Grade: B
Not rated (would be PG-13)

As a college English professor I’ve run across a surprising number of students who want to be stand-up comics. Some of them started a comedy club on campus, some did open mics in local comedy clubs, and one even asked for my opinion on a stand-up routine he was filming to send to an Ivy League school for his grad school admissions essay. Even if they’re not aspiring to grab the microphone themselves, college students love stand-up—which is why so many comics do the college circuit. So a passionate movie about stand-up comedy ought to be a hit with college and high school students who have secret (or not-so-secret) ambitions of being a stand-up comic.

The Opening Act is also plenty fun for the rest of us who have no plans to quit our respectable jobs, as Ken Jeong did (he was a doctor), to become stand-up comics. But as you watch how passionate everyone is about stand-up you begin think, on some level, maybe I could do this too—and that’s because this 2020 film feels like a love letter to stand-up comedy. It’s written and directed by stand-up comic Steve Byrne, it stars stand-up comic Jimmy O. Yang, and all but four of the remaining cast members are stand-up comics. Even guys playing a heckler (Butch Bradley), a cop (Tom Segura), and a taxi driver (Felipe Esparza) are stand-up comics. The only pure actors among the rest of the cast are Debby Ryan (The Suite Life on Deck), Jackie Tohn (GLOW) and two minor roles. Surrounded by so much comedic talent, I can picture them trying to pick up pointers, as The Opening Act‘s main character does throughout the film.

The Opening Act feels like a mini-course on how to be a successful stand-up comic and how to get started in the business because here’s plenty of advice here from seasoned professionals, as well as a pretty good picture of how the business works at the entry level and beyond. There’s even a bonus feature on “Getting Started in Comedy.” But parents be warned: if your kid aspires to do stand-up, the road—at least in the beginning—is rocky.

Yang is plenty likable as our comic quester, Will Chu, and adorably so because we see him after the death of his mother bonding with his father over stand-up comedy. Stand-up isn’t just a professional or creative whim with him—it’s a part of who he is, so it’s easy for a viewer to become invested in the character. The film follows Chu as he navigates the world of open mics, finally gets a break to be the emcee opening for his comic hero, Billy G. (Cedric the Entertainer), gets thrown into a roommate situation with a gonzo stand-up (Alex Moffatt), and rides the rough waves of audience reactions. Like Chu (who sees his name in lights as “Chew,” and people refuse to do anything about it), one of the comic actors in The Opening Act skipped something important in his life (midterms) in order to open for an established comedian. And like Chu, all of the comic actors said they weren’t very funny when they first started doing stand-up routines. A good portion of this film is spent watching Chu dealing with more failures than successes.

There have been so many bad comedies made and so much of stand-up is hit-or-miss that it’s no surprise if people approach this film cautiously. But The Opening Act is a pleasant surprise. Though there’s as much stand-up in this film as there is Beatles music in Across the Universe, it has a strong central conflict and enough of a narrative progression that it doesn’t feel like a bunch of thinly connected gags. It feels like any heartwarming struggle story (with laughs) that has you cheering for a positive outcome.

Positive messages also abound, like pursuing your passion, not giving up, paying your dues, and learning from experts. Yes, experts have things to teach us, though Americans seem to have forgotten that. Chu also shows persistence and resilience, and bouncing back from failures is as important a lesson as anything else these days.

Though the film isn’t rated, it would merit a PG-13 rating for adult material, drinking, drunkenness, smoking, sexual references, and one sex scene played for comic effect. Stand-up isn’t squeaky clean, though the snippets of routines that we see in the film are considerably tamer than the ones included in the bonus features. The Opening Act also features comics Neal Brennan, Bill Burr, Whitney Cummings, Jermaine Fowler, Ken Jeong, Russell Peters, and Iliza Schlesinger. If you’re sold, Amazon has a half-price sale going on at the time this review is being posted.

Entire family: No
Run time: 90 min., Color
Studio/Distributor: RLJE Films
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1 widescreen
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: C+
Amazon link
Not rated (would be PG-13 for language, sex, drinking, and drugs)

Language: 6/10—Lots of swearing; it comes with the territory (stand-up, nightclubs, tough crowds, etc.)

Sex: 6/10—One memorable scene shows a man hiding under a car watching a woman go down on a man, with nothing shown and played for comic effect; another character is sex-crazy and is always talking about or hooking up with groupies or clubbers; many of the stand-up routines reference sex

Violence: 3/10—A character is punched out and there are some other minor scuffles

Adult situations: 6/10—Much of the action takes place in nightclubs and comedy clubs, and there is plenty of drinking, drunkenness, smoking, and some drug use

Takeaway: Essential viewing for anyone with a fondness for stand-up comedy