It’s Not Funny: How Comedians Transition Into Dramatic Roles

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Like a lot of comedians, Chris Farley was more or less a gaping black hole of need. Although he had many other troubles, one particular torment persistent throughout the latter part of his career was that he’d become deeply pigeonholed. Farley was prone to condensing his entire comedic persona into the phrase fatty falls down, a rather reductive way of looking at the cinematic success spawned by classic Saturday Night Live characters like motivational instructor Matt Foley. Ultimately the comic’s own destructive ways proved him correct, and he never lived to develop the range he so desperately craved. However, not all comedic actors follow the same career trajectory. Will Ferrell, who once seemed to play uber-cocky, oft-shirtless naïfs exclusively, is now starring in the just-released Everything Must Go, an indie dramedy adapted from a Raymond Carver short story. His performance is earning rave reviews. Ferrell is only the latest in a long line of comedians to smoothly cross over into dramatic work, though, and Farley was certainly not the last who was unable to do so. Why do some comedians make this transition, while others do not?

A lot of people were surprised by Tom Hanks’ decision to portray an HIV-positive attorney in the film, Philadelphia. Looking back over his career arc now, it seems like less of a stretch than it did at the time. Hanks had been in several comedies prior to Philadelphia, but from the beginning he was an actor who tended toward comedic roles rather than a comedic performer who took up acting. His slide into more dramatic work was perfectly natural and unimpeded. Navigating this process is much more difficult for a comedian who has just broken into movies. A comedian’s casting is wholly contingent on their ability to make audiences laugh — they are, precisely, humor commodified. Their mere inclusion in the cast is meant to telegraph in advance the film’s pedigree of hilarity. Going from those kinds of roles to multi-dimensional ones with more substance is a much further leap than any purebred actor would have to make.

Here are some ways that comedic performers have managed to triumph over this feat:

Playing Yourself

Chris Farley’s dream project was a biopic of troubled early 20th century comedian Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. This is the kind of part that he could have definitely carried off, since “troubled comedian” is a subject Farley was intimately familiar with. Similarly, Adam Sandler’s work in Funny People is some of the best of his entire career, due in no small part to the resemblance between Sandler and his onscreen counterpart, George Simmons. Revealing all the vanities and ugliness that inhabit a superstar comedian’s lifestyle gives the film an almost intrusively personal feel. Unfortunately, Sandler swiftly squandered any acting bona fides he won with this film by following it with Grown Ups and Just Go With It. Placed in a similar situation, though, Bill Murray went the other way. After successfully playing a variation on himself in Lost in Translation, Bill Murray went on to complete a triptych of roles as incomplete men coming to terms with who they used to be and who they never became (the other two movies being The Life Aquatic and Broken Flowers). Along with Rushmore, it was these self-referential roles, ironically, that cemented Bill Murray’s versatility once and for all.

Don’t Leap Too Far Too Soon

Of course, Bill Murray might not have been able to strike such fine notes if he hadn’t already flexed his dramatic chops in comedies that required a bit of depth. A movie like Groundhog Day, with its existential heft and low-key pathos, turned out to be great training grounds for the kind of emoting the actor would get to do later on. Perhaps if he’d been in such a movie beforehand, by the time he got to The Razor’s Edge in 1984, he would have been more suited to it. That spiritual drama was made too early in Murray’s career, at a point when he was not yet ready to film it and audiences weren’t yet ready to accept him in it. I mean, look at the triage the marketing team has performed on the poster to make it seem like it’s maybe a comedy. Check out that jokey tagline and the Meatballs-era smirk.

Meanwhile, without any kind of prior dramatic lead-up Steve Martin got crushed beneath the weight of  the very heavy Grand Canyon, John Candy drew unnecessary attention to himself in JFK, and Mike Myers should have stayed far, far away from playing flamboyantly Jewish and Orthodox gay club-owner Steve Rubell in 54. Playing roles like these without the proper foundation is like a tech-blogger tanning on the first day of spring without any sunblock.

Choose The Right Biopic

As ill-suited as Mike Myers was to go right from the shticky Austin Powers to the schlocky 54, Jim Carrey was exactly that level of primed and ready to play Andy Kaufman by the time he got around to starring in Man on the Moon. The actor’s first foray into anything resembling a dramatic role had been in The Cable Guy, which tried unsuccessfully to shoehorn the elastic-faced human Animaniac persona Carrey had been widely known for into darker satire. The well received (and unbelievably prescient) The Truman Show split the difference between the two much more evenly. For better or worse, it was Carrey’s authentic portrayal of Andy Kaufman that gave him the clout to play more dramatic roles for the next 12 years. (Hello, The Number 23 — you son of a bitch.) Not just any biographical role will succeed the same way for comedians, however. Demetri Martin ended up floundering in his first starring role as the man who helped assemble the most famous concert of all time in the film, Taking Woodstock. Working with Ang Lee and starring in a film so early in his acting career must have been impossibly attractive to Martin. Perhaps he knew that he was still young enough, smart enough, and funny enough that an early flop wouldn’t hurt his career, and was willing to take the risk. He would have been foolish to turn the role down, even though it wasn’t a success.

Play a Ridiculous Character Straight

Another proven way for comedic actors to transition into dramatic roles is to present a side of themselves that audiences already know, but in a new and different way. Working with auteur Paul Thomas Anderson, this is exactly what Adam Sandler did. The genius of Punch Drunk Love was that it kidnapped Sandler’s sociopathic angry guy out of crazytown and deposited him firmly in reality. The little back story that is sketched out helps make this risible character flesh and blood, and when Sandler’s Barry Egan has a sudden violent outburst, it feels realer than anything we’ve ever seen the actor do on screen.

