I have a rule, and your mileage may vary with it. When I want to find the comedians whose work will really stand the test of time, I look to the ones other respected comedians find funny. When Bill Burr (he who dropped The Child on The Mandalorian) holds forth on the genius of John Pinette, you have to sit up and take notice. When Lewis Black echoes Burr, this is something.
It may be a Hollywood cliché, but it doesn’t make the story any less tragic. An incredibly talented artist was able to mine and mask his pain for the audience’s benefit. For the most part, it worked, until the moment it didn’t. When Pinette died shortly after his 50th birthday, newscasts described him as best known for being “the victim” in the final episode of Seinfeld. But as the documentary John Pinette: You Go Now vividly illustrates, he was so much more, an instinctive mimic and character actor who could hold a room in his sway.
Director Bob Krakauer obviously has a lot of affection for Pinette, as do the many comedians and friends included here. But they’re also honest about the demons that drove him, and the sadness inside. Wisely, it’s not just people talking about how great (or tortured) he was; Krakauer has plenty of footage that proves the man was a genius. (And also, briefly, a part of the Marvel Universe, as he had a featured role in Jonathan Hensleigh’s film adaptation of The Punisher.)
Winnowing hours of footage down to a tight two hours had to have been hard, and the film suffers a bit for it. Snippets of his Broadway run in Hairspray, replacing Harvey Fierstein, tease what could have been, and honestly, Pinette looks so graceful and effortless as Edna Turnblad, you’ll wish you had a time machine and Broadway tickets. But that’s the nature of theater.
However, Some of Pinette’s most famous comedy routines — which new audiences may not know at all — get short shrift. Even the title phrase, “you go now!”, which audiences would shout at Pinette at his shows, is quickly shown up front, with little context, and then never explained again. (It’s the owner of a Chinese All-You-Can-Eat Buffet, pleading with the corpulent Pinette to leave. It’s funnier when he said it.) And one of his childhood friends describes Pinette performing a three minute version of The Wizard of Oz, of which we see two quick cuts, both in Munchkinland. For all the talk about how versatile Pinette was (and he was), it seems wrong not to just include the entire routine.
And yet, we can understand his magnetism. The film makes it clear what drove him, and what gnawed at him. It was tragic; it is tragic. Rumor has it that the cut screened at Cinequest will serve more as a test screening, and a later commercial release may be slightly different. If you are in San Jose, take the opportunity to attend the encore on Monday, March 9 at 7:15 pm at the Hammer Theater in San Jose. Catch a glimpse of Pinette’s genius, and the people who loved him. Then seek out his specials. Once Cinequest ends, that’s what I’ll be doing.
Tickets for John Pinette: You Go Now are available here.