Comedians Who Tried Drama: The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly

The best, worst, and weirdest attempts by stand-up comedians to tell a serious story
Comedians Who Tried Drama: The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly

With his new film Hustle fresh on streaming, Adam Sandler has once again reminded us that, when he feels like it, he can go from one of the most juvenile comedians of the modern age to an entirely respectable and competent serious actor capable of leading a quality drama film that heavily features professional basketball players.

This prompted us to revisit the many attempts made by many talented comedians to bridge the gap between comedy and drama with varying degrees of success. Not every comedian gets to make Dead Poets Society the first time they attempt a straight face on film, and sometimes an attempt by a comedian to tackle the most somber of subject matter is so awful that they have to spend the rest of their lives distancing themselves from the monstrosity. This is the good, the bad, and the ugly of funny people in serious films.

The Good

Mo'Nique, Precious

Might as well start with the cream of the crop. Precious was actually the second time stand-up and sitcom comedian Mo’Nique collaborated with director Lee Daniels – she first worked with the legendary filmmaker in his directorial debut Shadowboxer in which she played a character coincidentally named Precious. Go figure.

Mo’Nique’s performance as Mary Lee Johnston would prove to be her most devastating and gut-wrenching role as the unemployed, abusive, welfare-scamming witch of a mother to our protagonist Precious. Mo’Nique’s performance Precious won her an Academy Award, and the heartbreaking drama about a desperate teenager trying to escape the cycle of poverty and abuse moved audiences in a way only the most harrowing of stories can.

It also inspired the 30 Rock parody film “Hard To Watch, based on the novel ‘Stone Cold Bummer’” in which fictional comedian Tracy Jordan makes an attempt at a serious film role. Sound familiar?

Robin Williams, Various

Okay, yeah, no list of comedians taking serious film roles can ever be written without mentioning the king of comedy-turned-drama, Robin Williams. Honestly there’s nothing novel to be said about Robin’s impressive dramatic filmography. His performances in such classics as Dead Poets Society and Good Will Hunting are so iconic that to even put him on a list with what’s about to come next is borderline sacrilegious. 

In the interest of not completely glossing over the greatest comedian-turned-serious actor of all time, I’d like to draw your attention to one of his more underappreciated dramatic performances in the 2002 Christopher Nolan psychological thriller Insomnia

The film features Robin Williams as Walter Finch, a sensitive local crime writer in rural Alaska at the center of a murder investigation headed by Al Pacino, who gets his yelling in. The story mainly focuses on Pacino’s struggles with his past, his mistakes, and the perpetual daylight of early summer in Northern Alaska, but Williams’ performance is unforgettable and the chemistry between him and Pacino is simply electric.

The Bad

Amy Schumer, Thank You For Your Service

Amy Schumer is someone who gets an astonishingly large amount of hate on the internet for her comedy, but you rarely see angry Redditors bash her dramatic performances – probably because neither they nor anyone else watched Thank You For Your Service, a 2017 biographical war drama directed by Jason Hall (aka Devon MacLeish from Buffy the Vampire Slayer) based on David Finkel’s non-fiction book of the same name.

The film centers around Staff Sergeant Adam Schumann, played by Miles Teller, as he returns from a harrowing combat tour in Iraq and is forced to confront PTSD as well as the consequences of his decisions during the war. Amy Schumer plays the widow of a soldier who was killed when Teller’s character sent him out on patrol unprepared. 

Schumer’s part in the film is kept to just a handful of unremarkable scenes, a surprisingly small role considering that the Emmy Award winning, New York Times Best Selling comedian/actress/writer was coming off of success as the writer/star of the 2015 film Trainwreck. If she was going for the Oscar in Thank You For Your Service, she fell well short, just like box office results of the film called “aimless and ineffective” by The Guardian fell short of its $20 million budget by about half of that. Talk about shooting blanks.

