Who are your favorite comedic actors? Think throughout the history of film. Chaplin? Keaton? Hepburn? What about more recent performers? Will Adam Sandler, Jack Black and Tina Fey live on and be remembered with the greats? Only time will tell.
Comedy is a slippery thing. What one person finds comic, another will not even crack a smile. Only a few comic performances are considered ubiquitous, telegraphing through space and time to make people laugh, people whose parents weren’t even born when the performance was committed to celluloid. These are the greatest roles and they still mean something, no matter your preferences.
We here at Spectrum Culture have decided to revive our Year by Year feature with the best comedic performances ever in mind. We pored through every screwball comedy and crappy SNL-inspired flick to create a list of the comedic performances from 1930-2010. The only rule? We could pick only one selection per year. Some years were easy, others nearly impossible to find one worthy suitor. Most difficult of all were the ones were numerous actors could have been the victor. Seriously? Cary Grant vs. Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby? How does one choose? But what we did learn is that year after year, there are some great actors and actresses that will live on forever. I hope you enjoy the first part of this feature – David Harris
One of the greatest aspects of the comedic masterpiece that is Airplane! is how, in a movie that’s 88 minutes of nearly unbroken, merciless craziness, the principal characters treat their situation with the utmost gravity. The writing and directing team of Jim Abrahams, David Zucker and Jerry Zucker wisely cast key comedic roles with actors known for their gravitas, and none is better than the esteemed Lloyd Bridges as control tower supervisor as Steve McCroskey.
As McCroskey, Bridges plays the stressed out, marginally in control man trying to bring an airplane down safely completely straight, even as he reveals himself as an increasingly sordid, drug addicted fiend. In one of the movie’s most persistent gags, McCroskey laments his decision to give up first cigarettes, then booze, then amphetamines, then sniffing glue that very day. Even as he floats through the control room in a glue-enhanced haze, he remains a quintessential straight man in a movie full of zaniness, which just makes him all the funnier for it. – Nathan Kamal
There are enough animated drunks littered across the history of movie comedy to stock a very busy New Year’s Eve party, but Dudley Moore managed to bring something new to the weaving archetype when he played filthy rich, joyously hedonistic tippler Arthur Bach. The diminutive Brit may have secured his place in the annals of comedy greats the first time he shook hands with Peter Cook, but he had his greatest screen role in Arthur, playing the title character with an explosive enthusiasm and slurred but unmistakable quick wit. Yet he also hinted – and really just hinted, eschewing any temptation towards overtly gooey poignancy – at the underlying sadness of the character, the need to descend into the bottle because of a dissatisfaction with his well-appointed but loveless life. A character that could have been little more than a cocktail napkin gag given life is instead well-rounded, fascinating and even endearing. – Dan Seeger
Dustin Hoffman might take umbrage with the inclusion of his performance as Michael Dorsey (and Dorothy Michaels) on a list centered on comedic excellence. Years after making Tootsie, the actor could barely talk about the film without tearing up, going so far as to say, “That was never a comedy for me.” Instead, he saw it as a statement about his own culpability in overvaluing appearance in women, to the detriment of deeply, truly understanding what might make them interesting instead of just nice to look at. It’s probably that commitment to the truth of the role – especially the distance between the mildly caddish Michael and the dress-adorned identity he adopts to get a role on a soap opera – that makes it one of the high points in Hoffman’s damned good career. Interestingly, playing Michael also gives Hoffman a means to mock his own reputation as a combative actor, pushing collaborators to the point of exasperation to get a part right, even as Tootsie itself offers compelling evidence of the value of that commitment. – Dan Seeger
