The Best Dramatic Work From ‘Saturday Night Live’ Alumni
Very rarely does Saturday Night Live get serious. During the early days of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the show opened with the Ukrainian Chorus Dumka of New York delivering a solemn rendition of “Prayer for Ukraine.” More often, though, the long-running show addresses the dramas of the real world through jokes. But after stars leave SNL, they sometimes want to explore their darker or more sensitive side, hungry to prove that they can be more than funny.
With that in mind, here’s a list of 15 SNL alums and each of their most successful dramatic role. Occasionally, the tonal change of pace led to Emmy wins and Oscar nominations. But every once in a while, it only demonstrated that these comedians’ strong suit was one-liners, not somber emoting.
Dan Aykroyd: Driving Miss Daisy
The movie that’s often held up as one of the most undeserving Best Picture winners, Driving Miss Daisy was nominated for nine Academy Awards, one of those going to Aykroyd, who was up for Best Supporting Actor. He plays Boolie, the endlessly patient son of Jessica Tandy’s Daisy Werthan, who initially resists the idea that she needs someone to drive her around.
To be sure, Boolie is more of a lightly comedic role, with Aykroyd working an awkward Southern accent as his character tries to convince his racist mother that her chauffeur, kindly Hoke (Morgan Freeman), isn’t a bad guy. It’s a perfectly solid performance, although it didn’t necessarily suggest that Aykroyd had a future as a dramatic actor. Nonetheless, at the 62nd Academy Awards, the one-time Blues Brother was up against the likes of Danny Aiello (Do the Right Thing) and eventual winner Denzel Washington (Glory), and he can always say he was in a movie that took home Hollywood’s biggest prize — even if most people don’t hold that movie in the highest esteem.
Billy Crystal: Mr. Saturday Night
Even in his comedies, Crystal has tended toward the sentimental and the heartfelt, resulting in beloved classics like When Harry Met Sally that aren’t dramas, per se, but certainly have a serious side to them. But he never reached for pathos more profoundly than he did with his 1992 feature directorial debut, a cautionary tale about a once-popular stand-up, Buddy Young Jr., who burned bridges professionally and alienated those closest to him.
In Mr. Saturday Night, which Crystal also starred in and co-wrote, the City Slickers star is, in a sense, doing a comedy version of Citizen Kane, riffing on the fall of a great man due to his ego and desperate need to be loved by the public. That’s an interesting idea — after all, don’t most funny people crave the audience’s approval? — but although Crystal definitely puts his soul into the project, there’s a cloying quality to this drama that keeps it from being as incisive as it could be. Where other comics showed another side when they got dramatic, Crystal tended to only remind us why he’s best sticking to laughs.
Will Ferrell: Stranger Than Fiction
The Anchorman star has occasionally mixed things up, pivoting to darker or more grounded material like Everything Must Go or The Shrink Next Door. But on the whole, Ferrell’s finest dramatic turn was in this fantastical character piece, in which he plays Harold, an IRS agent who starts hearing the voice of an unseen narrator (Emma Thompson) and realizes that he’s the protagonist of a novel that’s being written.
When it debuted in November 2006, Stranger Than Fiction was compared to The Truman Show, another comedy-drama starring a comedic giant who’s trapped in a world he can’t control. But as great as Jim Carrey is in that Oscar-nominated film, Ferrell brings a normal-guy energy to Harold that makes his plight more relatable. Partly, that’s because Ferrell was often good on SNL and in movies lampooning the mediocrity of regular dudes. In Stranger Than Fiction, though, that mediocrity is a permanent, lamentable condition, not one being mocked.
Tina Fey: Whiskey Tango Foxtrot
Despite all her success on television — whether we’re talking Saturday Night Live, 30 Rock or Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt — Fey has rarely had the same good fortune on the big screen, outside of Mean Girls. In 2016, though, she tried her hand at something a little more serious, starring in Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, based on a memoir, about an American journalist doing fluff pieces who decides to go to Afghanistan to cover the U.S. occupation.
The film, written by her frequent collaborator Robert Carlock, was a commercial bomb that received lukewarm reviews. Partly, the problem was that Whiskey Tango Foxtrot was an unpersuasive mix of drama, dark comedy and a love story. (Martin Freeman played a photographer she meets.) Still, it was interesting to see Fey tackle weightier fare for once, portraying a woman who’s looking for personal fulfillment in the midst of a country that often treats her gender like second-class citizens.
Bill Hader: Barry
This HBO series wins Emmys in the comedy category, and it’s certainly very funny. But what made Barry so acclaimed was, in part, how it demonstrated that Bill Hader wasn’t “just” one of the all-time best SNL cast members. Co-creating the series, about a hitman who begins to question his life once he enrolls in an L.A. acting class, Hader crafted a sharp satire about showbiz insecurities while also delivering a riveting thriller with impressive action sequences. And if that wasn’t enough, Hader also gave a compelling performance as a man dealing with mental health issues while trying to stay alive and become an actor.
