Jan 22 2009

Eight Comedians Who Did Serious Well

Published by at 11:00 am under Lists,Movies


Every so often, a comic actor goes through a crisis of faith. Maybe they feel they’re being pigeonholed into roles that involve fart jokes and being hit in the balls too often, or maybe they just want to see what else they’re capable of. Sometimes this can be a trainwreck, but for these eight actors, it’s gone pretty well at least once. Here are a few comedians who held a straight face effectively for an entire film.

Adam Sandler


Why P.T. Anderson chose Happy Gilmore to star in one of his films, I have no idea, but it turned out pretty damn good. As an emotionally stunted businessman in Punch Drunk Love, Adam Sandler made us forget all about his goofy past, at least for two hours. Sandler also tried to be more serious in films like Spanglish (ugh) and Reign Over Me (ugh to a slightly lesser extent), but Punch Drunk so far has been his dramatic tour de force. Now what’s he doing? Bedtime Stories? Sigh.

Bill Murray


Bill Murray has had wild swings back and forth between outrageous goofyball and serious actor. He’s ventured into drama a few times, with Broken Flowers, Ed Wood, and most noteably Lost in Translation, where he played a rich lonely actor who bonds with Scarlett Johansson in Tokyo, which scored him a Best Actor nom at the Oscars. Only a few other comedians can say the same.

Steve Martin


For someone whose career started so long ago, I’m still pretty impressed that Steve Martin is able to sell himself as a leading comedic man to this very day. His brief dip into drama was in Shopgirl, which was adapted from a novel that he himself wrote. Not bad. It was generally thought of as an art house movie, but most thought his performance as a bored businessman was right on.

Dan Aykroyd


Bill Murray’s Ghostbusters counterpart also scored a big Oscar nom for his supporting role in Driving Miss Daisy. He took other stabs at drama, but they ended up being in unfortunate places such as Pearl Harbor, so Miss Daisy will probably be his most memorable straight role. That’s all well and good, but I’d rather see him crossing streams or dancing the blues than trying to act all serious.

Jim Carrey

Jim Carrey

Probably the most over-the-top comic on this roster, Jim Carrey has had varying degrees of sucess trying to play it serious. He failed horribly in The Majestic, was great in Eternal Sunshine (if you consider that a drama, I don’t), but above all else he was spot on in The Truman Show, where he played a hapless worldwide celebrity quite literally trapped in a bubble.

Steve Carell


Steve Carrell’s carrer is still in relatively its early stages, so he’ll probably have more drama ahead on the horizon, but his most serious role to date was in the black comedy Little Miss Sunshine where he played a gay, suicidal author trying to deal with his insane family. Sure the film itself is a comedy, but look at that picture and tell me that’s not a drastic personality change for the man.

Robin Williams


Here’s the thing. I actually like Robin Williams much better as a serious actor. He was amazing in Good Will Hunting, One Hour Photo and Death to Smoochy, in the later two playing some truly ****ed up characters. Sure he’s great in comedies like Mrs. Doubtfire, but I’d rather see him play a psychopath any day of the week rather than have to suffer through Patch Adams 2.

Simon Pegg?


Pegg is relatively unknown to the American masses still at this point, but his two comedies, Shaun of the Dead and Hott Fuzz were both wide released instant classics that anyone with half a brain saw. The question mark after his name is because we know he’s going to be in J.J. Abrams upcoming Star Trek movie, but no word yet on if he can pull the role of Scotty off, or even worse, if he’ll just be throwaway comic relief in the film. But I have faith, that like these other legends of comedy before him, Pegg can step up to the dramatic plate when he needs to. Guess we’ll find out soon.

Honorable Mentions:

Kal Penn in The Namesake – But he’s not particularly funny to begin with.

Vince Vaughn in Into the Wild – One of the most random cameos of that year.

John C. Reily in Magnolia - Part of the ensemble.

Will Ferrell in Melinda and Melinda – Yes, Will Ferrel was in a Woody Allen movie, for some reason.

Owen Wilson in Behind Enemy Lines – But it sucked.

Luke Wilson in 3:10 to Yuma – Blink and you’ll miss him.

Ben Stiller in Nothing, nothing at all – Branch out a little, man.

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78 responses so far

78 Responses to “Eight Comedians Who Did Serious Well”

  1. Emanuelon 22 Jan 2009 at 11:51 am

    Don’t forget Dead Poets Society, one can’t argue that being a comedic role for Robin Williams.