It’s difficult to imagine anyone but Robert De Niro pulling off delusional aspiring stand-up comedian Rupert Pupkin in Martin Scorsese’s underappreciated The King of Comedy. De Niro’s own natural magnetism is subverted to fit the character: he cloaks Pupkin’s deep-rooted desperation in charming mannerisms, but instead of exuding confidence Pupkin bleeds it. His tendency to ramble and repeat himself is the first giveaway that loose screws are knocking about in his head. Not much later, the viewer is privy to the fake sets and performances Pupkin relishes in creating at home, in which he can pretend he has made it as a comedian and that his talk-show hero Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis) adores him. His narcissism is interrupted only occasionally by his mother, to whom he yells back, demanding that she leave him alone. More compelling (and funny) than his repetitive gestures and statements, and the delusional degree to which his megalomania makes him believe that his comedy is very, very good, are the extra vowels he inserts when shouting back at his mom. It’s reminiscent of a child who has sat too long in the backseat of a car during a road trip, except that De Niro pushes it past child-like exhaustion into pure psychosis. The result is a refined performance that is so painful to watch it can only be remedied by laughing. — Tina Hassannia
Not the first faux documentary but the most influential and possibly the best, This is Spinal Tap boasts an incredible ensemble cast. Even in single-scene cameos, like Paul Benedict’s huffy hotel clerk and Fred Willard’s terminally square Army captain, everyone in This is Spinal Tap gives a spot-on performance. But the undeniable focus of the film is the trio of rockers that form the core of heavy metal catastrophe Spinal Tap. Nigel Tufnel, David St. Hubbins and Derek Smalls, played by Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer, respectively, are all desperately serious musicians, 20 years on the road and as clueless as they are committed to rock ‘n’ roll. Their earnestness, and a shared willingness to wear iffy wigs and stuff their pants with vegetables, drives the humor of the film. A special nod should also be made to their late drummer Mick Shrimpton (R.J. Parnell), who relied too heavily on the law of averages, and Viv Savage (David Kaff), the keyboardist who looked shockingly good in a Viking helmet. But Guest, McKean and Shearer are the real stars of the show, thoroughly conveying both the comforts and irritations of long-time friendships, able to shrug off meltdowns over cocktail bread and cold cuts, less able to weather the dangers of jealousy. The actors’ understated comic sensibilities are complemented by their camaraderie, giving the film genuine emotion leading to a touching and earned finale. – Stacia Kissick Jones
Albert Brooks’ greatest advantage as a comedic actor is how subtly he endows his characters with empathy – this despite his characters being typically bitter, cranky and terrifyingly neurotic. In Lost in America, David (Brooks) initially appears incapable of redemption in the viewer’s eye: David is a disillusioned advertising executive whose biggest problem is figuring out the interior specs of his new Mercedes. Yet this film does not need to paint a caricature of privileged white people to get the point across – that approach would be too crude for a comic as finespun as Brooks. He organically grows his character’s flaws into endearing qualities by sending David into a manic soul-searching journey; his energy is so contagious his wife Linda joins him as they liquidize their assets and drive across the country in order to – in David’s infamous words – “touch the Indians.” Lost in America contains two flawless set pieces in which Brooks truly gets to shine. The first is his emotional explosion and subsequent firing after his boss tells David he is not getting the promotion he so clearly deserved and anticipated. ”Shut up Brad!” is an example of one of the most commendable (and annoying) attributes about Brooks’ trademark delivery: it echoes in memory long after the film has ended. The other scene is a painstakingly awkward set piece in which David tries to convince the head of a casino to return the couple’s money as part of a grand advertising campaign, his desperate grabs for logic following the casino manager’s rebuttals exponentially intensifying into a downright absurd scenario. — Tina Hassannia
