Comedians playing comedians: It’s funny until someone loses their marbles. Comics are complicated cats, so it’s not surprising that they can feel like they’re drowning when immersed in the murky waters of other comedians’ brains.  Here are four examples of funny guys playing funny guys – and finding themselves with a tenuous grip on their own realities.   

Jim Carrey playing Andy Kaufman

Jim Carrey always makes Jim Carrey choices -- and for Man on the Moon, the biopic about comedian Andy Kaufman, he chose to never show up on set at all.  Instead, it was always “Andy Kaufman” (or occasionally, Kaufman’s alter-ego Tony Clifton) who arrived for filming.  At no point during production did Carrey let go of Kaufman, not when he (as Andy) was refusing to cooperate with director Milos Forman, not when he (as Clifton) was crashing a car on the lot.  

In the documentary Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond, Carrey says his performance wasn’t an impression -- it was basically a possession. After being cast in the movie, Carrey went to the beach to try to communicate with Kaufman’s spirit. (Hey, all actors have their methods.)  Looking out over the ocean, he saw thirty dolphins appear from nowhere.   “That’s the moment that Andy Kaufman showed up, tapped me on the shoulder, and said, ‘Sit down, I’ll be doing my movie.’ What happened afterwards was out of my control.” 

Okey-dokey.

So Carrey turned his body over to Kaufman’s … energy? Ghost? Eternal, ethereal prankster? “I didn’t know who I was anymore when the movie was over,” says Carrey. “I didn’t know what my politics were. I couldn’t remember what I was about.”  And when he did return to some semblance of his own reality, he didn’t like being back in his own problems and heartbreaks. It was a startling revelation -- Carrey felt so good being Andy Kaufman because he was free from being himself. 

The experience left Carrey a changed man. “I’m fine floating through space like Andy.”

Bill Murray playing Hunter S. Thompson

Hunter S. Thompson was the original wild and crazy guy, a gonzo journalist known for his manic comic lectures, hilarious, stream-of-consciousness writing, and crazed, drunken lifestyle.

Bill Murray, eager to prove he was more than a late-night goof, jumped at the role of Thompson after first choice John Belushi bailed to make The Blues Brothers. In hindsight, it’s amazing that Murray survived the making of Where the Buffalo Roam

He befriended Thompson, which is not healthy for most living creatures. An early conversation about Harry Houdini ended with Thompson lashing Murray’s hands and feet to a cast-iron chair and tossing him into a swimming pool to attempt an escape. Only someone jumping in to free him saved Murray from drowning.

Getting thrown into a pool didn’t stop Bill from throwing himself into the role.  He was obsessive about nailing Thompson’s mannerisms, learning to pour lighter fluid into his mouth so he could belch flames past people’s heads. Thompson moved in with Murray during filming so “it finally got to the point where I could drink with him,” Bill said.  “I was basically living twenty-four-hour days. No sh*t.”

The movie was a disaster, with Thompson launching a plot to break into Universal Studios with Murray to edit the movie to their liking. It didn’t happen, leaving Thompson to label the movie a “horrible pile of crap.” He also threatened to attack the director with a baseball bat.

Unfortunately for his SNL castmates, the usually friendly Murray wouldn’t (or couldn’t) shake Thompson’s dark character when he returned to the show. He wore dark glasses all the time, tossing temper tantrums while berating hosts, camera operators, and scripts that he found subpar. 

When Johnny Depp signed up to play Thompson in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, he called Murray with a concern.  “I wanted to know how long this was going to stay with me,” said Depp.

Murray’s response:  It took me five years. 

Michael Chiklis playing John Belushi

For Chiklis, it wasn’t getting in Belushi’s head that sent the actor off the deep end.  It was Hollywood’s reaction to him playing the beloved comic.

Bob Woodward’s book, Wired: The Short Life and Fast Times of John Belushi, was met with a bluesy briefcase full of brickbats on its publication.  Belushi’s widow hated that it solely focused on the comic’s drug use, and claimed that even those stories were riddled with falsehoods. Belushi’s buddy Dan Aykroyd summed it up in one word:

Trash.

So it’s no surprise that, according to Chiklis, “the forces of Hollywood” were against a movie version of Wired being made at all. A virtual unknown when he was cast as Belushi, Chiklis got surprisingly decent reviews for a movie that’s rocking a 4% on Rotten Tomatoes.  But instead of helping his career, Wired tanked it. 

After the movie was released, Chiklis suffered through “a dark, dark period.” Forget about getting cast -- no one would let him audition for more than a year. He even got death threats.  “I’m like, ‘Oh my god … my film and television career is over and it didn’t even start.’”

“When I played Belushi, people said at the time, ‘Oh, you were so brave for doing that,’” remembers Chiklis. “I wasn’t brave. I was ignorant.”

Chiklis finally got back on track when mustachioed macho man Burt Reynolds, who “didn’t believe in blackballing,” cast him in an episode of the TV show B.L. Stryker. He hasn’t looked back since. 

Richard Pryor playing Richard Pryor

OK, Pryor was actually playing a fictional comic in Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling. It was pure coincidence that Jo Jo Dancer was born in a Peoria brothel, beats the odds to find success as a stand-up comic, became addicted to drugs, married a few dozen women, then nearly burned himself to death while freebasing cocaine. Your typical comedian biopic.

The movie was a bomb, both critically and commercially.  But the bigger problem Pryor had afterward was understanding why he’d laid himself bare for audiences to see. 

"I look at the movie now and ask myself, 'Why did you show people that?',” he said. “But I had no choice. It was something I had to do. I won't cop out, trying to explain why Jo Jo, or I, did drugs…. I was gone, crazy, out of my mind."

Nothing on Jo Jo Dancer went to plan for Pryor. First, he set out to make a straight-up comedy, “but I couldn’t keep the sadness and emotion from spilling onto the page.”   But that wasn’t the only place where Pryor felt like he was losing control over the project. 

 "Throughout the picture, I felt I was walking a narrow edge between my own reality and Jo Jo's fantasy,” Pryor confessed. 

Which is which? I'm still not sure."

For more ComedyNerd, be sure to check out:

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