The Problem With Swole Comedians
“Someone who’s tall and good-looking isn’t funny,” declares the not-bad-looking Steve Carell. He goes on to add, “When a comedian becomes really ripped, they lose about seventy-five percent of their funniness. You sort of hate them, like, ‘How dare you become handsome and healthy?’ I’m never going to be in good shape because I want to be employable.”
Come on, Steve. Are you saying a swole comic can’t get laughs?
That’s exactly what he’s saying.
Oh, the poor handsome comic.
The entire concept is almost oxymoronic. From Rodney Dangerfield to Woody Allen to Dave Letterman to John Mulaney (ed opinion), most male comedians land somewhere on the Attractiveness Scale between inoffensive and downright goofy-looking. In fact, moving up the Attractiveness Scale is why most goofy-looking comedians get into comedy in the first place.
Making people laugh is just “one big mating ritual gone awry,” according to Planet Funny’s Ken Jennings. “A sense of humor could have been valuable in sexual selection for our hominid ancestors, because then as now, it was a hard-to-fake indicator of intelligence, confidence, and other measures of reproductive fitness.”
Amazingly, humor as aphrodisiac appears to work. See Spade, David.
Funny is apparently sexy. A guy who looks like John Mulaney doesn’t end up with Olivia Munn because he’s good at actuarial tables. (And yes, Mulaney and Munn are a story for another day.)
But can sexy be funny? Can someone like the criminally handsome Jon Hamm, who has done silly voices on the Comedy Bang! Bang! podcast no less than nine times, ever be taken seriously as a funny guy?
That’s the dilemma of what we're calling The Swole Comic -- the perception that “you’re just not that funny.”
But before we decide whether that’s actually true or false, let’s define our terms. In particular, we’re not talking about one specific category of attractive male comedian: The Pleasant Everyman.
Paul Rudd. Jason Sudeikis. Jerry Seinfeld. Robin Williams. Tom Hanks. Heck, even Steve Carell. All affable, objectively better-than-average-looking dudes. Rudd is the kind of guy you’d set up on a blind date with your sister after she’s sworn off men forever because of a series of ugly-cry break-ups with guys who look like James Franco.
Rudd and Co. are all attractive in a non-threatening, non-aggro, non-alpha, vaguely asexual way. (When was the last time you saw a Tom Hanks sex scene? “Big” doesn’t count.) These are not Swole Comics.
Instead, we’re going to examine the comedy reality for two classes of the Swole Comic phylum: the Late-Onset Swole Comic and the Swole-Out-of-the-Box Comic.
The Late-Onset Swole Comic
The Late-Onset Swole Comic follows a predictable path: A funny guy with a more or less average build is mid-comedy career when he suddenly has the urge to go from Bruce Banner with a microphone to the Hulk. An amateur psychologist might conclude that getting swole is driven by the same insecurities that pushed the anxious dude looking to show the world he was more than average into comedy in the first place. “I did it! I'm famous for being funny, but being hilarious isn’t enough? Dig this!”
The transformation is always uncomfortable to watch. Take our first Late-Onset Swole Comic, Saturday Night Live’s Joe Piscopo.
There was a time, at least in Piscopo’s mind, that he and Eddie Murphy were responsible for saving SNL. But while he did a passable Frank Sinatra impression, the comedy public didn’t see him as a superstar. Both acting and comedy jobs dried up after he left the show in 1986. By the early 1990s, he was lending his voice to Goof Troop as Tan Roadster and Batman: The Animated Series as Police 2. Oh, he also made racist Miller Lite commercials.
That career lull coincided almost exactly with his appearances on the covers of bodybuilding magazines. Dude got yoked.
“Some people in Hollywood think I’m nuts with this bodybuilding stuff,” said Piscopo at the time. “They’ll say, ‘You’re getting too big. You’ll hurt your career.’ But they don’t understand that high that comes from a workout, the challenge, and the personal victory.”
His training routine got so intense that he confessed he was afraid it might kill him. Joe’s still with us, but his gym obsession may have murdered his comedy career.
A more successful example of the Late-Onset Swole Comic, at least in terms of his bank account, is Carrot Top.
But then he got to work in the gym, beasting it up while denying persistent rumors that he was ramped up on steroids. He even gave Penn Jillette permission to drug-test his presumably orange urine at any time. Not surprisingly, Penn never followed the monstrous redhead into the bathroom for a sample.
Even his Vegas fans seemed put off by his rippling chesticles. “I was bigger than they wanted me to be, or expected me to be,” says Top, explaining that’s what you get with “thirty-five years of working out.” So he’s backed away from the gym -- no longer Schwarzenegger-sized but still more swole than your average prop comic who only squats 35 pounds.
