Monday, July 16, 2007

Actor versus Comedian: The epic battle!

Say what we told you say! -Seinfeld

Comedian versus Actor...Comedy versus Drama

There has always been an epic battle between actor and comedian. Well, not so much a battle, but perhaps a competition. Well, not so much a competition, but perhaps a comparison.

Okay, okay. There has never been any conflict between the actor and the comedian. No one has ever pitted them against each other. (Maybe Shakespeare did it once, but he's biased because he was an actor.) Well, I can't wait for this to happen organically. So I'm bringing it about artificially on this blog.

I have always thought there was a hierarchy amongst entertainers, particularly between people who speak in front of an audience (as opposed to the singer, dancer, etc.)

I've always felt that at the top of the heap is the standup comedian, then the stage actor, then the film actor, and then probably somewhere in there is TV. Generally, the standup comedian can travel down from his high rank and filter into other entertainment fields and work well in that environment. But it doesn't work the other way around. Not many actors can drop what they're doing and work in standup comedy.

I'm not sure if people ever take the time out to really think about the difference between actors and comedians. This Seinfeld clip pretty much says it all: Seinfeld acceptance speech on the CollegeHumor website.

But to be honest, Seinfeld has never been the greatest actor. He's actually an aberration. Seinfeld can't act to save his life. But that's okay, because to me, he's the King of New York--or well at least, Queens.

Typically, the best actors are developed out of comedy. Case in point: Tom Hanks, Robin Williams, Michael Keaton, Will Ferrell, and Adam Sandler. (I know. I know. You're thinking, "Adam Sandler??!? What are you smoking?) Bear with me. Let's go down the list.

Tom Hanks first got his comedy chops working on a film called, Punchline (1988). In order to research his character, he spent at a lot of time doing open mics in the LA metro area. He had a crash course in the life of a standup comic. And now he's used those very skills and translated them to film. He's been in the best films of all time: A League of Their Own (1992), Sleepless in Seattle (1993), Philadelphia (1993), Apollo 13 (1995), Forrest Gump (1994), You've Got Mail (1998), Cast Away (2000), and Joe Versus the Volcano (1990). (Ha, ha!)

He spans all categories of film: action, comedy, rom com, and clearly drama.

Robin Williams obviously has a much more pronounced and developed career in standup. And then he made the switch, I would say originally with The Fisher King (1991) and Mrs. Doubtfire (1993), but most notably with Good Will Hunting (1997).

Everyone knows that Michael Keaton has been the best Bruce Wayne to date, with Christian Bale coming in at a close second. Again, I'm convinced that Michael Keaton's acting chops were sharpened because of the skills he learned from his stint in standup comedy. Before Multiplcity (1996), before Beetlejuice (1988), there was Johnnly Dangerously (1984):

- Johnny Dangerously: The name's Dangerously. Johnny Dangerously.

- Lil: Did you know you're last name is an adverb?


Now I know Will Ferrell isn't a standup comic, but improv is a close cousin to standup comedy. Plus, he's proven himself through and through. He's done his set of comedy flicks: Elf (2003), Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004), Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (2006) (ingeniously written by former SNL head writer now turned writer/director Adam McKay). But he's also done art house films: Melinda and Melinda (2004), Stranger Than Fiction (2006).

[WARNING: If you haven't seen this viral video, The Landlord, with Will Ferrell's real-life daughter Pearl, you're missing out! Brace yourself! It's hilarious! And today's Will Ferrell's Birthday! (Check out that 'fro on I'm convinced he's part black.) Is it any wonder that Cancers dominate the Oscar nominations? Food for thought!]

On to Adam Sandler: Adam Sandler's potential is brimming over! If you haven't seen Punch-Drunk Love (2002), Spanglish (2004), or Reign Over Me (2007), the latest with Don Cheadle, then you're missing out on another side of Mr. Sandler.

Now let's begin a drama lesson: High brow v. Low brow comedy
(Here's an article that mentions Highbrow versus Lowbrow.)

Now let's discuss why this conflict between highbrow and lowbrow is an issue in American media.

First off: American's don't like "the thinking man's humor". Many people don't know the history of the Seinfeld sitcom, but it was on the verge of being canceled in the first few seasons. It got moved around NBC's lineup. It was an uphill battle because middle America didn't understand the very jewish and New Yorker-based humor. And for that same reason Seinfeld it doesn't really work in England and the UK either.

A few "high brow" shows:

  • Arrested Development I feel got canceled as well because the "average" person didn't get it.

  • Curb Your Enthusiasm is relatively ironic and sarcastic so it was produced by HBO (a seemingly smaller audience than network tv.)

  • Family Guy is back, after having episodes banned (for other reasons) and then canceled again. And then picked up by TBS and Cartoon Network (Adult Swim.)

  • I would also regard Chappelle's Show as high brow. There's a lot of controversy about Dave Chappelle's humorous and wildly successful TV show, Chappelle's Show, but that is for another post.

    So this is why I worry about whether my comedy should be dumbed down for mainstream America.

    It's like the quote from Holden in Chasing Amy, "It's like my grandma always said, 'The real money's in the dick and fart jokes.' She was a church lady."

    I first saw this phenomenon at work at the open mics. All the big and easy hack laughs came out of dick and fart jokes. So clearly, this is very evident and doesn't plan on changing.


    Did you enjoy this post? Buy me a warm cup of joe.


    Mark said...

    You provided some great links. Thank-you!

    Jenny! said...

    The heirarchy is true! I hate Sienfeld...sorry!

    Tracy Kaply said...

    Don't do it. The legions of Americans who love British comedy like Monty Python, Fry and Laurie, The Office and Eddie Izzard (a favorite of mine) show that there IS an audience for that kind of humor, as does the writing of Aaron Sorkin, and shows like Burnt Notice.

    Keep the faith, dude.

    Lucy said...

    mark - glad you liked them. you're the only one who seems to appreciate the extra effort. (those hyperlinks are time consuming)

    jenny- sorry about your distaste for Seinfeld. But you do have to appreciate his genius. he's made joke-telling an art, perhaps even a science. Yes, that's it. It's precision, really.

    tracy kaply - I am going to stay true to me, and remain "high-brow." After all, that's the kind of comedy that make me laugh. Thanks for the comment!

    Steve said...

    Nice analysis - and I totally agree: comedians very often make superb actors - in the UK Robbie Coltrane started off as a comedian and then went on to act the pants off everybody with Cracker... too bad he's now been sidelined to playing Hagrid in Harry Potter!

    E said...

    I've always assumed that comedians made great actors because their comedic life required so much attention to detail and refining. In order to be a good standup, you need to pay exquisite attention to detail. It is precisely this attention that allows a comedian to take on a dramatic role, as they tend to analyze the characters and situations from every angle.