Taking Denzel Washington’s Comedies Seriously
When Denzel Washington was starting out, he got some good advice from an icon he admired. “Sidney Poitier told me the first three or four films you make will determine how you’re perceived in this business,” the two-time Oscar-winner recalled in 2010. Washington had just made his big-screen debut with Carbon Copy, a hacky 1981 comedy in which he played the long-lost son of a well-to-do white man (George Segal). The film tanked at the box office, and Washington wanted to be sure he didn’t repeat that mistake. “Later on, I was offered another comedy, but it wasn’t funny to me — I thought it was quite racist,” he said. “I didn’t take it, and I waited about six months and I got Cry Freedom,” the biopic that earned Washington his first Oscar nomination. “That movie changed everything. I could have taken that bad comedy and had a totally different career.”
Thank god that didn’t happen: Over the last 45 years, Washington has amassed as formidable a filmography as any actor during that time period. He’s a fine dramatic actor who’s also been a frequent action hero, the guise he’ll be returning to this weekend for The Equalizer 3. But of all the roles he’s taken over the decades, comedies have been few and far between. Maybe it’s because of the bad experience with Carbon Copy and that unnamed racist comedy that he turned down, but he’s rarely pursued funny films. That’s not to say he isn’t funny himself — he’s great on talk shows, and he’s delivered some killer one-liners in his dramas — but Washington hasn’t spent a lot of time worrying about crossing over into comedies like other luminaries such as, say, Meryl Streep have.
By my count, he’s made a grand total of six films that you would classify as comedies — or, at the very least, comedy-adjacent. They are Carbon Copy, The Mighty Quinn, Heart Condition, Much Ado About Nothing, The Preacher’s Wife and 2 Guns. (Mo’ Better Blues has comedy elements, for sure, but I’d still lump it in with the dramas.) Two of the six are good, two are terrible, two are meh — and, in one of the good ones, he’s part of the ensemble, not necessarily the lead. So, not a great track record. For a man who was selected in 2020 by The New York Times as the best actor of the 21st century, it’s curious how much he’s struggled with comedy. Perhaps “struggled” isn’t the right word — honestly, he just doesn’t seem all that interested in them. Nonetheless, I wanted to take a look at the handful of comedies he has done. Are they misunderstood masterpieces? No, but they’re fascinating. Most of us associate Washington with playing characters who exude serene confidence and effortless intensity. Comedies are where you see the master sweat a little.
The aforementioned Carbon Copy came out in September 1981, a year before Washington was part of the cast for the acclaimed NBC series St. Elsewhere. He’d been in a couple TV movies, but Carbon Copy was his first feature, and it’s a pretty dopey father-son comedy about racial and class divides. But what’s especially revealing, in hindsight, is that Washington’s character Roger is a sheltered, naive kid — the guy doesn’t possess any of the gravity or calm authority Washington would soon start projecting on screen.
Carbon Copy is pretty naive itself in terms of its simplified portrait of racism in America, but it’s got a good heart. And it was already clear that this Washington fella had some chops. The New York Times’ Janet Maslin called him “likable” in her review, and even at that stage of his career — he was only 26 when Carbon Copy opened — he’s brimming with charisma, despite the character being badly underwritten and the whole premise suffering from sitcom-itis. You could see why these were the sorts of movies he didn’t want to do — he was too good for junk like this. (By the way, in a conversation with The Talks, he gave a little more detail about that unnamed racist comedy that he later passed on: “One of them I called The N... They Couldn’t Kill. It was terrible. They said, ‘It’s a comedy!’ Yeah right. So I didn’t do that. They were going to pay me a lot of money and I really thought about it, but I didn’t do it.”)
Flash forward to the late 1980s: Washington had now established himself as an actor and star, boosting his profile with 1987’s Cry Freedom and winning an Oscar for 1989’s Glory. In between, he made The Mighty Quinn, in which played Xavier Quinn, a police chief in the Caribbean whose marriage is on the rocks and whose good buddy (Robert Townsend) might be a murderer.
