Top 10 Actors Who Started Their Careers as Stand-Up Comedians
Actors all want to be musicians, musicians all want to be actors, and comedians are usually content to be miserable neurotics. The advantage of working out neurosis on stage is that it can be a great training ground for channeling emotion in front of an audience who aren’t shy about giving you instant feedback. In his autobiography, “Born Standing Up,” Steve Martin expounds on the idea of how his stand-up days helped mold him into the actor, writer, and musician he is today. That got me thinking about other stand-ups who’ve turned out brilliant acting performances, and can claim to be Actors with a capital A.
No big surprise out the gate. Robin was a tornado on stage in the 1980s, thanks to his naturally manic personality and a heaps of cocaine. Drugs, against all of Nancy Reagan’s pleas, have contributed more to the arts than the NEA. Robin used the stage to work out what would become his stable of characters he’d parade around in movies like Good Morning Vietnam and Mrs. Doubtfire. Robin is as guilty as any of us probably would have been in the same situation of “selling out” and making schlock to collect a fat check. Then again, for every Flubber there is a Fisher King, and for every Bicentennial Man, there is a World’s Greatest Dad. For the record, if you haven’t seen World’s Greatest Dad, directed by fellow comedian Bobcat Goldthwait, you really should.
No list of comedians turned Actors would be complete without Eddie. Sure Richard Pryor opened the door for his style of unfiltered unrestrained black-comedy-for-white-audiences, but Richard never made the leap to being considered an Actor (Superman III aside). As brilliant as Delirious and Raw were, Eddie has proven his acting up to par with his comedy. Ok, so Pluto Nash and Norbit were just awful, but Bowfinger and Dreamgirls were redemption for the one-time biggest star on the planet. The man can act.
Not only did Jim make the leap from rubber-faced stand-up comedian to Legitimate Actor, but he did so in style. To call his stand-up sophomoric would be extending him a courtesy. He was low-brow, silly, and simple. Even his first major theatrical vehicle features him singing opera out of his butt. It took a few very trusting studios to give him the chance he needed, but he has delivered three of the finest performances ever committed to film in Man on the Moon, The Truman Show, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. That Jim Carrey is Oscarless, is nothing short of a cinematic travesty. A bit much? I’m ok with that.
Steve Martin, for a moment in time, was the biggest comedian on the planet. For an even longer stretch, he was a reliable and bankable actor whose performances were often overlooked, possibly because they were just expected. Steve has been brilliant in dozens of movies; The Jerk, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Parenthood, My Blue Heaven, Little Shop of Horrors, Roxanne, L.A. Story, The Spanish Prisoner, etc… Now if we could just all collectively ignore the Cheaper By The Dozen and Pink Panther movies, that’d be terrrrrific.
Jack Black’s stand-up was rooted in his music, but that didn’t stop him from using his stage time to hone his acting skills. From rom-coms (Shallow Hal) to big budget Hollywood spectaculars (King Kong) his acting career has taken some bizarre turns, but it’s clear that when he focuses his manic energy, he’s capable of moving an audience.
Thank the lord for the internet – specifically YouTube. We Americans may never have seen the genius of Hugh Laurie’s comedy – be it in sketch form, or at a piano on stage. Definitely a stretch on the list, but his performance as Gregory House on the eponymous show is a magnet. He’s so singularly good that people tune in regularly in mass numbers to basically see the same show each week. The plot never changes, and we know this…yet we watch for Hugh. That’s a sign of a brilliant actor.
She hasn’t been funny in decades, unless you enjoy laughing at her Poise Pads commercials (which I do). BUT there was a magical time when Whoopi was actually pretty damn funny during the Comic Relief days at HBO. When she wasn’t on stage riffing, she was on set delivering mostly sound performances in films like Ghost and The Color Purple. Ok, so two movies.
I’ll be honest with you, I don’t think Jamie Foxx’s comedy was ever that funny, and his turns on In Living Color were mediocre at best. That said, he does satisfy the rules of the list (stand-up comedian who’s gone on to Act with a capital A.) I think his best work was in Collateral. Of course he was also great in Ray and Dreamgirls. Then again, against Stealth, pretty much anything looks good.
Did you know Bob Hope won 5 Oscars, and none of them for acting, writing, producing or even sound mixing? Amazing, really, considering just how much content Bob put out there. In his prime, Bob was a machine. He’s never really been known as an actor, but take a look back and you’ll find in the 40s and 50s he delivered. Do yourself a favor and check out 1942’s My Favorite Blonde.
Perhaps a bit of a cheat, as Michael never took his stand-up career too far, but he definitely paid some dues as a stand-up. Michael Keaton, in this author’s humble opinion, is one of the most misunderstood and least appreciated Actors of this or any generation. His portfolio is diverse because he’s always taking risks, which is what makes his performances so electric. From Beetlejuice to My Life, Batman to Jackie Brown, Michael Keaton has proven his Acting merit badge.
His work on Rescue Me alone warrants attention.
Not known for his acting so much as his writing and directing, there was a period when the one time stand-up flexed his acting muscles (mostly late 70s.)
When Kevin Pollack hits it right, it’s usually a home run. His turn as Hockney in The Usual Suspects is understated, but perfectly so. His impression of Christopher Walken is also stuff of legend.
Chris Rock has a deep filmography, but I was hard pressed to find a singular performance that was convincing enough to forget you were watching Chris Rock. Pookie was close, but everything else looks and feels like Rock “acting as…” Amazing comedian though.
Billy faces the same issue as Chris Rock. Aside from When Harry Met Sally and The Princess Bride, his performances tend to lack the depth to overcome the “hey, it’s Billy Crystal as…” level of his acting.
He hasn’t done too much, but he gets an honorable mention for his voice work as Remy in Ratatouille, which is as nuanced and dynamic a voice performance I’ve ever heard.