There weren’t as many preconceived notions about Patton Oswalt when Big Fan came out as Sandler had to contend with in his first dramatic role. The only notable film Patton had been in prior was Pixar’s Ratatouille, which is tonally the diametric opposite of Big Fan. The comedian’s fans were keenly aware of the obsessive nature of his nerdiness already, though. The man knows his comics and his music and his literature, and all of these items inform his stage presence and his act. In this first starring role, Patton infused his character with an even higher level of avid fandom, only applied to sports instead of the things he nerds out about in real life. It would have been the easiest thing in the world for Patton to play an elitist comic book guy or record store clerk, arguing with n00bs all day, but the fact that he was able to graph those traits onto the ultimate New York Giants loyalist so convincingly, and make him sympathetic as well, is remarkable. Even though Patton could have made the character into a cartoon and played his pathetic nature for laughs, the funniest thing in the entire movie is the cake you see below. More dramatic work will certainly be available if the actor wants it.

Get Surreal

The opposite of playing a ridiculous character straight is putting regular characters in ridiculous situations. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind placed Jim Carrey’s sad sack everyman inside the surreal candy-colored world of Michel Gondry and stirred. The results were predictably trippy, but surprisingly affecting as well. Eternal Sunshine is arguably Carrey’s best dramatic role yet. Following a similar path, Will Ferrell’s first real stab at range was the Charlie Kaufman-lite affair, Stranger Than Fiction, which was about a man who discovered that his life was being narrated from above (by Emma Thompson.) While not so devoid of laughs that it could be called a “drama”, this movie marked Ferrell’s biggest departure yet, and announced to the world that Ron Burgundy could actually be a credible leading man. Even Dane Cook was able to successfully use the “surreal” strategy for his opening salvo toward cinematic respectability: a role in the manic, multiple-personality mystery, Mr. Brooks. The plan didn’t quite come to fruition — that movie flopped super-hard — but it came close.

Get Twee

Equally surprising was Dane Cook’s performance in the little-loved Dan in Real Life. By virtue of not being a horse’s ass for ninety minutes, he managed to make a decent impression in this mopey twee extravaganza. Although the movie was not a success, it definitely would have helped prepare the world for a new and improved Dane Cook had he not gone back to making unwatchable garbagejuice like My Best Friend’s Girl immediately afterward and squandered his shot at cinematic longevity. Cook’s co-star from Dan in Real Life, Steve Carell, proved his dramatic mettle the previous year by playing a brooding character in the super-twee Little Miss Sunshine, although it was obvious even in The 40-Year Old Virgin that Carell was capable of subtly conveying sensitivity and complexity far beyond what was required in the prevailing fratty comedies of the time (i.e. Old School, Wedding Crashers).

Movies that straddle the line between comedy and drama like Little Miss Sunshine make perfect transitional films for comedic actors. Zach Galifianakis had his version of this role in It’s Kind of a Funny Story last year, and both Maya Rudolph and The Office’s John Krasinski had theirs in the holy twee-pocalypse that was Away We Go, written by Dave Eggers and probably soundtracked by, like, Belle and Sebastian. Good lord, look at John Krasinski, with that jacket and that David Foster Wall-a-bee face grooming. I mean.

Get Awkward

If movies like Little Miss Sunshine get so precious you want to gently kick them in the shin sometimes, then cringe-tastic movies like last year’s Cyrus return the favor. Cyrus and its ilk trade out the twee indie cuteness and replace it with awkward tension. In this one, Jonah Hill squared off against the formidable John C. Reilly in a quasi-oedipal conquest for the affections of Marisa Tomei, who played Jonah’s mother. (Amazingly, John C. Reilly managed to go from dramatic actor to comedic actor in his career. A very rare reversal.) When an actor can hold his or her own in a movie like this — funny in spurts, but mostly hard to watch — it sends a message that they mean business. Cyrus may have barely recouped its meager budget, but it stretched Jonah beyond his typical grab bag of reaction shots, and helped propel him to his next starring role alongside Brad Pitt in the baseball drama, Moneyball.

If there was any justice, Molly Shannon would have reaped similar rewards from her turn in the Mike White awk-fest, Year of the Dog. In that movie, Shannon managed to be less of a Saturday Night Live character than anything else she’s ever appeared in. Jack Black took a similar turn for the restrained and realistic in Noah Baumbach’s thoroughly icky-feeling Margot at the Wedding, which was well-written but suffered from having too many unlikable characters. Considering the lack of critical or audience enthusiasm for the movie or Black’s performance, it’s doubtful that the actor will take on any more dramatic turns for a while. Especially when you factor in all that Kung Fu Panda money.

Aim for the Right Shade of Robin Williams

Jack Black should be applauded, though, for taking a shot and coming out mostly unscathed. Some comedians could never pursue a dramatic role, even if the fate of the free world hung in the balance. Not to knock the guy, but just try and picture Rob Schneider in your mind’s eye doing anything that wasn’t low-rent and utterly clownshoes. Were you successful? Alternately, there are some comedians who are also natural born actors — able to pursue dramatic roles right from the start. Or there’s at least one of these mutants in the world, and his name is Robin Williams.

No matter what your thoughts concerning Robin Williams are — and if you’re even aware of the movies License to Wed and Old Dogs, those thoughts should be dripping with malice — his versatility is undeniable. He occupies a unique notch on the serio-comedic axis. Anyone attempting to mimic Williams’ path to one-time respectability, though, would do well to lean toward purely dramatic roles in films like Dead Poets Society rather than trying to balance drama with family-friendly humor and sentimentality in pabulum like Patch Adams. If that’s the result of being a double-threat right out of the gate, then maybe it’s best that it takes everyone else several years to go from being a comedic actor to just being an actor.

Joe Berkowitz edits books and writes stuff. He also has a Tumblr.