Dwayne Johnson: His Secrets To Becoming A Comedy Rock Star
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Dwayne Johnson is a fact of life. As our mortal bodies wither and our nations crumble under the heel of time, Johnson will continue to wear tight shirts and post about his Tequila brand. Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson is an absolute.
Hyperbole aside, this Dwayne Johnson guy is in a lot of movies nowadays, huh?
From Jumanji to Jungle Cruise to Fast and the Furious to Red Notice, it’s safe to say that The Rock has had more screen time over the past few years than any celebrity not named Dr. Anthony Faucci.
But what separates Johnson from the rest of Hollywood’s bald, veiny tough guys? Actors like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone set the standard for charisma years ago, and Vin Diesel is just as bald, if not balder, than Johnson.
So what makes Johnson stand out? And how did he become a freaking comedy star when we weren’t looking?
Let us explain…
Superstar in a Speedo
Johnson took a decidedly nonlinear path to movie stardom. After graduating from the University of Miami in the mid-1990s, Johnson began pursuing a career in professional wrestling. With the help of seasoned wrestler and producer Pat Patterson, who got him into several of his early tryout matches, Johnson landed a contract with the WWF in 1996. The rest is black speedo-wearing history.
Johnson’s bombastic personality quickly made him a favorite among wrestling fans, and it wasn’t long until Hollywood took notice. One of his earliest roles was as his own father in a wrestling-themed episode of That 70s Show, which is a weird sentence to write. Johnson made his film debut in 2001’s The Mummy Returns and would return for the spin-off The Scorpion King in 2002.
Johnson spent the rest of the 2000s working on a mix of sports dramas, action films, and family comedies. Most of them are pretty bad. Remember Walking Tall or Southland Tales? No, you don’t. Even comedies from the era, like The Game Plan and Tooth Fairy, are excruciating to watch.
Each of these films failed for its own reasons, but one thing they all have in common is a lack of understanding of how to use Johnson as an actor. Johnson simply doesn’t have the range to make self-serious action films like Walking Tall interesting, and comedies like Tooth Fairy are so slapstick-focused that they come off as patronizing. The Rock was making movies. But he still wasn't a star.
Then, in 2014, Johnson did something amazing: He shared this photo to his Twitter:
No event, besides maybe the birth of Christ, has been more consequential than this tweet.
The internet exploded. World peace was achieved. Long-dead rivers ran with water once again. For a brief moment, every living soul on earth was collectively captivated by this single photo.
“Everything may be going to shit, but that’s ok,” we all said in unison. “The Rock is wearing a fanny pack.”
Even at a glance, there are several things to, er, unpack here.
- The awkwardly forced position of Johnson’s left hand, clearly intended to show off the watch he appears to be excited about.
- The way the fake silver chain orbits around the smokestack 90s turtleneck.
- The tasteful bend in the hips.
- That Goddamn smile.
We’re reviving this played-out meme from 2014 because, frankly, it says more about why Johnson would find success as a comedic actor than we ever can. The reason it works so well is because, like the best of Johnson’s films, there is a healthy level of self-awareness to it.
Not that exciting, you might say. Who can't poke fun at themselves? How about actors like Bruce Willis or Jean-Claude Van Damme who are infamous for taking themselves too seriously?
Contrast that with Johnson, the humongous guy who brought the photo into the public space in the first place when other action stars would sooner have it incinerated.
Self-deprecating jokes have been a foundation of comedy since, well, forever. Nearly every stand-up routine you have or will ever hear is guaranteed to contain at least a few self-effacing jabs. It’s the classic ‘if you can’t take it, don’t dish it’ mentality that has propelled the careers of greats like Mel Brooks and Rodney Dangerfield, while simultaneously being the reason why we mock Steven Seagal.
There’s a reason Stallone’s comedy career never took off; he looks visibly uncomfortable during every attempt at a joke where he’s the punchline, and the whole thing comes off as weird.
The Rock, on the other hand, embraces these kinds of films with open, massive arms.
Johnson’s best films of the past decade are mostly comedies, or at least have multiple comedic elements, movies that know how to lean into his natural self-awareness. Although how a guy with 289 million Instagram followers can still come off as humble is beyond us.
