The American comedian Jim Gaffigan has an interesting answer to the question many have probably asked at some point: why are so many comedians such great actors? “I would say that it’s really necessary [as a comedian] to know yourself,” he said in an interview during the press tour of the historical drama Chappaquidick (2017), in which he plays a key role. “That’s part of the conversation you’re having with the audience and that’s how they respond to your journey, particularly autobiographical things. You become very aware of who you are and how you come across.”
Great comedy and acting usually draw from the same wellspring: the truths and experiences of individuals. It is said that most great comedians are ‘sad clowns’, who are more adept at using humour as a shield to protect themselves from the sad realities of life. It may follow that they—or some of them, at least—are also capable of summoning the emotions associated with past trauma with greater ease, knowing that they have a coping mechanism they can deploy at will to deal with the fallout.
This is only a working theory, of course. But what’s certain is that some of the best and most indelible performances in movie history, ones that have affected viewers viscerally, have come from stand-up comedians and entertainers whose public personas are vastly different. Below is a list, restricted only to English language films and in no particular order, of some such performances that have and will likely continue to stand the test of time.
Jim Carrey in Man On The Moon (1999)/Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind (2004)
Once the highest-paid movie star on the planet for iconic but over-the-top turns in Dumb and Dumber, The Mask, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, and The Cable Guy, a new narrative emerged after the Canadian-born actor displayed serious acting chops in The Truman Show. It made perfect sense, then, for him to play the mercurial Andy Kaufman in Man On The Moon (1999). Carrey’s wired and unpredictable body language found perfect expression in his portrayal of Kaufman, an entertainer known for his bizarre performance art and counter-intuitive sense of comedy. Five years later, Carrey, by then in his 40s and perhaps mellowing down, explored a previously unseen low-key side of his persona as the introverted, mildly-self-loathing Joel Barish in the still-brilliant Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind.
Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting (1998)
The late Christopher Reeves, who was close friends with Williams, wrote in his autobiography about the time they were enrolled in the prestigious Juilliard School in New York City. Many were astonished at Williams’s manic energy and effortless ability to switch voices and accents, but some of his professors were dismissive of his style. This changed when, months before dropping out, he starred in a production of Tennessee Williams’ The Night Of The Iguana as an old man and silenced everyone who cast doubt on his dramatic skills. Several decades later, after establishing himself as one of the greatest stand-up comics and comedic actors of all time, the world was forced to take note of those skills again in Good Will Hunting, which won him his first and only Academy Award. Two decades later, his turn as Dr Sean Maguire still makes the gold standard and has (possibly; probably) left many wondering why their therapists aren’t as wise and insightful.
Richard Pryor in Blue Collar (1978)
The ‘Picasso’ of stand-up comedy, as Jerry Seinfeld once famously called him, enjoyed a successful film career during the ‘70s and ‘80s, appearing mostly in crowd-pleasers such as Stir Crazy and Superman III that made full use of his unmatched comedic gifts and formidable screen presence. However, Pryor, whose stand-up featured commentary on race and sexuality that often cut to the bone, gave arguably the best performance of his career in Paul Schrader’s working-class crime drama Blue Collar, about a trio of Detroit factory workers who, fed up with financial woes, attempt to blackmail their corrupt union. Granted, some of the best scenes feature Pryor doing what he did best: delivering profanity-laced monologues laced with zingers. However, it’s the pathos he brings to the role of Zeke, a desperately broke family man at the end of his tether, that truly makes this a remarkable turn.
Lily Tomlin in Nashville (1970)
An all-time great who, at 80, shows no signs of ceasing her indefatigable run (see: Grace and Frankie) as one of the foremost American entertainers of her generation, Tomlin was usually at her dramatic best in Robert Altman’s films. The American auteur favoured large ensembles, employing a naturalistic style to deep, satirical effect – a perfect fit for Tomlin’s incredible versatility. In Nashville, she plays Linnea Reese, married to a deadbeat (played by Ned Beatty) and the mother of two deaf children who go on to have an affair with hotshot folk-rocker Tom Frank (played by Keith Carradine). One of the film’s standout scenes involves Carradine playing the song ‘I’m Easy‘ and Tomlin sitting at the back of the bar watching him, a scene that crackles with sexual tension despite the two characters being at opposite ends of the room.
