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Funny People - discussion guide

Author: Holly Price

Keywords: Life, comedy, disappointment, success, friendship, change

Film title: Funny People
Director: Judd Apatow
Screenplay: Judd Apatow
Starring: Adam Sandler, Seth Rogen, Leslie Mann, Jason Schwartzman
Distributor: Universal Pictures (USA); United International Pictures (UK)
Cinema Release Date: 31 July 2009 (USA); 28 August 2009 (UK)
Certificate: R (USA); 15 (UK) Contains strong language, sex and sex references


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Funny People tells the story of two stand-up comics: seasoned success George Simmons (Adam Sandler) and aspiring newbie Ira Wright (Seth Rogen). The film opens with real footage of Sandler and Judd Apatow making a prank phone call. The second scene shifts tone, as George is diagnosed with a rare form of leukaemia. This collision of laughter and sadness comes up again and again as the film progresses.

We glimpse George’s career as he nostalgically looks back at home-movies and film posters. He deals with his frustration and sadness by returning to the stages of his old stand-up haunts. Meanwhile, Ira’s life and career are still ahead of him. When, at his local comedy club, he is forced to follow George’s set, he ends up making jokes at the senior comedian’s expense. Much to Ira’s amazement, George hires him to write material for his upcoming sets.

George has isolated himself from his family and friends. He ends up confiding in Ira, who looks after him as he undergoes an experimental treatment. Ira genuinely cares about his employer and he tries to help him come to terms with his prognosis and share it with other people. George accepts Ira’s friendship and values his company, but he repeatedly reminds him that he is being paid for jokes, not advice.

Sadly, Ira’s friendships with housemates Mark Taylor Jackson (Jason Schwartzman) and Leo Koenig (Jonah Hill) aren’t so strong. Mark continually boasts about his role in television series Yo Teach!, Leo believes he’s more talented than Ira, and Ira cheats Leo out of a chance to write jokes for George.

The imminence of George’s death causes both him and Ira to re-examine their lives. When George’s ex-girlfriend Laura (Leslie Mann) appears – now with a family of her own – he realises how empty his life has become. As soon as Ira finds himself in a difficult position, he discovers the shallowness of his friendships. They must learn to change if they are ever to salvage their relationships, but will George have enough time?



Judd Apatow and Adam Sandler began discussing the film two years before shooting it. Whilst they were roommates in college, they used to regularly perform at The Improv (the comedy club where George and Ira first meet) and Apatow wanted to draw on this experience. He used some old footage of Sandler’s early stand-up and he filmed Sandler, Rogen and Hill performing their own sets in front of real audiences especially for the film. Apatow originally wanted to make a film about mentors in stand-up, but this developed into ‘a story about the person you look up to going through a meltdown of some sort.’[1]

Rotten Tomatoes reports that 68% out of 211 critics gave the film a positive review. The ‘Top Critics’ boosted the rating to 71%. Many commented that, in spite of poignant performances, it lacked the story to carry off the lengthy second half. Nevertheless, Rotten Tomatoes’ consensus states, ‘Funny People features the requisite humour, as well as considerable emotional depth, resulting in Judd Apatow’s most mature film to date.’ Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers insists, ‘Apatow scores by crafting the film equivalent of a stand-up routine that encompasses the joy, pain, anger, loneliness and aching doubt that go into making an audience laugh. For his funny people, that really is a matter of life and death.’[2]


Questions for Discussion

  1. What did you think of the film? How did it make you feel? What did you like/dislike? If you’ve seen either The 40 Year Old Virgin or Knocked Up (both directed by Apatow), how do you think this compared?

  2. Why do you think the story is set against the backdrop of stand-up comedy? What did this add to the film? How is the industry portrayed?

  3. George gets an unusual introduction (first an old home video of a prank call he made, then his diagnosis). What were your first impressions of him? What did you think of the way he deals with the news of his disease?

  4. Other than his leukaemia diagnosis, what are the main turning points in George’s life? What inspires him to change? Have there been moments in your life like that?

  5. How did you respond to Ira? What are his strengths as a character and what are his failings? What did you make of the advice and support he gives George?

  6. Which of the characters did you relate to most and why?

  7. ‘The movie's a lot about ego and egomania – and why do people want people to like them so much and when you feel the need for approval – and so it's a universal theme I think for everyone in the world, but more so for comedians who really go for it hard.’

How did the themes of ego and approval develop through the film? Would you agree with Apatow, that a need for approval is universal? Where do you think a need for approval comes from?

  1. What effect did professional success have on George, Mark and Clarke (Eric Bana) and their relationships? Would you say that success and fame often have similar effects on people? If so, why?

  2. Eminem: ‘Now you’ve got this second chance, what do you want?'
    George: ‘I kind of don’t want anything.’
    Eminem: ‘Then what are we celebrating?’

What gives our lives meaning? What do you want in life?

  1. ‘From where I’m sitting, it seems like your happiness might be coming at the cost of destroying this family.’ (Ira)

Do you believe George was motivated more by his own happiness or Laura’s? How did you react to Laura’s final decision?

  1. ‘You [George] think that getting Laura would make you happy? You think that getting a family would make you happy? You’ll never be happy because you’re always going to be stuck with yourself. Unless somehow you can get away from yourself, you are always going to be miserable.’ (Ira)

George admits that he hates his life and he seems to hate the man that he has become. What do you think he needs in order to become content with who he is? In what ways might his friendship with Ira provide an opportunity for this to happen?

  1. What is significant about the last scene? Why do you think the film ended at this point? How does selflessness affect our relationships and us as people?

[1] Judd Apatow, ‘Funny People Set Visit: Judd Apatow’,

[2] Peter Travers, ‘Funny People’, Rolling Stone (30 July 2009)

[3] Judd Apatow, ‘Funny People Set Visit: Judd Apatow’,

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Author: Holly Price
© Copyright: Holly Price 2010


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