There are very few artistic depictions of what it's like to be a standup comedian.
Sure, there are an abundance of explanations — celebrities churn out autobiographies, and everybody seems to have a podcast — but there is a comparative dearth of fictional works where comedy is the central theme. There are no widely read novels about standup comedy, for example, and there have been very few motion pictures on the subject. When you look at the numbers, it is clear why.
Judd Apatow’s Funny People came right after his two massive commercial hits, and it starred Adam Sandler. It should have been huge, but it lost the studio 4 million dollars. Man on the Moon starred Jim Carrey in the late 1990’s — the sort of movie which should have delivered Universal Pictures enough profit to buy a small island nation. It lost almost 40 million dollars.
The reason audiences don’t want depictions of standup comedians may perhaps be found in the exception that proves the rule: Seinfeld. While comedians in life are notoriously depressed and cynical, Seinfeld is (as well as being a postmodern depiction of a world without morals) undeniably cheery. Fundamentally, Seinfeld isn’t a show about doing standup comedy – it’s a show that happens to have some standup comedy in it. Actual shows about comedians tend to be a downer (see: Louie).
It shouldn’t be too surprising, then, that a major video game studio hasn’t gotten around to making a game about being a comic. Never fear: an independent game developer has done it anyway. Comedy Quest is a new, and to my knowledge the only, video game that lets you play as a standup comedian.
In the style of point and click adventure games like Monkey Island and Leisure Suit Larry, you walk around a 2-D environment and score points by completing tasks which progress the story: a young man’s quest to become professional teller of jokes. Comedy Quest isn’t perfect, but for anybody with an interested in standup comedy, there’s lots to enjoy.
Yes, it’s bleak: this is a game in which you perform your badly written comedy to an audience of seven, mingle with failed comedians who dislike you, live in a tiny studio apartment, and beg your parents for money.
The game’s artwork is a loving homage to the point and click games of yesteryear, only stranger spookier. It’s cartoony, but more Ren and Stimpy than Disney. The visual experience is a bit like seeing the world through the eyes of somebody with a mental illness.
As in Funny People, Comedy Quest shines a light on the unpleasant side of starting out in comedy; harassing people into coming to a show so that you can get some much needed stage time, failing to coax a laugh from audiences in rooms where no performing should ever have been done. Finally, a flier-handing-out simulator now exists.
According to the game’s creator, Australian comedian Trav Nash, getting the game out into the world hasn’t been easy. When I asked about how the release of the game had gone, he told me:
“Overall it’s been really positive feedback, but it’s the few negative responses that stick with you. I was sent emails saying I stole from Leisure Suit Larry. I made it in this style because I love those old school games and all the graphics were original, but some people didn’t get that. Other people tried to give me lessons on standup comedy.”
In a video game, like doing comedy, it appears that finding an audience is a difficult process that takes time. What I like most about ‘Comedy Quest’ is that its a reminder that the process, while dreadful, can also be lots of fun (even if it’s mostly in a surreal/horrible/Kafka/David Lynch sort of way).
Comedy Quest can be downloaded for free over at the Crothers Games website.
James McCann is a writer and comedian. Find him here.