Why Comedians Make Good Actors

There always seems to be an endless string of tall, thin, glossed, photogenic, “pretty” women who decide to try their lot with the dramatic arts. In other words, models-turned-actresses or MTAs, in showbiz lingo. These performers take a few acting classes and presume that just because they can generate emotions in front of a camera, they can act. Even an Oscar winner such as Charlize Theron looks blank much of the time onscreen, and then “acts” by emoting wildly in a dramatic scene. With a few notable exceptions, such as Audrey Hepburn (whose voice was incredibly expressive) and Penelope Cruz, these MTAs can’t act, or perhaps to be more charitable, they are not the best actors.

However, there is another group of performers who go into acting whom I think are far more successful: comedians. Think of Alex Borstein (a female comedian who is phenomenal as Susie on “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”), Adam Sandler, Bill Cosby, Robin Williams, Melissa McCarthy, Whoopi Goldberg, Jason Sudeikis, and Jim Carrey to name a few. They made their name and comedy, but they have been able to cross over into dramatic roles quite respectively. Even Will Ferrell, whom I do not find funny, is quite good as a straight actor.

Why is this so? I believe it is because comedians must have an impeccable sense of timing. Especially for those who began as stand-up comedians, a split second makes all the difference with a joke. And for those who spent time in improv, how you react to the other actor and saying yes to all the different variations you can create in a scene make for rich possibilities in multiple takes in a film.

Also, with most comedians, there is a great importance placed on the word. Where or how you emphasize a word makes all the difference in creating humor. Many comedians also write their own material, so they understand the importance of the text in driving a performance onstage or onscreen.

When you add physical comedy into the mix, as is/was the case with physical performers like Jim Carrey and the late, great Robin Williams, they understand how to inhabit a character–the character’s gestures, body language, movement, etc. The LeCoq technique (by late French pedagogue Jacques LeCoq), for example, features an exercise where students physicalize a word in front of other students, such as “give,” “take,” etc.

Finally, one could also make the point that the counterpart to comedy is tragedy. The stereotype is that many comedians have suffered difficulties in their lives, so perhaps they understand tragic drama well. Perhaps it is more accurate to say that to understand comedy, one has to understand the seriousness in it. Great actors have often spoke of the challenges of doing comedy, that it is harder than doing dramatic acting, because the actor must believe in the seriousness of what one is saying. The actor can’t be laughing at the situation, because for them, it is true: the comedy comes from the situation. In any case, we are graced with excellent performances by gifted thespians who are both comedians and dramatic actors.

Black Artists Matter

In a sense, it seems foolish to single out black artists, solely for the reason that a great artist is a great artist, no matter what her/his/their race is. However, given the recent tragic, violent events (that are still continuing), it is fitting to pay tribute to them. I think everyone in the arts has to have a personal canon, an individual pantheon of greats, follow a particular “lineage” (that will be the subject of a post in the future). Here’s a list of some of my favorite artists/works of art that made an impression on me, by artists who just happen to be black.

The characters on “Sesame Street.” Who didn’t have feel-good vibes from Gordon and Susan? (And then, as a corollary, Morgan Freeman as Easy Reader on “The Electric Company?”) This is so crucial, as from a young age, if we expose children to diversity, it becomes something very ordinary. Children don’t discriminate in the way adults do. A child will look with loving eyes at a black character simply because they feel love for that character, because that character puts them at ease. Sesame Street was groundbreaking in the way it featured a diverse cast, yet it was not something we children were conscious of. Gordon was Gordon, Mr. Hooper was Mr. Hooper, Maria was Maria. Decades later, it was an incredible thrill to see “Maria” on the street or on the bus when I lived in New York City!

