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
Just over halfway through Christopher Guest’s Best in Show, the mock documentary following several top contestants in the prestigious Westminster Dog Show, we meet television commentator Buck Laughlin. Played with gusto by frequent Guest collaborator Fred Willard, Laughlin is the kind of goofy talking head trotted out for the color commentary on non-sporting events shown on sports networks; basically, he’s the guy hired to spice up a dog show neither the network nor the viewers care about. Laughlin, jovial and confused, begins working blue within the first minute of the broadcast. He is undeniably incompetent, attempting enthusiasm for a subject he clearly has no capacity to understand. Willard delivers several jokes that underscore the absurdity of the moment; at one point, he announces that an agitated dog went after a judge “like she’s made outta ham!” But Willard is more than one-liners. The big dumb frozen smile on his face rapidly evolves from funny to tiresome to frankly upsetting, and when his co-host and others begin to lose patience, there is a momentary panic in his eyes as he fears losing the attention—and probably the paycheck—he so desperately needs. – Stacia Kissick Jones
Gene Hackman’s career has been long and storied, filled with roles as iconic as Popeye Doyle, Lex Luthor and Little Bill Daggett. But The Royal Tenenbaums may be the finest distillation of Hackman’s persona of the years, a wry asshole who manages to just be charming enough to win your trust. As Royal Tenenbaum, the ne’er-do-well patriarch of a family of misfits and geniuses past their prime, Hackman is a combination of mayhem and wistfulness. He’s a schemer, an out-of-touch, politically incorrect crook who nevertheless comes to realize what his family means to him in the twilight of his years. Despite the melancholy and understated humor of The Royal Tenenbaums, Hackman is a constant bright spot, a man with a quick wit and a joie de vivre that every other character merely struggles towards having. Also, “right on!” – Nathan Kamal
The only thing better than a Nicolas Cage freakout is a Nicolas Cage freakout incited by another Nicolas Cage. Taking on the dual role of brothers Charlie and Donald Kaufman, the frenetic actor gets to play both straight man and doofus, as first-time screenwriter Donald’s trashy spec-script sells big, while actual screenwriter Charlie’s latest project founders. Making the rare move of turning his jagged effusiveness inward, Cage comes up with a performance that paves new ground for big-screen depictions of jittery neuroticism. – Jesse Cataldo
There are so many great comedic turns across the various fake documentaries directed by Christopher Guest, but there may not be another as brilliantly unexpected as that of Eugene Levy as Mitch Cohen in the folk music spoofing A Mighty Wind. Often typecast as the nerdy nebbish, Levy gets a chance instead to play a refugee of the ‘60s who barely survived the heartbreak when he split from his singing partner. Seemingly burnt out by his own misery, Mitch speaks in halting tones that suggest the way he’s clenched up inside. He surveys the world around him with a level of uncertainty that resembles the innocence of a naïf, and one of the most satisfying subplots of the film is watching Mitch find his footing again. Levy absolutely disappears into the role, drawing upon his history with the broader caricatures of sketch comedy while also making Mitch painfully, hilariously real. – Dan Seeger
The Everyman is often relegated to the straight man role in comedy, the brunt of zaniness and wackiness and other stupid terms that mean weird shit happening to an ordinary guy. In the latter regard, Simon Pegg as the titular Shaun in Edgar Wright’s 2004 pop-collage horror film is no different. But Shaun’s no straight man, much as he might be forced to endure a cold stepfather, a failing relationship and a best friend who’s as much of a slobby liability as he is a comrade. Plus, zombies are trying to eat him and everyone he cares about. Pegg plays Shaun as a man who’s already run to the edge of sanity just through the doldrums of everyday London life, let alone having to deal with the walking dead. His slow emergence from lackluster boyfriend to gun-toting zombie killer is a joy to watch, his terror for his life barely distinguishable from his irritation with his nominal friends. – Nathan Kamal
