As Hollywood continues to feel the effects of the streaming boom, the sheer volume of platforms throwing money at streaming movies and (especially) TV shows has kept A-list actors busy in a way that the faltering big screen, star vehicle economy has not. For the moment, this has also led to a supersized number of classic career moves—like comic actors making a serious departure into more dramatic projects.
This fall alone has seen Melissa McCarthy do a grief drama for Netflix, Will Ferrell and Paul Rudd taking psychological turns in The Shrink Next Door for Apple TV+, and Kevin Hart attempting a Netflix crime drama with True Story. A detour to the dramatic side seems to be an inevitable complication in the career of nearly anyone who’s ever starred in a hit comedy (give or take a Dane Cook)—so let’s take a look at the recent history of comedians intentionally forsaking laughs.
Looking purely at their box-office track records, Jim Carrey and Adam Sandler both belong in the discussion for most successful comedy star of all time. Of course, they’d probably have to fight for second place after Eddie Murphy, though Murphy has put out more outright bombs than either of them—and, interestingly, has taken fewer non-comedic roles. (More on that shortly.)
After toiling in small parts, failed sitcoms, and the sketch comedy series In Living Color, Carrey’s Ace Ventura kicked off a stunning 1994 featuring no fewer than three big comedy hits, with several more comedy smashes in the years that followed. Sandler’s leading-man career began around the same time, with a few sleeper hits building an audience for his big 1998-1999, when The Wedding Singer, The Waterboy, and Big Daddy put him close to Carrey’s level. Around the turn of the century, they both decided to experiment with roles that couldn’t be more or less summarized by the title of the movie.
Carrey had dabbled in some serious roles pre-superstardom, most dramatically in the Fox TV movie Doing Time On Maple Drive, where he played an alcoholic. Sandler, though, was pretty much locked into the stand-up-to-sketch-comedy-to-comedy-movies pipeline; for a while, Big Daddy looked like his version of a big dramatic departure, because he doesn’t succumb to as many fits of slapstick animal rage, and even cries in one scene. It wouldn’t exactly be fair to call Carrey or Sandler’s initial forays into drama cautious, but they both riff closely on their established comic personas.
In The Truman Show, Carrey deftly plays a man who doesn’t realize his life is a round-the-clock TV show—that performance has been unconsciously baked into his very existence. (It’s a clever inverse of Carrey’s image as a man who is always consciously on.) Carrey continued to get serious about comedy and performance by playing Andy Kaufman in Man On The Moon, a serious movie about a funny guy. Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love, meanwhile, is basically a classic Sandler vehicle, recontextualized with pulsing anxiety and Anderson’s lyricism, and the less successful Spanglish is, in some ways, an anticipation of the well-to-do dads Sandler would play in later phases of his dopey-comedy career. (The movie is a mess, but Sandler is very good in it.)
Neither Carrey nor Sandler abandoned their comic roots—Carrey’s next big movie is a Sonic The Hedgehog sequel, while Sandler continues to churn out silly comedies for Netflix—but they’ve both added some major career highlights by dabbling outside of broad comedy. It would also be a kick to see them swap their more serious collaborators: Let’s see Jim Carrey in a Noah Baumbach family drama, and Adam Sandler in a Michel Gondry rumination on dreams and memory!
As common as it is to see comedians try their hand at drama, it’s rare to see them deny their genre of origin for longer than a few projects at a time. While Steve Carell will probably turn up in a comedy at some point in the next decade, he seemed to take his exit from The Office as a pledge to step away from broader antics seen in The 40-Year-Old Virgin or Date Night. Sad-sack dramedies like Dan In Real Life and Crazy, Stupid, Love became the norm, and even those have been in short supply in recent years.
To his credit, Carell has avoided comedy primarily by signing up for supporting roles in the types of movies that Hollywood makes with vexing infrequency: character-driven dramas like Last Flag Flying and Foxcatcher, intimate relationship movies like Hope Springs, and whatever the hell Welcome To Marwen is.
Most of these performances have comic notes of some sort or another (save Foxcatcher, from one of our most humor-averse filmmakers)—and for that matter, there’s plenty of pathos in Carell’s best comic work. But it would be difficult to argue that he’s made anything as good as Virgin in the past five or six years. (For that matter, Date Night is better than a lot of these movies, too.) When he does venture back onto sorta-comic grounds for a movie like Irresistible, he brings along the same tics and cadences of his comedy work, only with a stiff sense that he’s playing the hits for the rubes in service of something greater.