A modest success at the time, The Mighty Quinn is one of those movies that longtime Denzel fans point to as among his most underrated, and it’s easy to see why. Almost a decade removed from Carbon Copy, he was finally in a smart romp that was sexy, funny and engaging — and could better harness his comedic talents.
You might be surprised if you watch The Mighty Quinn today — this is not the Denzel Washington to which we’ve become accustomed. In an interview with Jet at the time, he mentioned he was hungry for a part that allowed him to be a romantic leading man after doing so many dramas. (Worth pointing out: In the late 1980s, Washington also starred in a play, Checkmates, that was a satirical comedy about race and relationships.) The Mighty Quinn answered his prayer: Xavier was cocky and funny, wearing his sex appeal lightly.
“I’m not a big Hollywood star,” he insisted to The Talks. “I’m an actor. I’m called a star. That’s not what I am.” Maybe, but The Mighty Quinn suggested why the rest of us think of him as a star — after proving that he could do the heavy lifting in historical dramas and mournful biopics, here he was just having a blast. The film was a combination of whodunit, thriller and comedy, and it was easily the most entertaining movie Washington had made to that point. He reached greater heights later in his career, but I’m not sure he ever had more fun.
But the challenges of finding good comedies continued. A few months before the release of Mo’ Better Blues, his first of several collaborations with Spike Lee, Washington put out Heart Condition, arguably his worst film. The pitch: Bob Hoskins is a racist cop who has a heart attack, getting a transplant from Washington’s shady lawyer, who’s died in a car accident. Like All of Me except not funny at all, Heart Condition found Washington once again having to deal with a comedy whose racial sensitivity wasn’t so great.
“I had some material (in the script) that was offensive to Denzel,” writer-director James D. Parriott told the Los Angeles Times before Heart Condition’s release. “He said I was going over the top. I’m not a Black writer. We’ve got two polemic characters — the idea is to take a poor, white trash cop and put him against a slick Black lawyer. … There have been some (N-words) omitted that offended Denzel. A reference to ‘spade’ was omitted.” It didn’t matter: The film flopped, and the critics weren’t kind, but by that point Washington was on his way to winning an Oscar for Glory, quickly putting this disaster behind him. “(Heart Condition) definitely didn’t help him,” Parriott admitted in 2017. “It didn’t encourage him to do other comedies, for sure.”
Or at least ones not based on the works of William Shakespeare. A few years later — after starring in the love story Mississippi Masala and the epic biopic Malcolm X, two of his finest films — Washington signed up for Much Ado About Nothing, Kenneth Branagh’s hit 1993 adaptation of the Bard’s beloved comedy. Some in the large cast struggled with Shakespeare’s prose — cough, cough, Keanu Reeves — but Washington (who did Othello in school and Richard III in New York in the early 1990s) had no issue playing the chivalrous, gallant Don Pedro, who helps orchestrate a love connection between his loyal right-hand man Benedict (Branagh) and Beatrice (Emma Thompson), who seem to despise one another.
Washington has such a glow in Much Ado About Nothing. (I’m not sure if he’s ever smiled as much in any of his other movies.) And it sounds like the set was a joy. Doing press for the film, Washington said, chuckling, “People asked me today, ‘How did you prepare for the role?’ I said, ‘Well, I drank wine, I ate pasta and rode horses.’ … (Branagh) didn’t want, as he called it, ‘a tight-assed production.’” Washington wasn’t the lead in Much Ado About Nothing, but pretty soon he’d be doing almost nothing but star vehicles, so the film is now this great time capsule before the action-movie heroics of Crimson Tide or the airport-novel thrillers like The Pelican Brief. Soon, seriousness would become his calling card.