Steve Martin’s unclassifiable comic genius has so rarely been served well by the movies, though the closest thing he ever had to a streak began with this performance. His brief role in Frank Oz’s Little Shop of Horrors, credited as a “special appearance,” condenses all his manic charms into only a few minutes of screen time. He magnificently pulls off the non-sequitur of the abusive greaser boyfriend riding his hog and singing with grit suddenly revealed to be a dentist. His broad comic anger comes to the fore in his subsequent dealings, singing and speaking, to his patients, taking sadistic delight in the agony he gets to cause those caught in his chair. Martin is a one-man maelstrom until he collides with his nemesis, a masochist (Bill Murray) who takes as much pleasure in receiving pain as the dentist does in giving it. The two forces cancel each other out hysterically as Martin’s sneering grin contorts into a furious rictus when his increasing violence only earns new levels of rapture. Little Shop of Horrors is a thoroughly entertaining film, but it is never quite as gleefully absurd after Martin shortly makes his exeunt. – Jake Cole
In Broadcast News, Albert Brooks takes a part that could easily have lapsed into the same nice-guy martyrdom that befalls so many schmuck protagonists of rom-coms. His stridently uncompromising newsman can barely shield his apoplectic disgust for the airheaded anchor (William Hurt) who steals the spotlight in the newsroom and the affections of his best friend, one of the network’s most valued producers (Holly Hunter). Brooks’ great ability as a comic actor has always been to take rants that the audience might be inclined to agree with, and subtly twist them until the selfishness and repellent judgment within those righteous diatribes bleeds to the fore. Brooks’ endless supply of backhanded compliments and thinly veiled attacks grow ever more caustic even as the tone of his remarks becomes subtler as his crush falls for everything he hates. Funniest of all, though, is the character’s comeuppance, delivered when he gets his own taste of stardom and finds the limelight very hot indeed. It is as entertaining to see Brooks fall as it is to hear him establish his intellectual superiority, and it may explain why even his moving confession of love near the film’s end is all the more satisfying for its un-Hollywood reception. – Jake Cole
After a series of successful films in the 1970s, Charles Grodin’s career, or at least the Hollywood aspect of it, began to slow down. Relegated to supporting roles in box-office disappointments during the mid-1980s, he was hardly the first choice to play opposite Robert De Niro in the crime comedy Midnight Run, but he was undoubtedly the best choice. A little older and a little heavier, his face had lost that rat-like sharpness and was instead guileless and, frankly, kind of adorable. As embezzler on the run Jonathan Mardukas, Grodin complains through most of the film as he’s dragged back to Los Angeles by skip-tracer Jack Walsh (De Niro). Frequently annoyed at the most banal things, Mardukas, in contrast to the violent, likely fatal circumstances he finds himself in, can’t help but kvetch about the dangers of fried food or scold someone for only leaving a 13 percent tip. He refuses to behave like a proper prisoner, instead acting like Walsh’s unwanted life coach. Though he shows the same delightfully off-kilter comedic rhythm as in the previous decade’s Heartbreak Kid, most of Grodin’s comedy in Midnight Run comes from his face, his exasperation palpable, his pleasant eyes so unwavering and earnest you can’t help but be uncomfortable. Most importantly, Grodin is able to make the perpetually cranky De Niro laugh, genuinely laugh. Midnight Run flatly refuses to be a typical odd-couple comedy, in part thanks to Grodin’s mastery of the art of being stubbornly civilized in the most uncivil of circumstances. – Stacia Kissick Jones
One of the archetypal Woody Allen characters, especially common in his ‘80s work, is the anti-Woody, the brash, confident, focused man for whom life is a series of winnable contests, plagued by none of the crippling anxieties that the Woody analogues experience. Continuing a precedent set by Michael Caine in Hannah and Her Sisters and Jeff Daniels in The Purple Rose of Cairo, Alan Alda does great work as the smarmy Lester, the self-appointed documentary subject who drives Allen’s Cliff Stern into a professional and personal crisis. Lester is mostly played for laughs, but in spinning his usual likable persona into something a little more nasty and self-satisfied, Alda embodies a character who’s both the butt of the joke and also one of the story’s constant winners (a comic parallel to Martin Landau’s darker Judah Rosenthal), the type of guy who’ll always get away with being a jerk. – Jesse Cataldo