There is a great tradition in cinema of the normally “comic” actor going “serious”; even more of a risk, however, is when a full-time standup makes the transition to acting in the first place. It can be difficult, of course, to stand up on a stage trying to mine laughs – perhaps it is this inherent bravery that makes so many standups surprisingly effective when given real characters to develop. A new documentary, Dying Laughing, goes deep in discussion on the art of standup comedy; and understanding what makes a live comic tick can lead to a greater understanding of any performative art form. Which, in my head, was a much more appealing sentence.
For this list, we have one basic ground rule: all actors must have come straight from a mostly standup background. That means Robin Williams (one of the greatest standups of all time) is out, as his film debut came after well-established success on TV, with Mork and Mindy. It also means actors’ later films are out; Jim Carrey may have made some amazing films deeper into his career, but by the time of The Truman Show and Eternal Sunshine… he was no longer a standup in film; he was, simply, a film star. And, finally, the phrase “standup” excludes us from those who honed their talents almost exclusively in sketch or improv comedy – a different job, to be sure, but more specifically it’s explicit prep for an acting career in a way standup work isn’t. We therefore shed a tear for potential entries from Bill Murray, and the entirety of Second City, the Upright Citizens Brigade and the Groundlings.
10. I Smile Back (Sarah Silverman; 2015)
Silverman was already established as an actor by the time of I Smile Back – career highlights had included a Disney role (Wreck-It Ralph), her own Emmy-nominated show (The Sarah Silverman Program) and even getting short shrift in the otherwise brilliant School of Rock. Yet even by 2015, she was still largely known as a boundary-pushing comedian, one whose relatively frequent journeys into acting were usually, basically, extensions of her sarcastic persona. Step forward I Smile Back, a fairly so-so indie movie about addiction propped up by Silverman’s brilliant, SAG Award-nominated performance. The best part is that for all its “where did that come from?” appeal, it had been worming its way through Silverman’s work for two decades.
9. Sleeper (Woody Allen; 1973)
Allen had a fairly drawn-out transition from standup genius to full-time filmmaker; his teething period (referred to sardonically in Allen’s Stardust Memories as his “early, funny films”) spanned the late 1960s – What’s New, Pussycat?, Take the Money and Run – to the mid-’70s, as Bananas and Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex… showed him growing as a writing-directing-acting talent. Sleeper saw Allen inject a little philosophy into his usual style of nervy slapstick and genius one-liners; when his character, Miles Monroe, wakes up 200 years into the future, he must slowly learn the meaning of revolution. It is not dissimilar in tone and theme to Bananas – about a man’s accidental involvement in a South American uprising – but adding Diane Keaton to the mix as Allen’s foil, along with some genuinely worthwhile sci-fi satire, transformed Sleeper into Allen’s first movie with a message: that life’s only constants are sex and death. He hasn’t changed since.
8. Reality Bites (Janeane Garofalo; 1994)
Cult comic Garofalo found herself right at the centre of Gen X with her supporting role in Reality Bites. The film deals quite profoundly with twenty-something malaise, encompassing listlessness, romance, corporatism, and fear of AIDS among other things. The latter is where Garofalo’s Vickie comes in; she, and Reality Bites as a whole, is not particularly into apologising for any liberal lifestyle choices, but as with all things growing-up related there is always the spectre of consequences to deal with. Her performance made her a cult icon, outpacing even its nominal star, Winona Ryder; Garofalo’s response was to keep plugging away as a jobbing actor but remain, first and foremost, a comic. This is an imperfect film, but a perfect example of how, sometimes, a comedian can simply pop up, do their thing, and somehow be in step with an entire generation.
7. Sleepwalk with Me (Mike Birbiglia; 2012)
It is debatable whether this is as good as other recent comedian-auteur films (Chris Rock’s Top Five and this year’s The Big Sick, written by Kumail Nanjiani and Emily Gordon, for example), but Sleepwalk with Me should stand as an enduring example of how to transfer a standup set to a narrative film. In fact, it goes a little further: it not only takes us through the details of Birbiglia’s original show – and the resultant book – but because of the heavy (and almost unbelievable) autobiographical elements, we also get a highly realistic examination of standup itself. As comedian Matt’s (Birbiglia) life becomes more and more uncertain, his sleepwalking patterns get worse and worse. What we get is all-over-the-place in the best possible way; the pure id of a truly talented comic.