    Also, Charlie Sheen (Hot Shots, 2½ men) and John C McGinley (Scrubs) was in The Platoon, 1986. Great movie, not too good acting. ^_____^

  2. Robon 22 Jan 2009 at 12:00 pm

    Not true about Ben Stiller. He took dramatic roles in Permanent Midnight and Zero effect (to a lesser extent). He was very good in Permanent Midnight.

  3. Joeon 22 Jan 2009 at 1:26 pm

    Wow — one of the worst lists I’ve seen on this site.

    You consider The Truman Show and Punch Drunk Love to be serious movies? Steve Carrell did serious by playing a suicidal character that we laugh at in a comedy?

    “Branching Out” doesn’t mean switching from pie-in-the-face comedy to situational comedy…

    Robin Williams was a good choice for the list. Owen Wilson in Marley & Me would have been a good choice for the list, also. Jim Carey’s closest attempt at good acting (as opposed to buffoonery) was Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind. Bill Murray is spot-on. Adam Sandler doesn’t belong on this list.

  4. Fredon 22 Jan 2009 at 2:19 pm

    Guess we only count recently popular comedians?

    How about Tom Hanks or Michael Keaton? Maybe even Will Smith has bank in this category.


  5. [...] Unreality – Eight Comedians Who Did Serious Well – [...]

  6. Matty Gon 22 Jan 2009 at 4:31 pm

    Wasn’t Ben Stiller in Reality Bites? Does that not count as drama?

  7. Matt Zitoon 22 Jan 2009 at 4:32 pm

    Don’t forget that Steve Martin played a serious character in the thriller “The Spanish Prisoner” – excellent flick.

  8. Stormasteron 22 Jan 2009 at 4:38 pm

    @Joe: The Truman Show is one of the most serious movies in the world, dumbass.

  9. Dan Fontaineon 22 Jan 2009 at 4:38 pm

    Nice job. I agree with the Michael Keaton call. A stand up comic to some really overlooked performances.

  10. Sanityon 22 Jan 2009 at 4:40 pm

    You lost me at Robin Williams, and incurred my unbridled scorn by Adam Sandler.
    I guess blogging isn’t bringing in the money, so might as well use the space to pimp yourself as a publicist.
    You are one of the reasons movies are bad.
    Please just go kill yourself.

  11. edon 22 Jan 2009 at 4:42 pm

    :| you should really rename this article “some comedians that tried to break their typecasting and one actor whos not yet been seen doing a straight role, also this list is not very good”. Terrible list. Will Smith should be on this list, sure he takes a lot of roles in bad films, but the man can act up their with the best of them.

  12. Geoffon 22 Jan 2009 at 4:44 pm

    Tom Hanks was the first name that came to my mind — isn’t it interesting that his name wasn’t even mentioned? He’s most likely thought of more as an actor then as a comedian, which I guess is the best result a aspiring comedian can hope for…

    And lets not forget Kevin Spacey either….

  13. Bannister P Farthingtonon 22 Jan 2009 at 4:44 pm

    Ben Stiller was great in the royal tannenbaums

  14. Andrew Mooreon 22 Jan 2009 at 4:46 pm

    Actually, Ben Stiller has two dramatic roles under his belt. The first being Reality Bites, which in all honesty was somewhat lackluster but I liked it as a teen. The second was Permanent Midnight, the true story of Heroin addicted screenwriter Jerry Stahl.
    Besides that, I pretty much agree with this list.

  15. Garyon 22 Jan 2009 at 4:51 pm

    John C. Reilly is actual a very accomplished serious actor. Just his more recent works have been comedic. He actually played Stanley Kowalski on a Broadway production of A Streetcar Named Desire.

  16. Daveon 22 Jan 2009 at 4:54 pm

    Steve Martin also gave an excellent dramatic performance in “The Spanish Prisoner.”

  17. Jonathan Baileyon 22 Jan 2009 at 4:54 pm

    To add to the Ben Still list started by Rob, I would also mention “Your Friends and Neighbors”. It’s listed as a Dramedy but it was definitely a serious role and he was at least tolerable in it…

  18. chemicalpinkon 22 Jan 2009 at 4:54 pm

    You include “Will Ferrel[sic] in Melinda and Melinda”, but you ignore him in Stranger than Fiction, which was a much, much better movie – not as serious, perhaps, but his acting was better in it? Also, you don’t even check to make sure you spell actor’s names correct?

  19. asdfon 22 Jan 2009 at 4:56 pm

    who the fuck are you?

