dialogue. When we watch Raw, it is so easy to forget that all we’re doing is watching Murphy talk….

… that’s it. If a stand-up comedian can entertain people for up to 2 hours on stage and this may translate to film, does this not suggest a much greater scope of story that may work in a script? What Raw suggests is that not all films need to be Die Hard, instead, that they can be much more subdued and simple. By watching comedy, you come to understand just how to achieve this, how to fill up a large space of time with minimalist resources. The answer is an unsatisfying one – it’s all about a great performance and some great writing. This is why stand-up comedy is so hard and a film that mimics its form would be so difficult to produce. But, as Murphy demonstrates, this is more than possible.

A lesson within this subject of dialogue that you may learn from stand-up is how people performing talk or sound. As any screenwriter could tell you, when you write a film, you are not trying to write real conversations. If you were to turn a transcript of a real conversation into a film, it’d likely be boring. As a result, when you write dialogue, you don’t want to transcribe real speech. Instead, you want to write movie dialogue. You can learn to do this many ways, and I believe watching stand-up comedians perform is one of the best due to the pure focus on their words and voice. One of the best sources actually begins to move further away from cinema. Joe Rogan’s 2016 special, Triggered…

… is shot almost entirely in a mid-shot or close-up with a few wides. There are no inserts of the crowd, we just see him talk. This emphasises the power of his voice and performance. And what makes this entirely minimalist approach almost a no-brainer when it comes to Rogan is, of course, his podcast…

These are 2, sometimes 3 or 4 hour long conversation-performances (I say conversation-performances as they are for a camera and mic to pick up). All you see is captured by the above shot; just a cut between Joe and his guest. Is this cinema? There is cinematography, a camera, editing and so it has to be in some way, right? Whilst you may call it just a podcast, I believe that the YouTube videos of The Joe Rogan Experience are tantamount to movies – movies I happily sit through dozens and dozens of times.

What this should further emphasis to any film lover or filmmaker is that minimalism and bare-bones storytelling is a viable option. Whilst it may seem commercially daunting to try this, what Joe Rogan and many other podcasters who stream on sites like YouTube show is that, with a good character, this is very possible and endlessly entertaining. And this is arguably what we see in a film like Locke…

However, coming back to the idea of learning how to make characters talk, look no further than podcasts and stand-up specials to learn what goes into performances as well as how conversations flow and structure themselves. Recognising that podcasts and comedy specials aren’t just conversations or talks will then open up the world of cinema to explore and experiment with minimalist, character-driven forms we rarely come across.

These are three great lessons that take a lot of time to absorb. I won’t lie and suggest that I have the universal answers on learning how to make a great movie from watching Raw or any other stand-up feature. What I think makes a lot of sense, however, is that looking at the stand-up feature as cinema is incredibly powerful. And so learning from Raw, Delirious, Triggered, Live At The Beacon Theatre or Bring The Pain in the same way you may a Bergman, Spielberg or Scorsese film is pivotal. If you like comedy, if you are interested in comedic storytelling or even verbal storytelling, I cannot recommend stand-up more.


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