Just how much you’ll enjoy — or not enjoy — The Wild West Comedy Show will depend largely on how much you like (or don’t like) Vince Vaughn. Me: I dig the hell out of the guy. He’s tops on my list of celebrities I’d most like to get drunk with, and it’s apparent from the film that he’s amiable, good-natured people, a guy without the slightest hint of physical vanity, exemplified best by a scene that features a groggy Vaughn, in boxers and an unflattering T-shirt, sitting up in his bed — messy hair, sleep boogers, and hangover apparent — and lighting up his first cigarette of the day. You can smell the stale tobacco and the alcohol oozing from his pores, and it reeks of honky-tonk. And while he may not be guy you’d want to wake up next to, he does seem the ideal celebrity to travel around the country with in close confines — he has a chummy, Midwestern friendliness about him, and he’d probably pick up all the drink tabs, to boot, and that right there is reason enough for me.
And whether you like Vaughn or not, it’s hard not to appreciate, at least a little, Vaughn’s generosity (or egotism, depending on how you look at it) behind the idea for The Wild West Comedy Show: Taking four fairly unknown stand-up comedians (during an era when stand-up comedy is mostly dead, or at least good stand-up comedy) around the country, using his own star power to not only draw sizable audiences to see four comics no one has ever heard of, but to also get a documentary made about them that will screen in 1000 theaters, widening their exposure even further (granted, the idea does feel like it was stolen from Dane Cook’s Tourgasm, but this is different: Dane Cook sucks, and Vince Vaughn doesn’t; see the difference?). Unfortunately, there’s a reason that stand-up comedy is largely dead; it hasn’t been great since the 1980s and 90s, and the four comics that Vaughn chose to feature (including an old friend and former roommate, Ahmed Ahmed) aren’t exactly Richard Pryor … or even Kevin Meaney. With the exception of a few funny bits from John “Cap” Caparulo, they’re mostly on par with, say, Joe Rogen on a bad day: Typical, airplane-peanut observational humor and rehashed jokes that rely heavily on ethnic stereotypes. In a way, however, the mediocrity of the comics works for the film (at least when we’re not actually subjected to the stand-up) — bad performances make for better behind-the-scenes drama. One of my favorite scenes, in fact, was watching Sebastian Maniscalco sweat after his bit mocking flip-flop wearing men didn’t go over so well in San Diego.
Unmistakably, Wild West works best when Vaughn is onscreen: He introduces the comics and begins each show with some adlibbed bits, usually joined by a celebrity friend (Dwight Yoakum, Justin Long, the “gay dude” from Wedding Crashers (Kier O’Donnell), or Jon Favreau). In one of the show’s featured bits, Vaughn brings out his best friend and producer, Peter Billingsley — who was Ralphie in “The Christmas Story” — and they reenact a scene from the Afterschool Special about steroids in which the two originally met. The scene’s not that funny, but it sheds an interesting light on Vaughn personally, as does a confessional he makes at a Sound Bend show about the importance of the film, “Rudy,” in the way it brought he and Favreau together, which gave rise to “Swingers,” and, ultimately, their intertwined careers.
Vaughn is the dominant presence for the first half hour of the film; sadly, he stands back in the latter half and allows the film to focus on the comics. In between shows, the four of them talk about their personal experiences (Ahmed Ahmed, an Arab, explaining about how his profiling arrest in 2004 helped shape his show is the highlight), as well as their upbringing and home life; their parents are also interviewed to give us some banal insights into their youth. And while learning more about their personal lives certainly helps to color their stand-up routines, unfortunately, it doesn’t really make them any funnier — Italian-Americans making Guido jokes and tired bits about the cable guy’s four-hour window stopped being fresh or funny in 1989.
The movie, which was filmed in 2005, also coincided with the Hurricane Katrina tragedy, resulting in a few shows being moved to other cities, where benefit concerts were given. That particular segment, however, got a little self-aggrandizing for my taste, especially when the comics began to earnestly compare how much better off they had it on a claustrophic tour bus than homeless evacuees had it on a campground eating non-perishables (to even make the comparison feels somewhat insulting). And the post-show meet-and-greet with some of the displaced Katrina victims just felt needlessly exploitative — the act itself was admirable, but featuring it in the film seemed more than a little tacky.
Indeed, like Steve Martin’s most recent novel Born Standing Up, Wild West works best as a snapshot in life of a stand-up comedian. The director, Ari Sandel, does a decent job of capturing the neurosis, the depression, and the despair of, at least, these four comedians, and how their own insecurities inform their routines. For the sake of the comedy, however, I just wish they had had more unpleasant personal experiences to pull from besides fast food jobs, adolescent roller-skating rink humiliations, and typical dating angst.
Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba. He lives with his wife and son in Ithaca, New York. You may email him, or leave a comment below.
Vince Vaughn's Wild West Comedy Show / Dustin Rowles
Film Reviews | February 6, 2008 | Comments ()