  20. Benon 22 Jan 2009 at 4:56 pm

    Stiller in permanent midnight was solid.

  21. Scotton 22 Jan 2009 at 4:57 pm

    Ben Stiller played a serious role in ‘Next of Kin’ and somewhat serious role in ‘Reality Bites’

  22. eli b.on 22 Jan 2009 at 4:58 pm

    Ben Stiller was great in a serious role in permanent midnight.

  23. JCon 22 Jan 2009 at 5:01 pm

    No Hugh Lawrie?
    From Blackadder to House?

  24. JCon 22 Jan 2009 at 5:01 pm

    No Hugh Laurie?
    From Blackadder to House?

  25. Tartar Sauceon 22 Jan 2009 at 5:04 pm

    Should have also mentioned Bill Murray’s role in “The Razor’s Edge” (1984). I am delighted to see that Punch Drunk Love was prominently featured for Sandler though, that is one beautiful movie. Also, I can’t wait to see when Demetri Martin makes his break into films. Another great actor who’s made a transition from doing his dark comedy stage perfomances to film is Eric Bogosian, he shouldn’t be on your list, but I felt he was worth a mention anyway. I’m wondering when Tina Fey or Amy Pohler will transition into serious films. There should be at least one female actress who can do it.

  26. Travis F.on 22 Jan 2009 at 5:06 pm

    Melinda & Melinda was not a comedy really but Will Ferrell was funny in it so that shouldn’t be on here

  27. Tartar Sauceon 22 Jan 2009 at 5:08 pm

    Oh, and another name deserving of the list would be Jamie Foxx. Seriously, he’s come a long way.

  28. ShingoEXon 22 Jan 2009 at 5:10 pm

    Ben Stiller in The Royal Tenenbaums…

  29. Frankon 22 Jan 2009 at 5:21 pm

    Ever heard of Ricky Gervais?
    He seems to have done OK.
    Been in a few films, written a few things.

  30. TheDudeon 22 Jan 2009 at 5:25 pm

    What about Tom Hanks? Bosom Buddies is a long way from Philadelphia.

  31. AJon 22 Jan 2009 at 5:29 pm

    I know you’re talking movies here – but don’t forget Hugh Laurie… A brilliant comic actor (though most of his early work is less well known in the US); and a great serious actor…

  32. aelighton 22 Jan 2009 at 5:31 pm

    i disagree with most of this list.

  33. alyssaon 22 Jan 2009 at 5:32 pm

    how about eddie murphy in dreamgirls? i mean his movies are crap but he was incredible in dreamgirls. he needs to stop witht he fat suit movies though.

  34. Tim F.on 22 Jan 2009 at 5:32 pm

    I think you missed Will Ferrell in Stranger than Fiction. At the very least that should be in his honorable mention.

  35. Danon 22 Jan 2009 at 5:37 pm

    And umm…. Where’s Eddie Murphy? From SNL, 48 Hours and Beverly Hills Cop to Academy Award nomination for Dream Girls.

    You can’t possibly have left him off the list on purpose.

  36. Luposon 22 Jan 2009 at 5:37 pm

    Ben Stiller was also in “Empire of the sun”. Can’t say he had a lot of lines or a very big part but it was a semi serious roll. I only mention because I watched it for the first time like 3 days ago and was stunned to see him.

  37. TSon 22 Jan 2009 at 5:43 pm

    What about Ben Stiller in The Royal Tenenbaums? A “comedy”, sure, but it’s very dark. Great flick.

  38. Williamon 22 Jan 2009 at 5:43 pm

    OMG! How could you forget Jamie Foxx! He was great in Any Given Sunday and marvelous in Ray.

  39. Seanon 22 Jan 2009 at 5:49 pm

    Don’t forget Steve Martin in The Spanish Prisoner. Great movie, I loved him in it. If you enjoy the mannered style of a David Mamet film, it’s great fun. If Mamet dialogue drives you nuts, stay away.

  40. Andyon 22 Jan 2009 at 6:08 pm

    I would also put Will Ferrel on this list for the movie Stranger Than Fiction. I wouldn’t consider it a comedy, and I count it as one of my favorite movies from Ferrel. It’s a completely different direction for him and he excels at it.

    Kal Penn, while good in the Harold and Kumar movies, was also in Epic Movie. For that he should be taken out of consideration for any list of comedic actors who end up doing anything right.

