Comedy versus comedic actors

There're sitcoms, comedies, spoofs, etc. etc. and then there's comedic actors.

For instance, on the sitcom Reba, although everyone is an adequate actor, only Steve Howey and Melissa Peterman, who play Van and Barbra, are actual comedic actors. On the show CSI, Greg is given funny lines and is almost a comedic actor, but oddly enough, CSI's best comedic actor is Brass. In the Sherlock Holmes episode, Brass tells one of the suspects to "cut the English accent." "I can't," the man replies, "this is my accent" at which point, Brass makes a kind of "what's it to me" gesture. It's very funny (and lightly done), and it's this physical/verbal ability that separates the actor who has been given funny lines from the actor who can actually do comedy. On NCIS, for example, despite the jokey script, the only vaguely comedic actor is the doctor.

It's a difficult thing to parse out. Howey and Peterman from Reba are broad comedy actors: that is, the Jim Carrey school of comedy: funny faces, overacting, etc. and it's hard to imagine them doing anything else. Ashton Kutcher is a good example of someone who is very good at playing the straight dumb man of broad comedy but because he is so good (at that) and so very good looking, he's gotten picked up to play more serious roles that aren't really his forte. Just because nobody else on That 70's Show can act (and I like them all) doesn't mean Kutcher can.

While David Boreanaz of Buffy and Angel is actually a fabulous comedic actor, he just never got much of a chance. If you don't believe me, just watch the episode where he dances and the one where he sings. The guy is good. He does broad comedy mostly. Sophisticated comedy is difficult to pull off. James Marsters, a better actor than Boreanaz, is stronger on sophisticated comedy, as indicated by my brother Joe's favorite exchange:

Xander: Do something, Spike.
Spike: I can't. I'm paralyzed with not caring.

However, Marsters and Boreanaz play off each other very well.

Sophisticated humor is the kind of thing that Hugh Laurie from House does: sarcasm, raised eyebrows, banter. Another good example is Rowan Atkinson from Black Adder. Sophisticated humor is more about timing and intonation than about broad gestures and distorted features. (One of the great things about British comedy is that it tends to combine low, broad, coarse and sophisticated humor into one package--check out Vicar of Dibley--while in America, it tends to be split up more.) My earlier example of Brass belongs to this category. Tom Hanks is incredibly good at this kind of humor, and is especially good in You've Got Mail. One of my absolute favorite deliverers of sophisticated comedy is Paul Eddington from Good Neighbors (as Jerry) and Yes, Prime Minister (as the Prime Minister). "You look like an ad for gracious living," Tom Goode says to Jerry in Good Neighbors. "I am," Jerry replies and somehow that's enough to start you snorting into your cocoa mug.

Cary Elwes (Princess Bride, Robin Hood: Men in Tights) delivers sophisticated humor with style (although he often appears in broad comedy as the straight man). The Holographic Doctor from Star Trek: Voyager was good in this vein. Data from Star Trek: Next Generation was also used mostly for sophisticated humor, a pity since outside his Data persona, Brett Spiner has a gift for broad comedy as well. Karen (Megan Mullally) from Will & Grace, despite being totally annoying, has a gift for comedic timing (no one else on that show really does). In the shows that I watch these days, only Brass of CSI has comedic abilities, Laurie excels at sophisticated comedy well while Robert Sean Leonard attempts valiantly to play up (he isn't as good). Nobody on Blind Justice has any comedic ability, but then the show doesn't call for it. Howey and Peterman from Reba are possibly two of the best non-British broad comedy actors I've seen on TV lately. I don't think anybody on Numbers even knows how to be funny, which may be why I stopped watching it.

Really, though, the Brits take the cake. Check out Alice (Emma Chambers) from Vicar of Dibley and the lovely James Fleet as her besotted boyfriend. Not to mention, the stunning Baldrick (Tony Robinson). Even the oh-so-blond Malfoy (Tom Felton) does a credible job in Harry Potter & The Chamber of Secrets when he says to Crabbe, "I didn't know you could read," raises his eyebrows slightly and shrugs, "Huh." But that may be because British comedy seems much more, well, respectable. Outside of Tom Hanks, American comedy seems to be considered "low" even when it isn't. Which may explain the bovine tendency of the Academy Awards to go for SERIOUS, ANGSTY, THOUGHTFUL dramas rather than the good stuff. But the Academy Awards is kind of silly.


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