“The Cosby Show.” Before we knew what a disgusting, perverse, frightening monster Bill Cosby was, there was his fabulous, entertaining, family-friendly show that we adored as kids and teens. My generation grew up with Bill Cosby, seeing him on commercials, hearing his voice on “Fat Albert,” watching him with the goofily-named marker Ichabod Mortimer on “Picture Pages” on the children’s show “Captain Kangaroo,” movies, TV shows, and then his own eponymous show. His gift for comic timing, clean humor, onomatopoeic gags, and physical comedy were nothing short of genius. The revelation that he was a drugging rapist feels, to many of us, like we were personally violated and betrayed. We grew up with The Cos, he was our dad, America’s Dad.

Reading Lena Horne’s autobiography in the seventh grade left quite an impression on me. It was quite long, and I was fascinated by her challenges and how she overcame them. She was also incredibly beautiful and talented.

Richard Wright’s Native Son. The sheer power of the novel, when I read it in the 10th grade, was beyond belief. It is a disturbing novel, and not without controversy (James Baldwin famously disliked it). As a writer, I strive for emotional complexity and like writing about emotional dilemmas. This book is rife with them, for there is no clear-cut good or bad. James Baldwin I only came to very late, but he is a stunning prose stylist and one of America’s top intellectuals.

Reading Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon for my AP English class was mind-blowing. It was not merely a book; it was literature. It was the first time I understood what literature was, something beyond two covers, something that was complex, full of symbols, unique prose, and transcendent.

John Coltrane. Hearing “Giant Steps” for the first time my sophomore year in college in a jazz theory class was nothing short of a revelation. We had been given the score, but the pace at which the saxophone line moved was like lightning and nearly impossible to follow. How did anyone have the genius to do that? How could anyone create those rapid chord changes and put a melody on top of it that still made sense, musically? When ‘Trane plays the sax, it sings. That is the ultimate compliment to give any instrumental musician. Coltrane also went on a spiritual journey through his life, one that was continued by his widow, Alice, a gifted musician in her own right. We lost him too soon. Thankfully, generations can enjoy his genius on recordings. As a lifelong jazz fan, there are too many favorites for me to name, but let it suffice to say that jazz is America’s contribution to the world, thanks to all the brilliant black musicians who have created an art form that has been inclusive and inspiring to non-black musicians of all genres.

Oprah. What can we say that hasn’t been said already? Oprah doesn’t do junk. Anything she puts in front of us is uplifting, of good quality. Consider her own journey–from unwed teenage mother to news reporter to talk show host, media mogul, America’s Mother Confessor to whom even the most difficult people will open up, and spiritual seeker who encourages everyone to look deep within, examine their issues, and operate from a place of healthiness and joy. There is no one in the world like her. And of course, we have to give a shout out to her longtime partner, Stedman Graham, who must be the most emotionally secure male on the planet!

The great opera singers. Highest admiration for my last voice teacher, legendary tenor George Shirley, who won the National Medal of the Arts from Obama a few years ago. Truly a great artist, and (literally everyone will affirm) a great human being. And of course, the other legends like Leontyne Price, Jessye Norman, Kathleen Battle, Denyce Graves, and even current stars like Lawrence Brownlee and Nicole Cabell (who is part black, white, and Korean and a truly beautiful person inside and out.) Black singers have made a huge contribution to the world of opera, no one can deny that.

Aretha Franklin. That voice from the pit of her soul–anytime I listen to “Respect,” I get goosebumps. I was fortunate to see Aretha perform in Detroit a few years before she died. She could’ve made a living as a piano player just as well. A voice like that was nothing short of a divine gift.

James Brown. I was also fortunate to see him perform shortly before he died, and as I watched him dance, I realized he had been given a gift of rhythm. This is not to discount his fierce work ethic (something that often frustrated his band), but even with all the hard work in the world, an artist of that caliber was clearly gifted with something.

Arthur Ashe. Not quite an artist, but an icon in the world of tennis. Tennis is one of the few sports I have followed since I was very little, and though I was probably too young to really understand much of what was going on, I remember Ashe being quite the star and a calm, well-spoken man who had to overcome many barriers. He died much too young from AIDS due to a blood transfusion. Watch any interview with him and it will move you to tears–it is heartbreaking to think of his early loss.

These are my canon of my favorite artists who are black; who are yours?