Of those on this list, Hader’s jump to drama might be the most impressive because it’s the most complete. With Barry, he’s established himself as a proper auteur, earning plaudits for his acting, writing and directing. That he hasn’t succumbed to self-seriousness along the way is even more encouraging. Like his show, Hader has proven able to balance the comedic and dramatic sides of his personality.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus: Enough Said
Thanks to her titanic success with the iconic comedies Seinfeld and Veep, it might be easy to forget that Louis-Dreyfus spent three seasons on SNL before her sitcom stardom. She’s never done a straight dramatic role — unless you count those flowery write-ups Elaine did for J. Peterman’s catalog — but she’s terrific in Enough Said, a romantic dramedy in which she and the late, great James Gandolfini played divorced single parents who start dating. (There’s a wrinkle, though: She discovers that one of her friends is his ex-wife.)
Written and directed by Nicole Holofcener, Enough Said is a gently funny, mostly bittersweet look at middle-aged romance, which is complicated by the realities of raising kids and dealing with the looming reality of becoming an empty-nester. Louis-Dreyfus’ most acclaimed work has found her being ruthlessly funny, never stooping to cheap sentimentality in the name of laughs, but here she’s far sweeter without sacrificing any of her smarts. And she and Gandolfini have terrific chemistry: If Louis-Dreyfus had wanted to do a bunch of grownup rom-coms, she would have been terrific in them.
Eddie Murphy: Dreamgirls
Because he’s such an explosive, cocky comedic performer, Murphy was a smart choice to play Jimmy “Thunder” Early, a charismatic 1960s singer fashioned after real-life musicians like James Brown. But Dreamgirls also gave Murphy the chance to show a vulnerability he rarely had on screen once Jimmy begins to face commercial failure and addiction issues.
For a guy who rarely does drama, Murphy proved incredibly effective at it, conveying the dark side of the entertainment industry as Jimmy spirals out of control, resulting in tragedy. The change-of-pace performance earned the star some of his best reviews and his only Oscar nomination, losing to Alan Arkin in Little Miss Sunshine. But Dreamgirls ended up being a fitting full-circle moment for Murphy, who had parodied James Brown back during his SNL days. Decades later, he tapped into the same megawatt charisma, not to mention the musical abilities that had made him a hit on the Billboard charts with songs like “Party All the Time.”
Bill Murray: Lost in Translation
Early in Murray’s film career, he tried his hand at drama, starring in and co-writing the 1984 adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s novel The Razor’s Edge. It would be about 20 years until he again focused on serious fare, playing Bob, a washed-up actor in Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation. Much like his work in Wes Anderson’s films, Murray zeroed in on a sad-sack guy who seemed perpetually blue, falling into a friendship with an unhappy wife (Scarlett Johansson) on a trip to Japan with her husband.
For a period of time, Lost in Translation became Murray’s signature dramatic role, the epitome of his trademark frumpy, discontented style. He earned an Oscar nomination for the part, losing to Sean Penn in Mystic River, but it helped elevate his artistic cachet, suggesting that he had evolved beyond comedies to something more refined and melancholy, a persona he further cultivated in acclaimed indies like Broken Flowers and The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou. If there’s an SNL alum who patented the image of the sad clown, it’s Murray.
Mike Myers: 54
The Austin Powers star has occasionally appeared in dramatic films. (Yup, that’s him in Inglourious Basterds.) But the comic only once attempted a full-on serious role, albeit in a movie many missed. That would be 1998’s 54, a portrait of the hedonistic 1970s New York club, in which he played co-owner Steve Rubell. It was a very different part for Myers, whose libidinous Rubell is instantly taken with Shane (Ryan Phillippe), the hunky main character who becomes a regular at the club. Because Myers is so associated with big goofballs like Wayne Campbell and Powers, it was jarring to see him portray a real-life overgrown adolescent whose empire will eventually come crashing down.
Severely re-edited before its release, 54 bombed at the time and received terrible reviews, the film being somewhat rescued by a director’s cut that came out years later. However, neither version is necessarily a masterpiece, and Myers promptly went on to do Shrek and Austin Powers sequels, never again trying his hand at something so dramatic. It’s just one of many reasons that 54 is a fascinating artifact, if not exactly a great movie.
Chris Rock: New Jack City
A defining stand-up of his generation, Rock has often shown cinematic ambitions, writing and directing films like Top Five or starring in arthouse indies such as 2 Days in New York. But his most impressive big-screen outing remains New Jack City, the 1991 crime drama in which he plays Pookie, a Harlem crook who ends up a junkie.
It was a frightening performance, with Rock channeling his amped-up intensity for a character who seemed to have his very soul sucked out of him because of his crack addiction. Indeed, the movie was part of an era of films that looked unromantically at the scourge of drugs in the poorest communities in America’s biggest cities. (Soon after, Samuel L. Jackson would be equally harrowing as a fellow addict in Jungle Fever.) Sadly, Rock has never been given a role as compelling since, although he received great reviews for the fourth season of Fargo.