    @everyone who said Will Smith. How could you consider Will Smith a comedian? He went from a being a rapper to having a TV show then on to action movies. He’s done a couple of dramas, with Pursuit of Happyness being the best and Seven Pounds being the worst. Nonetheless, a comedian he is not.

    @ Joe I can’t speak for PDL, but The Truman Show is most certainly a dramatic film. It has its light-hearted moments, but I wouldn’t call it a comedy because of those. Think of the major plot and the themes addressed. I can’t see any that would render it a comedy.

    All in all, it’s not a horrible list, but it’s not a great list either. It did make me want to go back and watch eternal sunshine again, which is never a bad thing.

  41. Don Bueron 22 Jan 2009 at 6:10 pm

    You forgot a couple of the greats who started the trend from comedy to drama. Buster Keaton, Oliver Hardy, Jackie Gleason, Jack Lemon, and Lou Costello are a few you didn’t mention.

  42. Gorla DeFormalaon 22 Jan 2009 at 6:12 pm

    You forgot Richard Belzer on Law & Order. He is a brilliant comedian.

  43. mussesseinon 22 Jan 2009 at 6:19 pm

    LUKE and OWEN WILSON in the Royal Tenenbaums?

    terrible list

  44. Jonon 22 Jan 2009 at 6:24 pm

    I’m not a fan of this list…
    Tom Hanks was great in Philadelphia
    Will Smith should be on here as well, Fresh Prince –> Pursuit of Happyness

    And I absolutely loved Hot Fuzz and Sean of the Dead but this list is “Eight Comedians Who Did Serious Well” not “Seven Comedians Who (arguably) Did Serious Well and One Who Is Very Good And May (potentially) Do Serious Well In the Near Future”

    And Adam Sandler? Really? That was the best you could come up with?

  45. scotton 22 Jan 2009 at 6:34 pm

    Don’t forget Jackie Gleason in among others, The Hustler

  46. ariemon 22 Jan 2009 at 6:42 pm


    define well. sandler, carey, martin, williams are awesome. so is foxx, pryor and murphy. or did you mean “who did serious well at the box office?” or “who did well according to my taste”? or even “who did well and look like me”?

    just asking

  47. Alfon 22 Jan 2009 at 6:47 pm

    Wow what a terrible list. This guy should stop writing blogs and reviewing movies forever.

  48. James Deanon 22 Jan 2009 at 6:55 pm

    Jim Carrey rocks! Who doesnt just love Jim Carrey!


  49. Neumahnon 22 Jan 2009 at 7:21 pm

    This list is terrible. What about Dave “I’m Rich Biatch!!!” Chappelle and Jerry Seinfeld?

  50. this site suckson 22 Jan 2009 at 7:23 pm

    I guess the author of this article forgot about how Simon Pegg was in MI:3? What part of that movie was funny?

  51. Madisonon 22 Jan 2009 at 7:40 pm

    @ Neumahn

    What about them? I don’t seem to remember Chappelle or Seinfeld in any dramatic roles. I’m guessing you didn’t read the article, but why should that stop you from commenting on it?

  52. Chrison 22 Jan 2009 at 7:52 pm

    Terrible List, undoubtedly the best ever serious performance by a comedian was Paul resier whilst playing Carter burke in Aliens.

    No-one can deny that performance was special, as was almost every performance in the film/ but coming from a regular sstand up comedian. Great, great.

  53. Sub-Zeroon 22 Jan 2009 at 8:02 pm

    I forgot I titled this “The Only Eight Actors Who Could Be Considered Comedians Who Were Ever in What Could Be Considered Serious Roles Where They Performed Somewhat Adequately or Better.” Then all this might be relevant.

  54. MovieNerdon 22 Jan 2009 at 8:14 pm

    Steve Martin has done a lot more drama than just Shopgirl. Try Novacaine or Grand Canyon. For my money, though, his best dramatic turn was in Mamet’s The Spanish Prisoner.

    And as for John C Reilly, while he’s good in Magnolia, the movie Hard Eight, also directed by PT Anderson, gives him more screen time and an arguably better performance.

  55. Cabeon 22 Jan 2009 at 8:14 pm

    What about Will Ferrell in “Stranger than Fiction”???

  56. JOeon 22 Jan 2009 at 8:29 pm

    What about aston kutcher in butterfly effect

  57. darrenon 22 Jan 2009 at 9:59 pm

    as much as i hate ben stiller he did do an awesome job in permanent midnight, playing a heroin addicted tv writer in the eightys. it was based on the life of writer jerry stahl

  58. Fiftyoneon 22 Jan 2009 at 10:02 pm

    Man how could you people forget Jamie Fox in Ray? That was the single most awesome switch and quite possibly one of the best preformances I have ever seen in an actor.