The late Robin Williams didn’t wait an especially long time before trying drama. He studied at Juilliard, and his third-ever film appearance was in The World According To Garp, a John Irving adaptation. On that same note, many of his biggest hits chased his comic whirlwind with some manner of dramatic reflection. But his image in the popular consciousness was cemented by the sitcom Mork & Mindy and his stand-up performances: the unstoppable comic force of a thousand (or at least a dozen) personalities and voices.
Bill Murray, meanwhile, came to prominence around the same time as Williams, and quickly established himself as a comic leading man with the likes of Meatballs, Stripes, and Ghostbusters. (The Razor’s Edge, a 1984 drama, was a rare exception that wound up proving the rule by bombing.)
Both Williams and Murray became more “serious” actors with the help of a typically pernicious influence: the terrible lure of Oscar gold. Serious turns from successful comic performers are near-universally understood as a desperate plea for awards glory, but in the case of Williams, that beats the desperate pleas for laughter that characterize his weaker pure comedies.
Good Morning, Vietnam and Dead Poets Society place Williams’ riffs in more realistic context, and the Academy was right to nominate him for movies like those two and The Fisher King, and to award him the Best Supporting Actor trophy for Good Will Hunting. This was some of his best work, and likely influenced more daring later turns in movies like Insomnia and World’s Greatest Dad—as well as some gloppy, sentimental hybrids like Patch Adams. But you have to take the good with the bad.
Murray had already largely taken on the life of a supporting-actor scene-stealer by the time Lost In Translation netted him his first Oscar nomination, but that movie, as well as his ongoing collaboration with Wes Anderson, shifted audience expectations from fast-talking wiseass to a drier, more melancholic form of vintage Murray. At this point, that more tempered sensibility has been a part of his persona for the majority of his career.
As mentioned above, Eddie Murphy may be the biggest comedy star of all time; his box office run from 1982 to 1992 would probably be enough to claim that title, and he’s had plenty of additional hits since that peak period. One thing he hasn’t done much of, though, is drama, unless you’re counting his weirdly grim visage in Beverly Hills Cop III.
Like fellow SNL vet Bill Murray, Murphy both received an overdue Oscar nomination in 2000s and seemingly reacted with great disappointment when he lost. But that supporting turn in Dreamgirls is one of just a handful of non-comedic Murphy roles, and it’s so full of his trademark showmanship and flashy charm that it fits in pretty well with his other work.
The more thoroughly “serious” Murphy part is in a movie hardly anyone saw: Mr. Church, where he plays a soft-spoken cook and caretaker to a young woman. It’s pretty bad, but Murphy acquits himself well enough—and has sleepwalked through so many middling family comedies with squishy sentimental scenes—that it’s hard to understand why he hasn’t done more non-comedies.
Then again, maybe the lesson in Murphy’s seeming reluctance to do awards-bait dramas should be that he deserves recognition for something like Bowfinger, a far more virtuosic performance than any number of Oscar winners. The most recent awards-buzzed Murphy role bears that out: Dolemite Is My Name is more comic biopic than self-consciously dramatic departure.
Another ex-SNL star, Will Ferrell spent some time as the seeming heir to the post-Murphy likes of Jim Carrey and Adam Sandler. But as his status as the go-to comedy leading man has gradually diminished, his choices have maintained a whimsical sensibility. Sometimes he’ll do a big, dumb, family-oriented studio comedy, sometimes he’ll decide to make a straight-faced Lifetime movie with Kristen Wiig, and sometimes he’ll clock in for a cameo in a movie you’ve never heard of.
His choices are more eccentric than Murphy’s, but their dramatic turns are similarly few and far between. In the mid-2000s—his peak era as a box-office draw—Ferrell indulged his more serious side with a supporting role in the standard-issue quirky melancholia of Winter Passing and a leading turn in the Gondry-esque dramedy Stranger Than Fiction. Since then, though, he’s stuck almost exclusively to comedies or comic experiments, even as his longtime collaborator Adam McKay has directed his satirical instincts toward more (self-) serious endeavors.
Ferrell has spoken about his desire to stick with comedy, so The Shrink Next Door might feature his most serious-minded performance for a while. It’s almost an alternate-world McKay movie, as Ferrell reunites with Anchorman and Step Brothers co-stars like Paul Rudd and Kathryn Hahn.
It’s this miniature not-quite-comic ensemble that makes Shrink compelling; it’s hard to imagine it working as well with actors known primarily for straighter parts. Ferrell seems to understand that comedians can keep making departures, and even give career-best performances doing so, but comedy will wait for them—whether they want it to or not.