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.