  59. flynnon 22 Jan 2009 at 10:41 pm

    I’m not quibbling with any individual nominees on your list, but it seems like you watch a lot of white guys and not much else. No fault there, these are some pretty funny white dudes. But there’s Jamie Foxx, Lily Tomlin, and a bunch of other non-white, non-dude comedians to at least think about.

    And then there’s people who seem like comedians at heart, no matter what. Will Smith, for example. Or Jackie Chan…

  60. Robert Paulsonon 23 Jan 2009 at 1:59 am


  61. dougon 23 Jan 2009 at 2:09 pm

    For the guy who listed Marley and Me as a movie that Owen Wilson branched out in….your retarded. Honestly? Well then let’s just put any person who routinely does comedy movies and then tries to do one half serious role, regardless if they do it well or not. I can name a thousand actors who could of taken the same role Owen Wilson did and done it just of well f not better. The thing that would separate Sandler’s role in Punch Drunk Love and Owen Wilson’s performance in Marley and Me is that a select few could of pulled off the role that Sandler did.

    And how is Wilson’s role any different in Carrell’s role? Are we not laughing at both? The only difference is that Carrell actually did a good job acting.

  62. Nicon 23 Jan 2009 at 2:58 pm

    You’re forgetting about Jack Black in ‘Enemy of the State’

  63. Andrewon 24 Jan 2009 at 4:45 am

    I’d like to mention John Candy in JFK… greasy and threatening… super good.

  64. Gibion 25 Jan 2009 at 9:52 am

    as much as i hate ben stiller he did do an awesome job in permanent midnight, playing a heroin addicted tv writer in the eightys. it was based on the life of writer jerry stahl.

  65. Orleanason 25 Jan 2009 at 11:11 pm

    Robin Williams to me is one of the rare comics who can successfully do both drama and comedy. Sometimes his comedy in over the top in a way that makes you uncomfortable, but it’s still funny and relevant. Often though, he makes me think of the thin line between sane and insane, genius and psycho. Maybe that’s why he’s so good in those psychotic roles. His real life demons must give him great inspiration.

  66. abbation 26 Jan 2009 at 3:06 am

    well i can’t believe the bad actor will smith wasn’t mentioned he’s performances in drama gets better and better *7pounds, pursuit of haapyness, hancock, I Am Legend, maybe even I-robot* to name a few

  67. Niklason 29 Jan 2009 at 5:11 pm

    how could you forget Robin Williams acting in “Insomnia”? He playes one of the best creepy psychos ever.

  68. Narutoon 31 Jan 2009 at 10:00 am

    robin williams has lots of non comedy roles and in general is a great actor i loved him in august rush

  69. economy forumon 05 Feb 2009 at 4:13 am

    Robin williams is such a great actor but his comedy still cracks me up, has anyone seen his standup from the met?

  70. [...] while back I wrote this post, which details eight comedic actors who did serious roles well, as you may guess, this is the [...]

  71. Tyleron 07 Mar 2009 at 11:50 pm

    How is that Will Smith isn;t n this list? U must be on crack not to have him on here.

  72. Ericon 11 Apr 2009 at 1:02 pm

    I would still consider Carrey’s performance in Truman Show as comedic.

  73. stephon 29 Jun 2009 at 12:49 pm

    Another great comedic actor was Peter Sellers. He did very well in the movie being there

  74. Yesspazon 07 Sep 2009 at 10:05 pm

    John C. Reilly is a dramatic actor first and foremost, who simply had a career rejuvenation into comedy, ala Leslie Nielsen with Airplane!

  75. Berton 29 Oct 2009 at 11:45 am

    WTF is Fred talking about “recently popular comedians”? Steve Martin, Dan Aykroyd and Bill Murray have been popular comedians for over 30 years. How far back do you need to go?

  76. Tyon 23 Feb 2010 at 1:16 pm

    Wow. John C. Reilly a comedian? The first thirty or forty movies he was in were dramas. Casualties of War? Boogie Nights? Hard Eight? The Thin Red Line? Oscar nomination for Chicago? I would hardly call John C. Reilly a comedian.

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  78. Jodion 13 Mar 2010 at 3:38 pm

    unreapitymag.com, how do you do it?


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