Maya Rudolph: Away We Go
In recent years, Rudolph has been the star of streaming series like Forever and Loot, which have been reminders of how underrated an onscreen presence she is. She blends into an ensemble so well that it’s easy to overlook her — she’s subtly great, not the sort of comic dynamo that blows you away. (That said, her Whitney Houston and Beyoncé impressions on SNL were pretty wonderful.)
Not surprisingly, then, one of her biggest film roles was in a pretty quiet film. Starring alongside John Krasinski, Rudolph breaks your heart in Away We Go, a modest comedy-drama about a couple who are about to have a baby, using the impending birth as a springboard to evaluate their lives — including deciding where they want to move to raise their child. She and Krasinski have a lived-in chemistry that always feels very real, and Rudolph does a good job of not overselling her character’s anxieties about the future. (The specific reason why she’s so anxious is something I don’t want to spoil in case you never saw this slept-on indie.) This unassuming but poignant film about relationships and parenthood is worth seeking out.
Adam Sandler: Uncut Gems
It’s a testament to the Sandman that you can have a passionate argument about which of his dramatic roles is the best. But with all due respect to Hustle and Reign Over Me, the debate is between Punch-Drunk Love, which first suggested the comic’s potential to be serious, and Uncut Gems. I’m going with the latter: The Paul Thomas Anderson film remains a stunner, but what the Safdies dreamed up for Sandler required an even higher degree of difficulty. And Sandler was spectacular.
Howard (Sandler), a New York jeweler, is addicted to gambling and drowning in debt, and over the course of a few increasingly stressful days, he will risk his life and the relative contentment of his family for what he believes will be a massive score. Sandler harnesses all of his impish charm for this portrayal of a truly despicable human being — he’s a guy you ought to hate, but the longtime star makes you end up loving him. Taking home the Independent Spirit Award for his risk-taking performance, Sandler crafted one of the great modern portrayals of the American Dream going to hell. That he wasn’t nominated for an Oscar was criminal.
Molly Shannon: Other People
In Me and Earl and the Dying Girl and Private Life, the onetime Mary Katherine Gallagher has been a reliable dramatic presence in smaller supporting roles, but she really shined, and won an Independent Spirit Award, as Joanne, a mother dying of cancer, in SNL writer Chris Kelly’s autobiographical feature debut.
Other People may have been a tiny indie, but it’s enormously moving, starring Jesse Plemons as a depressed comedy writer who leaves New York to go home to Sacramento to take care of his mom. That description might make the movie sound like one more disease-of-the-week weepie, but Shannon is so authentic (and also funny) in the part that she thumbs her nose at the obvious clichés. Other People is a story about a mother and a son, and you can understand why the son went on to be a comedian: He got his sense of humor from his mom, who won’t let her illness keep her from showing her son how much she loves him.
Jason Sudeikis: Ted Lasso
Most would understandably consider Ted Lasso to be a comedy, but one of the reasons the Apple TV+ series has become a sensation is that there’s a core of sincerity and seriousness to it that’s far removed from the more outrageous parts Sudeikis has played on SNL and in movies like Horrible Bosses. As the title character, the funnyman conveys an unstoppable positivity, but as viewers would learn, such optimism was a way for this lovable coach to buttress himself against the sadness he’s feeling underneath.
In a different way than his old pal Hader, Sudeikis has demonstrated how modern SNL alums can make the jump from comedy to drama without sacrificing their humorous sides. Ted Lasso, which he helped develop, doesn’t skimp on the laughs, but it’s allowed him to find a way to explore material that’s about more than just jokes. Sometimes, comedians think they need to drastically switch tones to prove their artistic bona fides. Sudeikis just slapped on a mustache and spoke from the heart.
Kristen Wiig: The Skeleton Twins
One of SNL’s best impressionists, Wiig has been choosy about her film projects, earning an Oscar nomination for screenwriting for Bridesmaids. She’s focused primarily on comedies, although she has done some strong dramatic work in films like The Diary of a Teenage Girl. She’s even better in director Craig Johnson’s melancholy look at suicidal siblings Maggie (Wiig) and Milo (Hader).
Although The Skeleton Twins has plenty of darkly funny moments, the film is primarily a muted exploration of adults whose lives haven’t worked out. Wiig and Hader are, of course, so well known for their time together on SNL, but they’re credible siblings, each of them channeling the same resigned disappointment. What’s especially good about Wiig in the film is how she seems to empty out all the mischievous energy that’s long been her comedic trademark. There’s nothing quirky or strange about Maggie — just a nagging sense that her lies to her husband (Luke Wilson) and her going-nowhere affair with her scuba instructor (Boyd Holbrook) are just different cries for help. Wiig has often played depression and anxiety for laughs, but in The Skeleton Twins she found a more human register for those very relatable conditions.