Humor derives from pain, as comedians through the ages can attest. And tapping into that pain through drama is increasingly the aim of Hollywood jokesters.
From the clowns of the silent era to today’s sitcom and standup vets, comedians have sought something more resonant than quick laughs. They want to be loved — and Oscar, famous for rejecting comedy and rewarding drama, is often their best bet. This year’s kudo arena is full of such transitions.
Golden Globe nominees Jim Carrey (“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”) and Jamie Foxx (“Ray”) both got their start in standup before breaking out on “In Living Color.” And Adam Sandler, who turns in a seriocomic perf in “Spanglish,” did standup prior to “Saturday Night Live.”
On the sitcom front, Thomas Haden Church (“Wings,” “Ned and Stacey”) is in the running for “Sideways,” as is Alan Alda (“MASH”) for “The Aviator.” And let us not forget John Travolta’s (“A Love Song for Bobby Long”) Sweathog days.
“Some of the greatest dramatic actors have comedy backgrounds,” says casting director Melissa Skoff. “Tom Hanks, Michael Keaton, Steve Martin, all of these people are just amazing dramatic actors as well. I think it’s just the matter of getting the right break and then being allowed to show that you can do it. The biggest hindrance to actors is being typecast, of people saying, ‘Well, they only do comedy.’ ”
“Unless you’re on ‘Friends,’ or something trendy, you’re not going to make the transition into features. It’s always diminishing returns, no matter what you’ve done,” says Church.
“When I was on ‘Ned and Stacey,’ I’d go to auditions (for films) and get treated like an asshole,” says the actor, who is getting the best notices of his career for “Sideways.”
“‘Wings’ was a hit, and my character was very popular, but it just became unsatisfying,” says Church. “‘Ned and Stacey’ was supposed to put me on a different level. People shifted around for me to be in movies. I was in ‘George of the Jungle,’ but that didn’t yield too much either.”
Skoff says she put her reputation on the line to boost Carrey — who didn’t want to speak to Daily Variety about his comedy beginnings — for a serious role in the 1992 TV movie “Doing Time on Maple Drive” at a time when he was only known for his outrageous comedy on “In Living Color.”
“When people saw his name on the list, they yelled at me and said, ‘Who the hell do you think you are, bringing us a comic? Don’t you know this is a drama?’ ” Skoff recalls. “I said, ‘Well, he’s probably going to be America’s next great movie star, so I suggest that you give him 10 minutes and if you don’t want to hire him, you don’t have to.’ And he read brilliantly and he ended up blowing the roof off the house. The initial response was he’s just a comedian. But I always knew he had that kind of range.”
The Laugh Factory’s owner Jamie Masada tells a similar story about Jamie Foxx.
“The first time I saw him, he was auditioning for ‘In Living Color.’ I was one of the people pushing for him. I saw something, that he was a great actor. The producer of the show told me, ‘What do you know?’ ”
Masada recalls his first impression of Foxx made an impact.
“Besides being such a fabulous and explosive character, his act was so unpredictable,” he says.
Foxx has made the transition almost seamlessly, graduating from “In Living Color” and comedy roles to a well-received turn in Oliver Stone’s “Any Given Sunday” in 1999. In 2004, he offered the one-two dramatic punch of “Collateral,” followed by his standout turn as Ray Charles in “Ray.”
The road from comedy to drama can be studded with speed bumps. Just ask Bill Murray, whose 1980s W. Somerset Maugham detour “The Razor’s Edge” is perhaps the pinnacle of how a comic actor’s U-turn can end in disaster. Finally anointed with an acting nom for last year’s “Lost in Translation,” Murray missed out for “Rushmore” years earlier because, some critics maintain, he was still judged according to his turns in popcorn comedy classics like “Caddyshack” and “Ghostbusters.”
Another comedian eager to break down the wall is Jim Carrey.
While Carrey has conquered the box office with his comedies, his forays into drama have been less successful, with auds mostly ignoring his turn as a blacklisted screenwriter in “The Majestic.” He won Globes for “The Truman Show” and “Man on the Moon” but has yet to land an Oscar nomination, as he so memorably pointed out as a presenter at the 1999 ceremony after the “Truman” snub (“It’s an honor just to be nom- …”)
Oddly enough, in the same year both Carrey and Murray were passed over, Italian slapstick maestro Roberto Benigni chair-walked to a best-actor statuette for “Life Is Beautiful.”
Travolta has had a long career since his days as TV heartthrob Vinnie Barbarino. Although he has two Oscar noms under his belt for “Saturday Night Fever” and “Pulp Fiction,” he may be better known as a pop culture icon than a true dramatic actor, given the enduring popularity of some his lighter pics, such as “Grease” and “Get Shorty.”
In “Spanglish,” Sandler is the same affable and easygoing guy from films such as “The Wedding Singer,” but he demonstrated some dramatic chops in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Punch-Drunk Love” in 2002.
“I’m not looking to get away from anything. I like what I’ve done. I like what I get to do and I enjoy working with my friends,” Sandler said during the pic’s junket, defending his days doing standup, “SNL” and broadly comic pics.
“I loved those movies but this is incredible. So when (James L. Brooks) wrote a movie and wanted me to be in it, I was extremely excited but, in my head I didn’t say, ‘Oh, I’m gonna run away from my other stuff,’ I was just like, ‘Yeah, I’d like to do that too.’ ”
“I think what makes comedic actors so good at drama is that they have a vulnerable side,” says Skoff, who is also an acting coach. “They’re not afraid to expose themselves in comedy and that creates really nice levels of empathy in a dramatic role.
“It’s just being allowed to have the opportunity to be seen and a lot of that has to do with representation. They need somebody who has an agent or manager that believes in them and is able to finagle them into the right rooms.”