An Underrated Gem: On Frank Whaley’s “The Jimmy Show” (2001)

A stylized shot of Frank Whaley's character (Jimmy O'Brien) in Frank Whaley's "The Jimmy Show" (2001).

‘This isn’t funny,’ says Jimmy O’Brien (Frank Whaley) on what is presumably his last night as an open mic stand-up comic. For years, he’s been delivering his stale routine to a handful of patrons, none of whom ever laugh. And why would they? Not only is Jimmy not funny, but rather, very sour in his humor, wit, and delivery. It’s only at the film’s end that he comes to realize this. The years of occasional heckling, stone faces, and coughs in the crowd didn’t deliver the hint, but that he comes to accept this on his own is the important thing. What did it? Perhaps the fact that he’s managed to push everyone away? Something in him tells him to stop. ‘No more jokes,’ he says.

The Jimmy Show opens with Jimmy driving his dilapidated car to the Laugh In comedy club, located in suburban New Jersey. His invalid grandmother is in the passenger seat, ‘I thought we were going to get my pills,’ she says. ‘Wait here, I’ll be right back,’ Jimmy replies, as he eagerly enters and asks about open mic night. The manager is annoyed by his presence, ‘Did you get that tape I sent in?’ Jimmy asks. ‘Look, just sign your name and you get 10 minutes—it’s open mic.’ Here is perhaps the first glimpse of Jimmy’s cluelessness, as he believes that open mic night is his ‘big break,’ then only afterwards does he come to learn that his girlfriend Annie (Carla Gugino) is pregnant. (Jimmy ultimately suggests the name Wendy for the child—after Peter Pan, a reflection of this man refusing to grow up.)

I first saw The Jimmy Show in 2005 on a used DVD and I always remembered it. Admittedly, I have a fondness for films that involve those with dreams, even if the dreams result in failure. There is something to be said about someone who at least tries. ‘You can’t work in a supermarket without a dream,’ Jimmy says, over the mic. It’s a job that barely allows him to get by, as he shares a sunken house with his invalid grandmother, wife, and child. His co-worker, Ray (Ethan Hawke), is a pothead with no ambition but at least he doesn’t steal beer and he manages to get to work on time. In short, Jimmy is a self-entitled asshole. He steals on the job, arrives late, selfishly insists on taking care of his invalid grandmother who would benefit from assisted living, picks fights, and believes he is cleverer than he is. He looks down on Ray, even though Ray is a better person than he. Ray just lacks ‘the dream’ and is content with being a ‘pothead.’ Likewise, Jimmy’s wife, Annie, is also too good for him.

Frank Whaley manages an excellent portrayal of a loser. But Jimmy is also a loser of his own doing. As example, when he was awarded a track scholarship in community college, he blew that opportunity by drinking too much. He is full of get rich quick schemes, like a hot dog toaster oven, but maybe if this comedy thing works out, he might become someone significant? ‘People know me!’ Throughout, Jimmy’s routines serve as an internal monologue, wherein he mentions how much he thinks about climbing the mountain, but inevitably asks: ‘Why am I thinking about climbing and not doing it?’ He bounces from one low-end job to another—often getting fired, behaving obnoxiously to his customers, and falling asleep on the job. (Fast food, selling ceiling fans and fireplaces, and tollbooth collector are just some of his miserable jobs—and still pocketing others’ money, no less.) Add to that his terrible stage presence and can anyone really feel that sorry for him?

I set out to write a review because this is clearly a very underrated film. With a Rotten Tomatoes score of 38%, the negative reviewers indicate that they don’t understand what this film is really about. Some chide The Jimmy Show for the protagonist’s bad jokes, but that is the point—he is a bad comedian. Some don’t see the point —overlooking the fact that Jimmy is pouring his life’s story into the mic, which serves as an internal monologue, e.g., ‘One minute you are falling in love and the next minute you’re dividing up the furniture, and in between those two minutes, you make a baby.’ Even the film’s summary got it wrong, where it states that Ray is a ‘terrible influence’ on Jimmy, when really it’s the other way around, as it is always Ray warning Jimmy that he needs to get to work on time and that he’s going to get into trouble for stealing all that beer. In short, viewers were likely expecting something more of a ‘lighthearted slice of life,’ and instead were delivered a sad film—not a tragedy, per se, since tragedy must involve a great man’s fall from grace. Jimmy was never great at anything, but rather a self-entitled slacker from day one.

Ultimately, Annie does leave Jimmy and she seems set on improving her and Wendy’s lives. She enrolls in courses at the community college and there is an alluding to perhaps a new man in her life (never stated—Jimmy only notices her new pair of earrings). The film is rife with little touches as this—such as Ray supposedly being Jimmy’s ‘best friend,’ yet Jimmy is oblivious to when Ray’s birthday is, and likewise, Ray has no clue about Jimmy’s anniversary. Then, when Jimmy’s grandmother dies in a chair, it is just that. Underwhelming as life itself.

One might be inclined to call The Jimmy Show a sad slice of life, but that would be too easy, as the film is more than that. Unfortunately, Jimmy O’Brien is similar to many in the arts who do try, but lack the talent and motivation to excel both in art and life. Even the end involves a subversion of cliché, where Jimmy runs to the train station, perhaps intending to stop his wife and daughter from leaving, but then he pauses, possibly realizing that they will be better off without him. Jimmy is just a drag who manages to pull everyone down—even his audience members whom he tells, ‘This is the tragedy club.’ But then, suddenly, he notices that not only is no one ever laughing, but that he’s just not funny. Indeed, stand-up comedy is not for him. ‘No more jokes,’ is a contrast from earlier in the film when he says, ‘If they don’t like it, then fuck them.’

The Jimmy Show, which is based on the play Veins and Thumbtacks by Jonathan Marc Sherman, is a very rewarding, albeit sad film, but it isn’t without hope. For one, those no longer around him move on and improve. Jimmy comes to learn that passing the mic to someone else would benefit not just the audience, but also himself since he is a depressing, unfunny, bore. Many in real life never reach this level of realization, but Jimmy does. That, at least, carries hope. This leaves him with the option to change, so maybe he might improve? Or maybe not. It’s up to him. And who is to say that’s not a happy ending?

(The film in its entirety is available for free on YouTube, and very worthy of your attention. See, quality art does get around, eventually. Stay tuned for future reviews involving overlooked films.)

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