Did bulking up hurt Carrot Top’s comedy career? Depends on your point of view. He still gets about $8 million a year for his undeniably popular Vegas shows -- but barely makes a cultural dent outside the Luxor. His last non-Carrot Top role was getting swallowed by a shark in Sharknado 4: The Fourth Awakens.
Could Sharknado 5 be in the future for our next Late-Onset Swole Comic? Looking at you, Dane Cook.
While not nearly as jacked as Piscopo or Carrot Top, Cook has gotten himself into prime fighting shape at a time when his stand-up career has taken a dive from its dizzying sold-out-stadium heights.
COVID has pressed the pause button on a lot of comedians’ careers, but there’s not much more than cartoon voicework on Cook’s recent IMDB. He has three tour dates on his comedy calendar for the rest of 2021, compared with two shirtless Instagram pics in September alone.
All of our Late-Onset Swole Comics had greater comedy success in their scrawnier bodies. Unfortunately, bulging biceps seem to coincide with a sharp comedy career decline. To be fair, it’s hard to say which is the roided-out chicken and which is the creepily buff egg.
The Swole-Out-of-the-Box Comic
But what about the comedians who were just born that way? Is it possible to be funny when you’re also irritatingly good-looking?
It’s a challenge, admits Colin Jost. (When this author saw Jost perform stand-up, it was in a tight, button-up shirt with the sleeves rolled up to show off fratty biceps.)
Jost gets that his good looks are potentially a comedy problem. That’s why he got out in front of it in his memoir, A Very Punchable Face.
“I understand why some people want to punch me. I’m self-aware enough to realize what I look like,” Jost admits. “I look like a guy who’s always on the verge of asking, Do you know who my father is? Even though my father was a public school teacher on Staten Island. I also realize that I look like the president of the Young Republicans Club, even though I’ve voted Democrat in every election for every single office, even the weird ones like “State Supreme Court Bailiff” where half the names could be fake and no one would ever know. And it doesn’t help, punch-wise, that I’m one of the whitest white people outside of Frozen.”
By punching himself in the face first (and second and third), Jost hopes to get all the audience animosity out of the way. He’s smart enough to employ the self-deprecating bit in his work relationship with Michael Che, allowing himself to be the butt of jokes about white privilege with good humor.
Is self-mockery the key to succeeding as a handsome comic? It’s the path Joel McHale took on Community, whipping off his shirt in random episodes not (only) as a thirst trap but to make fun of his character’s boundless vanity.
Why does Jeff strip down? The show’s reasons are “hilariously stupid,” from his other shirt not working to general homelessness to frustration at not being named a bar mitzvah’s Most Handsome Young Man.
He leans even further into the absurdity of “hotness” with his shirtless video for People’s Sexiest Man Alive, inviting castmates Ken Jeong, Donald Glover, and Danny Pudi to join him in sharing their nipples with America.
But embracing the absurdity of Swole isn’t the only strategy for the handsome comedian. Sometimes it works to go the other way.
Take Anthony Jeselnik, another Jost-alike with “the sculpted features of a model,” prompting the New York Times to proclaim him “far too handsome to be a comic.” Doesn’t sound like much of a problem until you consider conventional male standup material. Who is going to believe poor-me jokes from him about not being able to get a date?
“They hated me the second I walked onstage,” Jeselnik says. “So I just pretended to be an evil genius.”
In other words, if you look like American Psycho, lean into it.
Here’s a bit from his recent Netflix special, Fire in the Maternity Ward:
You hear your friend Jeff just committed suicide. Your only thought is devastation: “Oh my God, what could I have done to save my friend Jeff?”
You hear your friend Jeff killed his wife and then himself and you just think, “Yikes, Jeff doesn’t fuck around, huh?”
“It’s crazy that a guy that good-looking can put those jokes through,” says decidedly non-swole comedian Jeff Ross.
Jezelnik is so good at pretending to be a sociopath that his model looks almost make sense. It’s the same approach that works, maybe to a lesser degree, for Daniel Tosh: “If you’re just going to assume I’m a privileged asshole, I might as well have the fun of acting like one.” Check, Daniel.
So was Steve Carell Right or Not?
At least when it comes to comedians deciding to get ripped. When Joe Piscopo went full jabrone pimping for GNC, he was almost exactly 75% less funny than in his SNL heyday.
Getting jacked has done little to enhance the careers of Late-Onset Swole Comics. No leading man parts for Carrot Top, no Netflix specials for Dane Cook. If anything, the “suns out, guns out” approach has seemed to distance these guys from the comedy community at large.
For the guys who were good-looking/ripped Out of the Box? There’s still hope, but being funny relies on acknowledging and lampooning your handsomeness in some way. Either you make fun of your ridiculous allure, or you play the dingus everyone assumes you must be.
So we begrudgingly admit it’s possible for some comedians to be both handsome and funny. But as Carell says, it’s OK to sort of hate them.