Dave Johns in I, Daniel Blake (2016)
Watching Dave Johns perform stand-up, you might easily be tempted to slot him into a certain category of comedians: gruff, world-weary, and utterly baffled by the changing times. Ken Loach, one of the greatest British filmmakers of our times, likely had the same idea when he decided to cast Johns in the titular role of his Cannes-winning film I, Daniel Blake. Johns, who is known for inducing side-splits with his deadpan humour, succeeds in moving even the most cynical viewer to tears with his portrayal of an unemployed working-class man up against a cruel and unforgiving welfare system whilst dealing with loneliness, old age, and a heart that seems to be giving up on him in more ways than one.
Mo’Nique in Precious: Based on the Novel Push By Sapphire (2009)
We all knew Mo’Nique was a badass and not to be messed with, but who knew you could feel visceral hatred for her? For those who’ve only watched her stand-up, it seems unfathomable. As the host of Showtime at the Apollo, she has championed causes and called out injustices, all garnished with her trademark brand of sass. But in Lee Daniels’ film, as the abusive mother of a Harlem teenager, it seems impossible to feel anything positive about her at all. Her character Mary Lee Johnston is a tragic antagonist, a monster of her circumstances, and despite her unrelenting cruelty and mean-spiritedness, it’s hard not to feel pity for her, despite and also because of her utter wretchedness. It’s no surprise that this turn won her an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.
Melissa McCarthy in Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018)
The past decade has cemented McCarthy’s place in the pantheon of comedic actors, earning her several accolades, global fame, and an assured spot on highest-paid lists with successes such as Bridesmaids, This Is 40, Tammy, The Heat, and Spy under her belt. In 2018, she commenced what might hopefully be a new chapter in her career by playing literary forger Lee Israel in Can You Ever Forgive Me?. Her forceful presence and impeccable timing adds deft comic touches to many scenes, but also succeeds in making Israel sympathetic, human, and likeable without glossing over her flaws and errors in judgement. Her performance earned her a second Oscar nomination and, one hopes, certainly not her last.
Steve Carell in Foxcatcher (2014)
Michael Scott from The Office might be the face of a thousand memes and gifs but as of this moment, John du Pont continues to be Carell’s finest moment as a dramatic actor. A far cry from his performances in Anchorman, The 40 Year Old Virgin and the like, this is a Carell that sports a prosthetic nose and cracks nary a smile nor a joke in this brooding, tour de force performance as the multimillionaire wrestling coach who turned out to be a sociopath and, eventually, a murderer. This is hardly his only stellar dramatic performance (see: Beautiful Boy), but it is by far his best and most nuanced; that he didn’t end up winning the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for it continues to be a mystery.
Whoopi Goldberg in The Color Purple (1985)
Most people under 25 probably know Whoopi Goldberg for her wisecracks on shows like Hollywood Squares, comedies like Sister Act, and talk shows like The View. It’s possible that they may not know about her role as Celie in Steven Spielberg’s The Color Purple, an adaptation of Alice Walker’s Pulitzer-winning novel. The film is far more uplifting and sentimental than the book, but her performance injects it with enough fire and gravitas to temper Spielberg’s soft-focus tendencies. Case in point: the scene where Celie finally stands up to her abuser Albert (a fantastic Danny Glover), an explosive confrontation that is elevated by Goldberg’s masterful restraint.
Stephen Fry in Wilde (1997), Albert Brooks in Drive (2011), Sarah Silverman in I Smile Back (2015), John Cleese in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994)