That seriousness also applies to Washington’s spiritual side: He’s been a devout Christian for a long time, and it guides his creative choices. “What I do, what I make, what I made — all of that — is that going to help me on the last day of my life?” he explained in a 2021 interview. “It’s about, ‘Who have you lifted up? Who have we made better?’” No doubt his faith helped spark his interest in doing a remake of The Bishop’s Wife, playing the Cary Grant role of Dudley, an angel sent down to help a struggling reverend (Courtney B. Vance) and his wife (Whitney Houston), who Dudley starts to develop feelings for.
It had been Washington who wanted Houston for The Preacher’s Wife. “Denzel started talking to me about this movie and how much he wanted me to do it,” she said in 1996. “I said that I heard that Julia Roberts was slated to do it. But Denzel said no. … Denzel said that you need someone who knows about church. He called me and we started talking about different things — working together, how good it would be because there is so much strife and stress and tribulation in the world, how spiritual it was, how the movie really hits home.”
Probably the most spiritual movie in Washington’s oeuvre, The Preacher’s Wife is a pretty predictable feel-good holiday flick. But Washington does something pretty rare in it — he’s a bit goofy and uncool. His angel is a major cornball, even though every woman in the film talks about how good-looking he is. (This is where it really helps to be Denzel Washington.) There’s nothing special about this light comedy, but it was nice to see him dial back the steeliness, while also hinting at the sort of inspirational dramas that would soon become part of his repertoire — whether as an actor (The Hurricane, Remember the Titans) or as a director (Antwone Fisher).
The Preacher’s Wife was 1996 — he wouldn’t get close to another comedy for almost 20 years. It would be great to report that Washington’s return to the funny was a triumph that proved he’s been making a grave miscalculation by not pursuing lighthearted fare. Alas, if you saw 2 Guns, you know this story doesn’t have the happiest of endings. Working with Contraband director Baltasar Kormákur, Washington quipped away as his DEA agent is forced to team up with Mark Wahlberg’s grumpy Navy SEAL to take down the bad guys. Hilarity did not ensue, although Washington gave it his all.
2 Guns came out during a time when Washington was doing a lot of marginal action films — for every good thriller (Unstoppable) or drama (Flight), there was a dud thriller (Safe House) or listless remake (The Magnificent Seven). His track record since has remained spotty — I really respected the prickly character study Roman J. Israel, Esq. and loved The Tragedy of Macbeth but wished he’d said no to the dull crime-thriller The Little Things. As for comedies, well, if you’ve wanted to see him be funny since, you’d have to content yourself with his chat-show appearances, like when he showed up on Jamie Foxx’s short-lived series Off Script, where he has a hoot singing Cardi B lyrics and making fun of Foxx’s movies. (Don’t feel bad, Denzel: Nobody watched Sleepless.)
Read the comments for Off Script, or any other of Washington’s interviews, and you’ll see the same thing: “I didn’t know he was this funny! Why doesn’t he do more of this?!” The actor swears he’s got a great sense of humor: During a Reddit Ask Me Anything, he was asked, “What is one fact about you that would surprise most people?,” prompting him to reply, “I’m a closet comedian. Hahaha! I have a quick wit, I don’t know if I could do jokes, but I’m a wise guy (not in the Italian sense).”
Every once in a while, that side of him comes through on the big screen. Lord knows he’s entertaining himself (and us) immensely while torturing Ethan Hawke’s rookie cop in Training Day. He’s great wisecracking throughout Spike Lee’s underrated thriller Inside Man. It’s no tragedy if Washington, who turns 69 in December, never has a great comedy to his name — he’s on Mount Rushmore already. But the times he’s given it a whirl, while the results may be uneven, they have provided a parallel-reality Denzel Washington that makes you appreciate the one we have even more. He doesn’t have to prove to anyone that he’s funny — there’s plenty of evidence out there that he is. But after years of wowing us with his fastball, it would be amazing to see him pull out the changeup a little more often.