The Case For Comedic Actors Doing More Drama

Trading laughs for tears these actors showcase their range.
By  · Published on October 17th, 2017

Trading laughs for tears these actors showcase their range.

Without a doubt, comedians are labeled comedians for a reason. They came on the scene providing huge laughs and iconic characters that have lived on in pop culture history. What if they tackled more drama roles though?

Many actors have at least dipped their toes into the dramatic waters with varying results. There is certainly no proof that an actor who is purely known for comedy and suddenly takes on a drama it will be a revelation. Though those examples do exist. With the recent release of The Meyerowitz Stories on Netflix, Ben Stiller and Adam Sandler do some of the best work of their career. Perhaps it was the direction of Noah Baumbach, but these actors have proven themselves before as well.

Actors will tell you that comedy is more difficult than drama. When Michael Caine was doing press for Going In Style he said, “Comedy is harder to do than drama. You can make anyone burst into tears, but trying to get a laugh is murder.” Yet when it comes to award conversations, we rarely award comedic performances. It takes a transition to drama for these artists to get recognized. Below are some artists who have successfully made a transition into some memorable dramatic performances.

Adam Sandler

Adam Sandler in “Punch Drunk Love”

Best Comedies – Billy Madison, Happy Gilmore, The Wedding Singer

Best Drama – Punch Drunk Love 

Adam Sandler has been a comedic actor forever. Even the mention of some of his latest Netflix titles spurs laughter, even if it is more about quality than performance. But Sandler has experimented in Drama before. Most notably in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch Drunk Love. Although many of the events that happen in the film are bizarre, Sandler expertly captures the various nuances of Barry Egan. Egan is psychologically challenged and socially inept, but rather than being a character that is hard to connect to, Sandler really makes the audience care about his plight and his need to collect frequent flyer miles. Even his romance with Lena Leonard (Emily Watson) is cute because there are two individuals that are a little left of normal, but they are perfect together. Sandler is equally as impressive in The Mereyowitz Stories playing Danny, who is a recently divorced parent sending his daughter to college. It’s a performance that brings out the very best in Sandler and reminds us of his immense talent.

Red Dots

Ben Stiller

Ben Stiller in “While We’re Young”

Best Comedies – Zoolander, Dodgeball, Something About Mary

Best Drama – While We’re Young

Ben Stiller is known for his comedies. It’s as simple as that. Even as he has transitioned into a director, his films carry some humor in them including The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Although that might be the case, he has had quite a few roles that can be considered dramedies. One in particular I recommend is his first team up with director Noah Baumbach, While We’re Young. The film finds Ben Stiller’s Josh as one-half of a middle-aged married couple. Life isn’t necessarily perfect and they are in a bit of a rut. That is until they meet a younger couple that totally changes their outlook on life. Stiller shows depth here that I hadn’t seen in many of his comedic performance before. Leave it to Baumbach to get another fantastic Stiller performance in The Mereyowitz Stories.

Red Dots

Jim Carrey

Jim Carrey in “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”

Best Comedies – Ace Ventura, Dumb and Dumber

Best Drama – Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Outside of Ace Ventura, Jim Carrey can be a little difficult to take. While that is precisely the point of a film like Dumb and Dumber, it just never did anything for me personally. Jim Carrey really stepped up his game with the one-two punch of The Truman Show and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. The Truman Show is more of a dramedy that would also scarily predict the future (seriously watch that movie today and you’ll be amazed at what is predicted), Eternal Sunshine is more of a straight drama. The film finds Carrey playing Joel, one half of a recently broken up couple, who has decided to get his memories erased. Carrey is struggling through the pain of a lost relationship, but then discovering those painful memories might be worth keeping. It’s a performance that gets more nuanced throughout the course of the film, but even within the opening moment with Carrey crying in his car, we know we are going into a far different performance.

