Governor’s Comedy Cabaret in Levittown has played host to plenty of comedians, but last March it featured one of its biggest stars yet, the legendary insult comic Jackie Burke.
Jackie who? The joke’s on you — he’s fictional. Burke is the character played by Robert De Niro in “The Comedian,” which opens this weekend and also stars Leslie Mann, Harvey Keitel and, in cameos, such wiseacres as Gilbert Gottfried, Richard Belzer and Long Beach-raised Billy Crystal. In the film, Burke, a cantankerous actor-comedian somewhere between Jackie Gleason and Don Rickles, has fallen so far down the career ladder that he rides the LIRR to Governor’s, which is said to be in Hicksville. At the mic, Burke can’t resist cracking a few jokes about the town’s name, which conjures up “inbreeding and crystal meth,” in his estimation.
“Why don’t you change your name to something more pleasant,” he tells the slightly irked crowd, “like Somalia?”
That’s the club’s real stage, not a re-creation, that De Niro is standing on. According to Governor’s talent coordinator, John Trueson, director Taylor Hackford (“Ray,” “An Officer and a Gentleman”) set up camp at the club for a total of five days in late March.
“Occasionally, the director would ask a question about comedy or how a club works,” says Trueson. “They wanted it to look authentic, like a club would really look.”
To embody the role of a seasoned stand-up, De Niro turned to Jessica Kirson, who’s been a comedian for 18 years and has lived on Long Island for the past 10. (She’s a New Jersey native but now lives in West Hempstead.) Besides playing herself in the film — she’s the lesbian comic who trades insults with De Niro’s Burke — Kirson spent so many hours coaching De Niro on her craft and feeding him lines that she eventually came away with credits as an associate producer and consultant. Kirson says some of the edgier jokes during the film’s gay wedding scene came from her, along with little details about Burke’s clothes and apartment. “If he’s a professional comic, then he’s on the road a lot, so there might be a suitcase in his room,” she says.
Kirson notes, however, that De Niro’s performance stems mostly from his willingness to work hard at playing the role. “He would meet me in the morning, then go film for 14 hours and meet me in the morning again,” she says. “It was just unbelievable. I’ve never met anyone who works as hard as he does.”
Still, why hike all the way out to Governor’s? The club was named in early drafts of the script (credited partly to Jeff Ross, a comedian who specializes in celebrity roasts). Trueson says the club’s five-day shutdown didn’t result in too much lost business, and he got to see Hackford’s wife, Helen Mirren, drop by for a visit. As for De Niro’s in-character jibes at Long Island, he didn’t mind.
“I work at Governor’s,” he says. “I’ve heard all the Hicksville jokes.”