Dane Cook, Answers to Nothing

I don’t want to rag on Dane Cook too much considering we just dissected his rise and fall, but man, how was Hollywood surprised that the comedian who was basically the living embodiment of a frat party maybe wasn’t ready to tackle a child abduction film? 

Answers to Nothing starred Dane Cook as a conflicted psychologist struggling with the strains of a failing marriage against the backdrop of an ongoing child abduction case. The film attempted some sort of Crash-esque multiple plotline commentary on the lives and tensions of average people living in Los Angeles, but the weak and unremarkable script could not be salvaged by Dane Cook’s best attempts at portraying emotional states other than “loud”.

The A.V. Club’s Nathan Rabin was unremorseful in his assessment of Dane Cook and Answers to Nothing, saying, “Like far too many comedians-turned-actors, Cook mistakes a dour expression and permanent frown for a dramatic performance. Cook is miscast and unconvincing as a husband, therapist, and inveterate brooder, but his incongruous presence is all that sets this film apart from the never-ending flood of everything-is-connected Crash/Magnolia/Amores Perros knock-offs littering undiscriminating film festivals.” The film holds a 9% on Rotten Tomatoes and grossed just $22,029 on a $1.5 million budget.

The Ugly

Mike Myers, 54

This part of the list is reserved for roles and films so unrepentantly ambitious that their catastrophic failure is honestly respectable in some weird way. 54 was writer/director Mark Christopher’s attempt at capturing the spirit – ouchie warts and all – of the legendary Manhattan nightclub Studio 54. 

Mike Myers starred as Steve Rubell, the real life proprietor of Studio 54 (as well as the tax evader who was directly responsible for the club’s closure by the state of New York). He pulled no punches in his attempts to bring the slime and sleaze of disco’s biggest don to the silver screen. Myers’ lecherous, indulgent performance is perhaps the lone highlight of the film, but the movie’s garish and plodding attempts to capture the chaotic spirit of the most famous nightclub in Manhattan’s history make Mike’s honest attempts to find humanity underneath pounds of glitter and cocaine almost grotesque to look at.

The film was widely panned upon release, with one critic from the Los Angeles Times saying that “Decadence has rarely looked so pathetic, lethargic and dispiriting as it does in this listless film.” To Myers’ credit, the few positive reviews identify his performance as a bright spot, but sadly the trainwreck of 54 was enough to scare him away from dramatic roles for over a decade – his next non-comedy performance was a brief cameo in Inglorious Basterds, which honestly was a set of novelty teeth away from reprising “Yeah, baby!”

Jerry Lewis, The Day the Clown Cried

This isn’t the first time that we’ve refused to let the memory of Jerry Lewis’ horrible Holocaust clown movie die, and it likely won’t be the last.

The unreleased film, written and directed by Jerry Lewis himself, starred “The King of Comedy” as Helmut Doork, a down-on-his-luck clown living in Nazi Germany who gets himself interned at a camp for political prisoners. It’s there that Doork meets a group of Jewish children for whom he performs secret comedy routines to keep their spirits up, against the wishes of his jailers. Though it attempts moments of levity, the film ends on a grim note as Doork, tricked by his captors, leads the children to the gas chambers like a horrific Pied Piper. Jerry Lewis’ failed attempt to blend comedy and tragedy in order to make a bold statement on the horrors of the Holocaust fell flatter than hour seventeen on his Labor Day telethons.

A rough cut of the film was only ever screened to a select few audiences before Jerry Lewis came to his senses and decided to seal off the catastrophic cinematic misfiring from the world. Lewis called the film “an artistic failure,” saying “You will never see it. No one will ever see it, because I am embarrassed at the poor work." 

The ugliest of the ugly attempts by a comedian to tackle somber subject matter, The Day the Clown Cried goes down as one of the most misguided projects in film history. One lone negative of the film exists in the Library of Congress, and by some miracle, they have agreed to screen the film as soon as in June 2024.

Or maybe that’s not a miracle. What’s the opposite of a miracle?

Top Image: Lee Daniels Entertainment / Cold Iron Pictures / Miramax Films

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