Red Dots

Steve Carell

Steve Carell in “Foxcatcher”

Best Comedies – Anchorman, 40-Year-Old Virgin, The Office (TV)

Best Drama – Foxcatcher

Who could forget Steve Carell really coming onto the scene in Anchorman? He’d his fair share of work in television up to that point, but no one really knew who he was until his performance as Brick. That would spiral into a career full of laughs and memorable performances, but his role in Foxcatcher was something else. He would play eccentric millionaire John du Pont, who would train two U.S. wrestling champions ahead of the 1988 Olympics. Along with extensive makeup that transformed Carell into du Pont, Carell would turn his funnyman persona into a frightening one with this performance. He even earned an Academy Award for his turn in the film. Also of note is his performance in The Big Short. While it might be considered a comedy, much of what Carell’s character goes through is certainly not funny. It is a role that got overlooked in a film full of great performances, but Carell is stellar.

Red Dots

Kristen Wiig

Kristen Wiig in “Skeleton Twins”

Best Comedies – Bridesmaids, Despicable Me 2, Ghostbusters (2016)

Best Drama – The Skeleton Twins

From SNL to memorable comedies, Kristen Wiig has followed the trail of many SNL alum before her. She hasn’t stopped picking up other intriguing roles though. From her brief roles in films like The Martian and mother! she has a diverse portfolio for sure. One of her best dramatic roles though comes from the indie film, The Skeleton Twins. In the film, she plays one-half of twins (along with Bill Hader), who cheat death due to their connection. Even though they haven’t seen each other in years, the twins remain perfectly in sync in their behavior. Skeleton Twins sees Wiig having to really dig deep into some serious topics such as suicide, mental illness, and statutory rape. It’s a small miracle that film works as well as it does and Wiig shows incredible range in the film.

Red Dots

Will Ferrell

Will Ferrell in “Stranger Than Fiction”

Best Comedies – Anchorman, Elf, Zoolander

Best Drama – Stranger Than Fiction 

Is Elf Will Ferrell’s most memorable film role? Perhaps because of the Christmas theme, it perhaps gets the most plays year in and year out. The SNL alum has plenty of great characters to his name. No one will ever forget Ron Burgandy. Although it is 2006 dramedy Stranger Than Fiction that really shows Ferrell really stretching his acting chops. In the film, he is an IRS reporter who lives a very precise life, right down to the minute. Every day is the same except when all the sudden it is not. He discovers that he is actually the subject of a novel written by Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson). The only problem is that Eiffel tends to kill her protagonists in her novels. It’s a lovely film with Ferrell getting a love interest in Maggie Gyllenhaal and he ends up being more than just a goof for once. It would be really interesting to see him take on some more dramatic roles, but he has been sticking to comedies lately like Daddy’s Home.

Red Dots

Bill Murray

Bill Murray in “Lost in Translation”

Best Comedies – Caddyshack, Ghostbusters, Groundhog Day

Best Drama – Lost In Translation 

Bill Murray might be considered the king of comedy in some circles. He has had so many iconic movies and roles that the three listed above barely begin to touch his resume. While it might not be fair to include Murray on this list because he has tried various dramatic roles in recent times, this is perhaps one of the greatest examples of a comedian making a transition to an iconic drama performance. Lost in Translation has Murray playing a former movie star Bob Harris who is in Japan to do a commercial for Japanese whiskey. During that brief time in Japan, he meets a young woman who is struggling with her marriage. Together they have an experience that they will never forget. There’s a certain dryness to the way Murray plays Bob Harris. Here is a man who is experiencing a mid-life crisis, who is just going through the motions. It is a brilliant performance and while Murray continues to try drama roles every now and then, none stand up to Lost in Translation.

There are plenty of other actors who made the transition from comedy to drama successfully. Eddie Murphy, Robin Williams, Steve Martin, Peter Sellers, Lily Tomlin, Jamie Foxx, Jonah Hill, Maya Rudolph are only of few of the names of actors who have successfully made the jump. The hope is that more actors that particularly known for comedy attempt a drama. Who knows what iconic performance we could get next.

Related Topics:

News Writer/Columnist for Film School Rejects. It’s the Pictures Co-host. Bylines Playboy, ZAM, Paste Magazine and more.