6. The Mask (Jim Carrey; 1994)
The birth of Robin Williams’ cinematic career was pretty manic, as he jumped from Mork and Mindy to Robert Altman’s Popeye. But even Williams’ rubbery gurning in his theatrical debut was nothing compared to Jim Carrey, whose particular talents were absolutely custom-made for this jazzy Jekyll and Hyde story. The film itself is little more than a vehicle for its star’s freestyle energy (Carrey’s performative approach is often described as “whirlwind”; so it is that his Mask persona is often represented as literally that), but as with Williams and Popeye, the ambitious attempt at creating a live-action cartoon often pays dividends. Opinion is split on whether The Mask or Ace Ventura is the better early Carrey film; this perhaps edges it simply for allowing the actor to completely disappear, into sublime madness.
5. Obvious Child (Jenny Slate; 2014)
Jenny Slate spent her career’s formative years working largely within sketch and standup, including a famously brief stint on Saturday Night Live. With Obvious Child, in which she played a standup navigating a directionless life, she made an assured bid as a full-time “real” actor. (And it paid off; she’s now been a Disney villain and everything.) Slate’s brilliantly varied performance, alternately livewire and quietly nuanced, is pushed along brilliantly by writer-director Gillian Robespierre, whose approach here is so uncontrivedly honest that it puts any similarly-pitched films to shame. Unlike that other famous unwanted-pregnancy film, Juno, Robespierre’s piece never allows its sentiment to bloom out of control; the result, already influential in the indie sphere, is nothing short of a manifesto, a brilliantly unforced feminist ode to sheer honesty.
4. Trading Places (Eddie Murphy; 1983)
After his debut, 48 Hrs., Eddie Murphy could’ve done anything. Thankfully, he continued playing the loudmouth dude who’s also the smartest man in the room. It’s not often you can build a career on a wild stereotype and have that literally not matter: Murphy was, at his heart, an absolute establishment-destroyer, a fast-talking punk for the fast-moving madness of the ’80s. Trading Places, and Beverly Hills Cop (released the same year), are both high comedies with the broadest of performances – and at the same time better indictments of rich-dude bullshit than anything else that decade (hello, Wall Street). At the centre of both is Murphy, playing comic silliness with an infectious smile while clearly, painfully mad as hell; every fibre of his being refusing to take this anymore.
3. Precious (Mo’Nique; 2009)
Unlike other entrants on this list, Mo’Nique wasn’t even working much as an actor before Lee Daniels cast her, directed her, and then watched her win an actual Oscar for the role of a tyrannical mother as much victim as villain. Actually, it’s a shame her peer Christoph Waltz, with his insta-icon Hans Landa, gained the lion’s share of attention that year – Mo’Nique genuinely gives the kind of beautifully-conceived performance you only come across every so often. Precious is sometimes accused of misery or poverty porn; but with the naturalistic truth evoked so bruisingly by its leads, it transcends every trope present to become a modern American classic.
2. The King of Comedy (Jerry Lewis & Sandra Bernhard; 1982)
A central joke in The King of Comedy – insofar as it features any jokes – is that the comedians don’t get to have much fun. Sandra Bernhard lets rip in the film’s second half, with a brilliant, unhinged series of monologues, but she’s not having fun; she’s flying apart at the seams, unable to cope with the fact she has everything she wants. Perhaps it’s the subtle realisation that having Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis) taped to a chair as she “seduces” him isn’t quite the romantic scenario she had in mind. Either way, she’s not quite having fun. And Lewis certainly isn’t having fun, as the late-night host kidnapped by insane, obsessive fans – as the story lunges, at its midpoint, into his night from hell, Scorsese’s underrated classic moves from painful pathos to wide-eyed psychodrama. Only De Niro, as desperate cipher Rupert Pupkin, is having fun – and he’s just pretending to be a comedian.
1. The Jerk (Steve Martin; 1979)
It’s not just that it’s a great film starring a standup, or even that it does well in harnessing its standup’s personality; The Jerk simply is the Steve Martin experience, taking one of the century’s greatest comics and giving audiences his special absurdism completely unadorned. The opening line (“I was born a poor black child”) is one of comedy’s most celebrated, and sequence after sequence – from gas-station assassin to Carl Reiner’s crossed eyes – makes you wanna give up and go home; who else could write anything so blissfully funny? It’s a love story, a bildungsroman, and a capitalist cautionary tale all rolled into one; it’s decidedly apolitical, but like Martin’s single finest one-liner (“I always thought the banjo was the one thing that could have saved Nixon”) the joke is clearly, grimly, on America. The Jerk is also, I think, a delightful parable about an African American’s personal successes. … Right?