Before setting out with Rob Brydon in The Trip, Steve Coogan established the outlines of his fictional persona in another Michael Winterbottom-directed project. Filming an adaptation of Laurence Sterne’s novel, Coogan’s character suffers the most from the occasion of life imitating art, as his supposedly leading role as Tristram gets continually downsized in favor of Brydon’s Uncle Toby, sending him into an equivalent downward spiral of egocentric desperation. Coogan strikes just the right air of irritated faux seriousness as the film slides steadily toward the ridiculous, peaking when he is trapped inside a gigantic uterus. – Jesse Cataldo
After a few years spent with prestige pictures genetically engineered to win him long-delayed Oscar respect, Martin Scorsese returned to the gritty world of gangsters with The Departed. What initially seemed a slightly defeated retreat instead finally won him the trophy, and added a wildly energetic crime saga to a filmography already packed with exceptional efforts in the same rough genre. Part of what set it apart from Scorsese’s earlier masterworks was an infusion of darkly brilliant humor in the most unexpected ways, led by Mark Wahlberg’s ferociously funny turn as Boston police staff sergeant Sean Dignam. His face creased into a permanent dissatisfied scowl, Wahlberg barks out some of screenwriter William Monahan’s juiciest lines. When a camera tech takes umbrage to criticism of his work, asking who he is to presume judgment, Wahlberg snaps back, “I’m the guy who does his job. You must be the other guy,” with such fury that the put-down is decisive. The film has performances of great tension in abundance, and Wahlberg shows just how that intensity can be spun into ingenious, unsettling humor. – Dan Seeger
Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof, the bottom half of the 2007 epic Grindhouse double feature, is a breezy little mindfuck of a movie, indulging in lengthy periods of inaction and deadly dull conversations. The star of this ‘70s B-movie homage, and indeed the one thing that keeps Death Proof from imploding with Tarantino’s self-importance, is Kurt Russell as Stuntman Mike. The aging pretty boy sports a delicious pompadour, well-worn racing jacket and impressive chip on his shoulder. Amiable and sweet if a little creepy, Mike is an expert at hiding his bruised ego, though a tiny bit of frustration creeps out when no one recognizes the names of the TV shows he once did stunt work on. When a young blonde describes his skull-adorned Chevy Nova as scary, Stuntman Mike agrees: “Scary tends to impress,” and we soon learn just how impressive Mike is. Russell expertly navigates a role that, much like the movie itself, jumps from pleasant comedy to terror without warning. He has a firm grasp on a character who has come to realize he is no longer part of this culture, it has long since passed him by, and he’s homicidally pissed off about it. – Stacia Kissick Jones
Everyone in the Coen brothers’ screwball farce Burn After Reading is a screw, but in their minds, each is the straight man surrounded by fools. No one takes to that delusion with more jumped-up superiority than John Malkovich’s CIA analyst Osborne Cox, who rejects his dismissal for alcoholism and combativeness as insecurity with his genius on the agency’s part, then fails to even remotely consider that the dimwitted extortion plot that happens to him is the result of his own carelessness. Malkovich spends the entire film in a rage, not letting any word escape his lips until he has injected it with venom. His superiority complex manifests in the absurd ambition to write his memoirs (a word he says with delicate pretension) despite being a glorified research assistant. Burn After Reading is never better than when Malkovich is on-screen, swearing and screaming up a storm. When he viciously tells Richard Jenkins’ character he’s “in a league with morons,” the only difference between Jenkins and Malkovich is that, when it comes to fools, the latter is in a class all his own. – Jake Cole
