“Dying is easy, comedy is hard.” So goes the old adage, and for good reason. Ask anyone in acting circles and they’re likely to tell you that comedy is infinitely harder than drama. There’s something intangible about eliciting a laugh; a tip-of-the-tongue unknowable element beyond timing and physicality that demands complete command from the performer. It’s also infinitely trickier to manipulate. There are countless cinematic scores that can bring you to tears or twist your innards in curdling anxiety, but you’d be hard pressed to find compositions that make you bust a gut.
Then there’s the inherent bond between comedy and tragedy, the grinning and grimacing masks eternally side-by-side, opposite sides of the same coin; the tone of the human experience determined by the lens of the author and the scope of the story. Take the enduring image of a man slipping on a banana peel. It’s hilarious, but if that fall is too shattering or followed by bankrupting medical bills, suddenly, not so much. And that iconic comedic bit also speaks to the underlying darkness of most comedy, which more often than not comes at the expense of someone. Falling on your ass is funny, but it also hurts. All of which is to demonstrate why it makes perfect sense that so many performers who establish themselves as adept comedic talents so often deliver tremendous dramatic work when they’re given the chance.
In what is fittingly perhaps a fool’s errand I’ve attempted to narrow down the wealth of comedian-gone-dark roles to a semi-concise list of the best. I’ll be honest, this was a much more difficult list to put together than I expected. To survey the history of film comedians’ turning against type is to suffer from choice. There have been so many excellent, surprising dramatic turns from the comedy community that the list could easily grow so long it ceases to have meaning. And while some performers have one standout film that demonstrated their dramatic chops, others have such a wealth of dramatic work it becomes a daunting task to choose only one.
There are plenty of films and performances it pained me to leave off the list. Adam Scott and Jason Bateman‘s nasty, image-eschewing work in The Vicious Kind and The Gift, respectively. Mary Tyler Moore in Ordinary People. Patton Oswald in Young Adult and Big Fan. Jonah Hill‘s career-shifting turn Moneyball. Both Melissa McCarthy and Ryan Reynolds in a pet favorite film of mine, The Nines. Maya Rudolph‘s warm, commanding and all-too-rare leading turn in Away We Go was on the list until the final round of cuts, as were Cloris Leachman‘s Academy Award Winning turn in The Last Picture Show and Jack Black‘s deliriously dark performance as Bernie. There are impressive turns in dramedies that veer a little too far into the comedy side, like Seth Rogen in 50/50 and Amy Schumer‘s star-making turn in Trainwreck. And just to get this out of the way, you won’t find any Jamie Foxx and that’s an intentional decision because, despite his roots in comedy, he has firmly entrenched himself as a primarily dramatic actor over the last decade with so many standout roles it could fill a list of its own. (Jonah Hill is almost past that threshold, but not quite.)
So yeah, culling the tremendously talented herd was quite the challenge, but one attempted in earnest. Let’s see how I did in the list below.