Like the former college football player he is, Johnson is fully aware that he is only as good as the team surrounding him. From his Fast and the Furious family to the more recent Red Notice, The Rock’s best films find him as part of an ensemble. That's doubly true for his comedies.
2017’s Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle works so well because it squads up Johnson with proven comedy legends like Jack Black and Kevin Hart.
The film centers on a group of teens who become trapped inside a magic video game, with each teen taking on the form of their chosen avatar. It’s a concept that could have completely bombed had The Rock flown solo, but thankfully he excels when he’s riffing along with Black and Hart. The Jumanji movies work like a tight jazz band that thrives off of comedic interplay.
It's a lethal combination – a great ensemble with crowd-pleasing self-mockery. Being a body switch comedy at heart, Jumanji takes ample opportunity to poke fun at The Rock’s ridiculous physique, from the way his clothes just “happen” to always be a little too tight to his classic smoldering stare. Most of The Rock’s jokes are at his own expense. The jokes land so well because they’re absolutely right; Johnson truly is a video game action hero walking among us.
For a classic example of the dangers of going it alone, check out The Rock's Fast and the Furious co-star Vin Diesel’s attempt at comedy in 2005’s The Pacifier.
The Pacifier is one of those movies where the producers obviously blew most of the budget on hiring Vin Diesel, leaving no room to hire a comedian who can play off him. With no support, Diesel is forced to bear the brunt of the comedic weight on his own. Even the director of Bringing down the House couldn't pull it off.
It’s a situation not dissimilar to The Game Plan, which again saw The Rock fighting a one-man comedy war with little support beyond a hokie script. More recently, wrestler and Drax actor Dave Bautista made a similar mistake by appearing in the forgettable 2020 comedy My Spy.
Funny enough, Diesel actually beat The Rock to the punch here with his role in 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy, another action-comedy that relied on goofy interplay between a celebrity ensemble. Granted, all he had to say was “Groot.” Perhaps the reason GOTG hasn't launched Diesel's comedy career is that there are only so many roles for monosyllabic trees.
Funny partners helped make both the 2017 film and its sequel, 2019’s Jumanji: The Next Level, among The Rock’s highest performing films. No wonder he reunited with Hart for Central Intelligence, another successful action comedy that would further cement the Jumanji ensemble formula.
Where No Rock Has Gone Before
If Johnson only appeared in a handful of action-comedies each year, he’d be a celebrity sure, but would he really be a comedy icon? The Rock takes it to the next level by diversifying his entertainment portfolio.
The man is even officially in Fortnite, which has slowly become the de facto epicenter of the artistic world (Sorry, the Louvre).
On the animation front, Johnson lent his comedic voice to the 2016 animated musical film Moana, taking on the role of the Polynesian demigod Maui. In a first for Johson, he lent his singing voice to "You're Welcome,” which would prove to be one of the film’s flagship musical numbers. Johnson is set to return to animated form as Krypto the superdog in the upcoming kid comedy DC League of Super Pets.
Did you know that Dwayne Johnson is a member of the SNL 5 Timers Club? Since his first time hosting the show way back in 2000, Johnson has been a regular on the venerable comedy show for nearly two decades. That’s no small feat, considering most Hollywood tough guys rarely receive an invite back to studio 8H. That's compared to Vin Diesel's zero appearances.
As is tradition in The Rock’s comedy projects, the lion’s share of sketches poke fun at the actor’s gargantuan size.
Some of Johnson’s best SNL sketches however don’t involve his size at all and simply allow him to show off his comedic chops. Take this sketch, in which Johnson plays a mad scientist who creates a robot that… really likes kids.
Sketches like these prove that if you were to take away Johnson's massive frame, you’d still be left with a rock-solid comedic actor who can handle a variety of material.
Regardless of your opinion on the man, it’s safe to say that Dwayne Johnson is here to stay. If he’s not promoting a new blockbuster movie, then he’s promoting his tequila brand, or a fitness trend, or a sitcom made about his life, or a crypto-currency based on his biceps probably. The Rock is nothing if not prolific. And somehow while he was distracting us with all this activity, he became a bona-fide comedy star to boot.
Top image: Sony Pictures