Few actors have employed cursing and insults involving sexual humiliation with as much tremendous caustic wit as Peter Capaldi’s Malcolm Tucker in In The Loop, the political black comedy based on the British television series “The Thick of It.” Tucker is a bullying advisor/enforcer who tries to undo the errors of one of his Cabinet Ministers (who inadvertently tells the media the British government supports a war against Iraq), though Tucker spends most of the film pacing in and out of offices, attacking anyone and everyone in his path. His erudite observations which frequently involve pop culture references come so fast and so furious it’s no wonder most of the film’s characters don’t even bother trying to compete. He describes the Minister as a “Nazi Julie Andrews” after he makes a second erroneous statement to the press about “climb[ing] the mountain of conflict.” Tucker also notoriously greets the new geeky, bespectacled special advisor Toby Wright (Chris Addison) as “Ron Weasley” (though Addison clearly looks more like Harry Potter). But Tucker is not simply a vehicle for sarcastic quips—his cynicism and confrontational tactics define the film’s cutthroat tone in satirizing international politics. Capaldi manages this all whilst being immensely enjoyable to watch. Indeed, you know a comedic performance is great when virtually all of the character’s lines can be found in multiple “best of clips” on YouTube. Capaldi’s Malcolm Tucker is no exception. – Tina Hassannia
Another Year is one of Mike Leigh’s warmest films, with the old married couple at its heart a beacon of enduring affection, playfulness and kindness. Yet that beacon also functions as a kind of bug zapper, luring those envious of this life into a harsh collision with their own imperfections. They aren’t any more imperfect than Lesley Manville’s Mary, a friend who uses every social occasion to air self-pitying moans that sap the energy from a scene. She inverts Polly from Happy-Go-Lucky: this is not a force of unwavering optimism in a cruel world but the fly in the ointment who always spoils the good vibe. Manville plays up the grim humor in Mary’s obliviousness, especially when she cheerily drops the line, “I’m very much a glass-half-full kind of girl” without a trace of irony. She’s the British equivalent of the Tasmanian Devil, causing pandemonium not in any physically destructive sense but in the shattering of decorum, the unseemly airing of private woes in increasingly uncomfortable public forums. Manville ultimately comes across as sympathetic, but the greatest comic display of her performance is the twisted, subconscious manner in which, through her awkward social presence, she deftly brings others to her level. – Jake Cole
The cultural importance of Bridesmaids in reshaping the gendered landscape of Hollywood comedy is still only partially realized by critics and audiences today. Upon its release, Bridesmaids was frequently touted as the female equivalent of Wedding Crashers or The Hangover, as if critics were oblivious to the fact that we collectively view comedy as a vehicle for relating to the Male Experience. In the case of Bridesmaids, creating Annie Walker (Kristen Wiig), an intelligent, though flawed woman undergoing financial and emotional crises was too different and rare in contemporary comedy to be accepted as anything “normal”—though its breakaway success surely served a helping hand in the creation of a new wave of female-oriented shows and movies. Co-written by Kristen Wiig, Bridesmaids, and specifically Wiig’s Annie, touches on the passive-aggressive so-called “pleasantries” of female adult relationships with such precise wit and timing that it’s not only entertaining, but unbelievably realistic. Wiig delivers one of the best comedic performances of the decade—and probably the best airplane scene in history—relating the woes of adult jealousy and low self-esteem without ever demeaning her character and still carving room for an elegantly crafted character arc as she reconnects with her best friend. – Tina Hassannia
Who could have predicted that a horror film released from a bankrupt company after sitting on the shelf for three years would be one of 2012’s biggest hits? And not just that, but that it would have one of the best comedy duos in years as an integral part of its story? Well, that’s just what The Cabin in the Woods did, offering not just a skewed, meta take on the horror genre, but the inspired pairing of character actors Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford. As Gary and Steve, the technicians in charge of a mysterious project involving a crew of teens in an isolated cabin, the two have the lackadaisical camaraderie of longtime coworkers, men who essentially know each other as well as husband and husband. Their petty bickering, in-jokes and distracted banter provide a perfect, chilling counterpoint to the punishment being inflicted on the teens, and it’s just as well. It might all be too much without their short sleeve shirts and pocket protectors. – Nathan Kamal