There was a moment, perhaps not so long from this one, where you wondered if you were doing what you always wanted to do, where you contemplated if the “you” of before would be proud of or impressed with the “you” of now. As a kid, I never dreamt of being any kind of writer. I loved reading, sure, but what I really loved — like secretly longed for — was to make people laugh. Where most folks tracked down audio recordings or specials of acclaimed comedians, learning their styles and analyzing their patterns, I approached it as academically as everything I do as an adult: I bought joke books. Then came the paralyzing fear of being in front of people and that dream died. Hard. Buried six feet deep and I never ventured near it again. That’s how it is for some. They imagine it for themselves, but either they can’t overcome personal insecurities or they just don’t have the talent/temperament required to make people laugh night after night. In indie dramedy The Opening Act, comedian Steve Byrne (TBS’s Sullivan & Son) explores these notions of self-exploration and actualization in his feature film directorial debut.
In the best of times, in the worst of times, Will Chu (Jimmy O. Yang) could always count on stand-up to help get him through. That’s why, despite a soul-crushing job working in life insurance for an annoying boss, he keeps going to Mickey’s Bar & Grill to work on his routine every time there’s an opening and even when there’s not. He gets to see other people work on their routines and develop relationships with his fellow Steubenville, Ohio, comics Quinn (Ken Jeong) and the Joeys (Pete Giovine, Bret Ernst). When Quinn catches an unexpected gig, he recommends Will for a Master of Ceremonies gig at an Improv in Pennsylvania run by the deeply connected Chip (Neal Brennan) and whose headliner, Billy G (Cedric The Entertainer), is an idol of Will’s. Is this the break Will needs or a reality check? Only time will tell.
If you’re not familiar with Steve Byrne’s comedy, he’s has a “Comedy Central Presents” episode from 2006, released two comedy specials (Happy Hour (2008), Champion (2014)), and had the aforementioned TBS program that lasted 33 episodes. Fans of Sullivan will enjoy a brief appearance from Dan Lauria in Opening as Will’s slightly ambivalent but supportive neighbor. Whereas there’s a common joke in Opening about Will’s lack of experience being hidden from the public via a vague description of having played at “colleges and clubs,” Byrne’s put in the work and has a great deal to show for it. With Opening, it’s clear that Byrne possesses a drive to do more than create material for himself, and it makes sense to start out telling a story that may be familiar for himself as it offers a great deal of comfort. Even as a fairly low-stakes comedy, Opening isn’t comfortable in the sense of “easy,” so much as it feels like a warm hug from someone who knows you well, even if they’re going to spend all their waking hours screwing with you. Writing is perhaps Byrne’s strongest suit and that shows in Opening. The characters feel natural, even when the story dips briefly into ridiculous territory. Though, given the stories of behind the scenes antics comics have experienced from Chuckle Bunnies (nickname for amorous fans of comics) or just from their own general debauchery, even the one sequence doesn’t appear too out of tune with the rest of the more natural events. In this regard, Opening is incredibly strong and makes Will’s tale engaging.
Where the film struggles more is in the editing. At a tight 90 minutes, Opening sails from start to finish and never drags. Given Byrne’s developed comedy specials, knowing how to manage time is critical and this works to the film’s advantage. The story follows a fairly predictable path narratively, but the cast is so darn charming and are clearly having fun, so it’s easy to forgive and just go along for the ride. Where things become more pronounced and off are in moments like the scenes between Yang’s Will and his girlfriend Jen, played by Debby Ryan (Insatiable). It’s not their on-screen chemistry, that’s great, it’s that the cutting between their introductory scene, showing Will at work, and then back to them is awkward in execution. They are clearly eating at a mall in the first scene and are wearing the same clothes in their second scene, making the sequence of Will at work in-between seem forced and out of place. The order makes sense for pacing, but the structure of it combined with the appearance of same-day shooting makes the “indie of it all” more apparent. There are a few other instances where it looks like Will never changes his clothes, but some of that can be written off as a character trait. In this instance, it’s just off-putting enough to take you out of the moment.
If you’re any kind of comedy fan, old or new, you’re going to recognize a large portion of the cast. Jeong first gained notoriety with his appearance in Knocked-Up before going on to Hangover and Community fame and Cedric The Entertainer is one of the original Kings of Comedy. Those notables will jump right off the screen and likely gain your interest. Each are strong in their own right in Opening, though Jeong is strangely more memorable here than Cedric, which may have more to do with their respective characters than their performances. There’s even a brief bit featuring the brilliant Whitney Cummings as an on-the-rise comic doing a show at the Improv before appearing on the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. There’s even Brennan, who’s likely more well-known as a writer for The Daily Show, Chappelle’s Show, and writing Half Baked than any on-screen performances. For the younger crowd, Iliza Shlesinger (Spenser Confidential) gets a scene-stealing moment that’s likely going to upset fans of Santa Clause, while Alex Moffet (Saturday Night Live) as Will’s weekend roommate is the personification of what people probably think being a comedian is all about. For those who loved Jermaine Fowler in Sorry To Bother You, you’ll enjoy his small role as sound guy Ricky. Fowler doesn’t have much to do in the overall scope of the film, but you’ll dig him every time he appears. With appearances that are only slightly above cameos from these comedians and more, The Opening Act offers a peek behind the curtain, showing audiences, in more ways than one, what it means to be a part of the community that is comedy. Doesn’t matter if you’re playing small houses or giant concert halls, once you’re in the community, you’re always in it. Personally, seeing Kathleen Madigan even for a moment was a total delight.
For a feature debut, Byrne shows a great deal of promise. He knows how to best use his cast and even when there’s a large name, he doesn’t linger unnecessarily. This shows a wisdom to trust the story over any kind of flash to pull the audience in. It’s worth noting that at the time of this writing no press notes were available. I mention this because it’s difficult to say just how autobiographical The Opening Act is in any capacity to Byrne’s own experience, yet the film still feels profoundly personal. And, if I may, just a little bit optimistic. This isn’t a story about throwing caution to the wind to follow your dreams, but about asking yourself what you’re willing to do to try. As you contemplate your own dreams and your own position, don’t get too caught up in the doubt. If you don’t try, you don’t have the chance to create your own opportunity. Byrne took his and it’s a surprising win. Will you take yours?
In theaters, on VOD, and digital October 16th, 2020.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.