Comic Relief Characters: The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly
Have you ever been forced to sit through a production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet? Spoiler alert: It’s pretty dark. That is, until two gravediggers start yukking it up while digging Ophelia’s grave. HILARIOUS! Even Big Willy Shake knew the importance of a little comic relief, sharing a cool drink of funny water just when we need it most. But not everyone can pull off comedy like the Bard’s undertakers -- here are the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of the comic relief character.
Steve Zahn as Glenn in Out of Sight
The criminally underrated Out of Sight has a number of fine, funny performances, including Luis Guzmán’s Chino and Michael Keaton’s uncredited reprise of his Jackie Brown character Ray Nicolette.
But our comedy cash is on Zahn, the ex-con with “a vacant lot for a head.” The clueless stoner provides laughs during sphincter-tightening scenes, acting as the audience’s stand-in--”this is some crazy sh*t, it’s not just me, right?”
Zahn was a reliable wildcard for 90s directors who needed an edgy, off-kilter laugh--he was never better than in Out of Sight.
Steve Carell as Brick Tamland in Anchorman
Can comedy movies have comic relief characters? That doesn’t entirely make sense--what exactly are they giving us relief from? The comedy?
But Carell pulls it off, creating a character so out of touch with reality that he can disrupt the silliest scenes. From “I love lamp” to “I would like to extend to you an invitation to the pants party,” his bizarro nonsequiturs have the rest of the Action News Team shaking their sideburns. In a street fight that escalates more quickly than expected, Brick is the only one to kill a guy. With a trident.
Michael Peña as Luis in Ant-Man
Yet another guy stealing comedy scenes from Paul Rudd.
The Ant-Man movies are already among the goofiest in the MCU canon, but Luis pushes them into another stratosphere. The Neo-Cubist fan takes five minutes to say what could be conveyed in five seconds, but we never want to get off Luis’s conversational roller coaster. Wheeeee!
Ahmed Best as Jar Jar Binks in the Star Wars films
Poor Ahmed Best. He probably thought he was getting a career turbo boost when he signed up to voice The Phantom Menace’s Jar Jar Binks, a character that George Lucas supposedly based on Disney’s Goofy. Um …
Instead, Best found himself in the middle of a cultural firestorm. When The Wall Street Journal calls your character a "Rastafarian Stepin Fetchit on platform hoofs, crossed annoyingly with Butterfly McQueen?" That’s not good.
But there’s a bigger problem. Jar Jar Binks isn’t funny. At all. A CGI bumbler who Lucas undoubtedly believed was going to become a beloved, mega-selling action figure became one of the most reviled characters ever.
Rob Schneider as Herman “Fergie” Ferguson in Judge Dredd
We’re not the biggest fans of SNL alum Rob Schneider. But he doesn’t deserve this.
Get it? Sloppy baby is funny because he’s covered in noodles! To be fair to Rob, Judge Dredd is full of terrible performances, and the script doesn’t give him much -- anything -- to work with. Those constraints didn’t stop Entertainment Weekly from calling Schneider “a human mugging machine who flits around our hero like an organ-grinder’s monkey.” Maybe Dredd should have blasted off Fergie’s head when he was found inside the recycled-food droid – now that's what we call comic relief.
Richard Pryor as Gus Gorman in Superman III
Unlike Schneider, Pryor is a certified comic genius. But he was firmly in the “collecting paychecks” portion of his cinematic career when he showed up in Superman III.
As computer genius Gorman, Pryor is woefully miscast. It’s a Love Boat celebrity cameo writ large, an opportunity for the audience to point and say “Hey, there’s Richard Pryor!” But there’s no sly subversion, none of the fireworks that would take place if the real Pryor met up with a metahuman. Instead, he’s a fawning fan--and what’s funny about that?
“Pryor can be a wicked, anarchic comic actor, and that presence would have been welcome here,” wrote Roger Ebert back in the day. “Instead, like the rest of Superman III, he's kind of innocuous.”
Quentin Tarantino as Jimmie Dimmick in Pulp Fiction
You can see what Quentin Tarantino the Writer was up to when he wrote Jimmie Dimmick -- let’s lighten up a gruesome “clean up the murder evidence” scene with a guy worrying about pissing off his wife, otherwise known as the Bonnie Situation.
Unfortunately for Tarantino the Writer, Tarantino the Director cast Tarantino the Actor as Jimmie. This role in the hands of a Steve, says Buscemi or Zahn? Chef’s kiss. But Quentin’s acting talent is directly inverse to his writing and directing acumen. In other words? He’s terrible.
What makes Jimmie Ugly vs. just plain Bad? We can start with Quentin’s rampant spewing of the N-slur, a habit that has instigated a long-running feud with Spike Lee. Then there’s the utterly unnecessary self-casting, a self-indulgent smudge on an otherwise classic film.
Gedde Watanabe as Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles
If John Hughes set an intention to create the most racially offensive Asian character possible, could he have done any worse than Long Duk Dong? (insert GOOOOONNNNG! sound effect here)
Many years after the fact, Sixteen Candles star Molly Ringwald called the Donger a “grotesque stereotype.” But young Watanabe was just trying to make people laugh. “Back then I didn't understand as much as I do now. I was a little bit ignorant.”
Watanabe even thinks Hughes may have been trying to be progressive, writing a young Asian character who was more interested in sex and partying than in stereotypical quiet studies. But most others disagree -- Asian-American groups have condemned the character as racist. We think even Mickey Rooney’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s character might agree.
Scrappy Freaking Doo
Hey Hanna Barbara, Scooby Doo was already the comic relief!
Do we have to explain this one? The obnoxious hellspawn known as “Scrappy” is a crime against humanity.
For more ComedyNerd, be sure to check out:
For ComedyNerd exclusive content and more, subscribe to our fancy newsletter:
Top image: Marvel Studios