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How many stand-up comedians would turn down an invitation to appear on The Tonight Show, especially during its glory days when Johnny Carson still sat behind the desk?

In 1979, Mike Binder did just that, believing he was too young and not ready for what most comedians would consider a dream gig, the big breakthrough.


"I had always wanted to be a stand-up comedian," he remembered. "It was my passion. It was my goal. It was a world I was simply infatuated with." But like his idol, Woody Allen ("I guess you could say I wanted to be him"), Binder would branch out into filmmaking, writing scripts and eventually directing them. In fact, it is as a filmmaker, not a stand-up comedian, that he is best known.


What's that you say? You haven't heard of Mike Binder?


Binder's films don't break box-office records on their opening weekend, or sell millions of copies when released on DVD. However, they do attract first-rate casts and, more often than not, critical praise. Woody Allen is a fan, as is Mel Brooks. Another famous admirer, Kevin Costner, told Binder that his HBO series The Mind of the Married Man was "like watching my own dirty laundry."


Binder's films are not known for what he calls "razzmatazz." They tend to focus on emotions more than action, and emphasize character more than plot. As he said of The Upside of Anger, the 2005 film that may be his most high profile release, "We didn't build it up or make it complicated by design because then the film has to deal with the people in front of the camera."


The second of four children, Binder was born in 1958 in Detroit, Michigan. He was exposed to comedy early on through his father, a housebuilder who was a fan of Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner. "I love Mel," Binder says. "He's one of my idols." He was exposed to drama early, too. His parents divorced while he was still a child, an experience that would provide some of the backbone to the reality in The Upside of Anger. "A lot of the tension in the air and a lot of the emotion is very real to what we went through, even though the events weren't the same." There were happier times at Camp Tamakwa at Algonquin Park in Ontario, Canada where Binder spent many of his youthful summers, first as a camper and later as a counselor. Those memories would also fuel one of his films.


Upon graduation from high school, he followed his father's recommendation to attend a community college, but dropped out after two days to head west to Los Angeles, determined to be a comedian. Soon after his arrival in L.A., he was hired as a doorman at the Comedy Store on the Sunset Strip. Mitzi Shore, the owner (and mother of Paulie) encouraged him in his goal to be a comedian, and he occasionally performed on the Comedy Store's stage. 


By the late '70s, Binder was finally making strides in show business. Norman Lear, the legendary producer behind such television classics as All in the Family and Maude signed him to star in a pilot, but Apple Pie failed to interest the networks. He also landed a small role in Can You Hear the Laughter, a CBS-TV movie depicting the short troubled life of Freddie Prinze. It was at this time that he was declined an offer to appear on The Tonight Show, but he did make 60 appearances on Make Me Laugh, a game show hosted by Bobby Van in which contestants could win prizes by keeping a straight face while assorted comedians attempted to crack their reserve. He also appeared on HBO's Young Comedians, took on a role in The Hollywood Knights and in another unsold pilot, this one based on Barry Levinson's Diner. Despite the breakthroughs he was making, Binder was beginning to tire of stand-up.


"You soon realize how difficult it is to put your life in the hands of others," he said. "I decided the only way to really have the independence I wanted was to teach myself to write comedies. It wasn't easy, in fact, it was very difficult, but after a few more years, I was finally able to get a script produced."


The script was Coupe de Ville, and his disappointment with the on-screen results forced Binder to make another career defining decision: "I decided I would direct my own work."


Binder's first hyphenated credit came on 1992's Crossing the Bridge, a coming of age story set in his hometown of Detroit. It attracted nice reviews but sparse audiences.

The next year's Indian Summer had its basis in Binder's own life. Set at Camp Tamakwa at Algonquin Park in Ontario, Canada in 1972, the film was inspired by the summers Binder spent there in his youth. One of his campmates was future director Sam Raimi whom Binder cast in the film alongside Diane Lane, Elizabeth Perkins, Kevin Pollack, Matt Craven, and Vincent Spano. With Alan Arkin as the counselor, the story centered on a group of friends who return to camp after 20 years, reliving their youth and renewing old conflicts. The film had an almost magical affect on some of those who ventured into the multiplex to see it.


"Watching Indian Summer," Roger Ebert wrote, "I was possessed by an impulse to get into the car one day and drive to the shores of Bankson Lake, near Paw Paw, Michigan, to see if the weathered cabins of St. Joseph's Boys Camp still remain. It was there, during three or four summers, that I gathered memories that Indian Summer awakened with a fierce poignancy."
Unfortunately, he followed the subtle charms of Indian Summer by accepting an offer to direct Damon Wayans's script for the superhero comedy, Blankman.Following that disaster, Binder took a few years off to recharge his batteries and to raise his family, directing only a few segments of CBS's American Gothic. At this time, he resolved to "do my own thing for better or worse, even if I have to make movies for like $600,000." He returned to films with the 1999 farce, The Sex Monster for which he was named Best Actor at the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival.


If Blankman convinced him he was better off directing only the scripts that he wrote himself, he had no qualms about making the occasional appearance in another director's film. In 2000's The Contender, directed by Rob Lurie, he was the president's chief of staff. It was on that film that he met actress Joan Allen. "She asked me to write her a piece," Binder said. Allen had seen The Sex Monster and suggested Binder "keep me in mind for something that's kind of funny."


Binder agreed, but in the meantime accepted another acting job in Steven Spielberg's 2002 hit, Minority Report starring Tom Cruise, and, in 2001, wrote, directed and starred in the film, The Search for John Gissing, as well as the HBO series The Mind of the Married Man. In the latter, Binder played a man torn between monogamy and promiscuity, the kind of dilemma often faced by the characters in the films of his idol, Woody Allen. Also like Allen, Binder demonstrated that he had the gift to write strong roles for women, a talent he ably demonstrated in The Upside of Anger, the script he promised to write for Joan Allen. It also had a strong role for Kevin Costner.


"Kevin really did the movie because he liked me," Binder said. "He liked my work. He came up and introduced himself to me at The Palm one day in 1990."


Released in 2005, the film, which Peter Travers praised in Rolling Stone as "the first movie of the new year that stays with you," cast Allen as a suburban wife of a man who takes off with his younger secretary, leaving her to wallow in despair while raising her four daughters. "One of them hates me, and the other three are working on it." Costner is a washed-up baseball player with whom she enters into a relationship.


There were naysayers among the critics, such as A.O. Scott in The New York Times who felt the ending ("a catastrophe") marred an otherwise sturdy film, and Stephanie Zacharek of who found the film "exhaustingly implausible," but most sided with Roger Ebert who found the film and its characters true to life.


"I liked these characters precisely because they were not designed to be likable," he wrote in his four star review, "or, more precisely, because they were likable in spite of being exasperating, unorganized, self-destructive and impervious to good advice. That would be true of most of my friends. They say the same about me."


To Peter Travers, The Upside of Anger was "a fiercely funny human comedy with jokes that sting and leave marks." 
Binder wrote his next film, Man About Town, for Steven Spielberg. "It was an assignment," he recalled. "He paid me to write it and then he decided he didn't want to do it."
Binder directed it himself, and cast Ben Affleck in the lead role as a Hollywood agent who takes a journaling class to get in touch with his feelings after his wife leaves him. "It was one of those things where you just loved going to work every day," Binder said of the film, but Man About Town would bypass theaters and premiere on DVD.
"To tell you the truth," he said, "I've made a movie every year and they don't all come out very good. I guess people didn't think this one came out that good. I don't know. I thought it was good." In retrospect, he says, "I probably shouldn't have done it. I probably should have left it on the shelf."
At the same time Man About Town was being shipped to stores, Binder's next film, Reign Over Me, opened in theaters. The film was the first to dramatize the aftermath of 9/11 with Adam Sandler as a man who lost his family in one of the planes that struck the World Trade Center, then loses himself. While adrift in his misery, he reconnects with an old friend, played by Don Cheadle, who finds relief from the demands of his own life by focusing on his more unfortunate friend.
Binder's own reaction to 9/11 inspired him to write the script.
"I was in New York on 9/11," he recalled. "I saw the towers burn with my own eyes, and I was wandering the streets, because all my stuff was in a car that I had gotten separated from and I had checked out of the hotel. That night, I was wandering the streets and there were all these people crying, and you could tell that they lost somebody. Then I was back a couple of years later with my family and I just thought that there are some people still wandering these streets."
In Britain's The Guardian, critic Andrew Pulver wrote that "without Sandler, Reign Over Me would be a gloopy, post-9/11 love-in, making cavalier use of a fine but helpless cast." In The New York Times, A.O. Scott felt that the film "uses the rhythms and moods of comedy to explore, and also to contain, overpowering feelings of loss, anger and hurt." However, he also found it "maddeningly uneven."
Scott Foundas in The Village Voice may have offered the best summary of Binder's career so far, noting that Binder is "an unmistakably original voice, even if his films too often feel as though they were scripted in one unfiltered marathon session." If his films are uneven, they are, like the films of his idol Woody Allen, unmistakably the work of their creator.

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