Ask some famous actors: you can’t be serious all the time

Some of the best drama actors also played comedic roles


Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Adam Sandler is one actor who has played both comedic and serious roles.

Conor Metzger, Staff Writer

If you’ve been tuning into the hit new HBO series “The Last of Us,” you may have seen a familiar face in the third episode. Nick Offerman — known for his portrayal of Ron Swanson on NBC’s “Parks and Recreation”— took to the screen playing Bill, a survivalist who carved out his own corner of a post-apocalyptic world where fungi have mutated humans into monsters. 

In the episode, the audience finds Bill running into another survivor, Frank, and the two end up creating a life together. The story has many emotional highs and lows, and critics have lauded it as a powerhouse performance from Offerman, who was previously only known as the outrageously funny and insanely libertarian Swanson from “Parks and Recreation.” 

The choice of Offerman to play Bill came from showrunners Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann’s desire to cast a comedic actor. “Funny people have soul,” said Mazin in an interview with TV Insider. 

This is something I also noticed in recent years, with some of my favorite dramatic performances coming from actors and actresses whom I usually have known for their work in comedy. I could list many examples, but three of the best examples are Bryan Cranston, Robin Williams and Adam Sandler.

If you are in my generation, chances are you’re familiar with Bryan Cranston’s role in “Breaking Bad,” but you may not know that he first became known for his amusing performance in “Malcolm in the Middle.” Cranston would be on screen every week taking some new hobby or interest to the absolute extreme while viewers at home would laugh in their seats. 

You can imagine their surprise when a few years after “Malcolm in the Middle” ended, they saw their favorite suburban dad dealing meth from the back of an RV. Cranston transitioned from a lovable goof to a fearful criminal. Critics and audiences alike raved about the transformation, but it also made them wonder how a person could seamlessly transition between two opposing roles. 

This was not the first time American audiences saw this, however. Robin Williams was an early example of how an actor can cross the line from comedy to drama. Even today, if you were to ask Wake Forest students who Robin Williams was, many would recognize him from “Good Will Hunting” (1997) or “Dead Poets Society” (1989), two movies that saw Williams take on the role of a loving, father-type figure. However, Williams was also known for his performances in “Mrs. Doubtfire” (1993) and “Flubber” (1997) — as well as his over-the-top stand-up comedy routines. 

There is no better example of Williams’ range than in 1987’s “Good Morning, Vietnam,” where Williams showcased as a loud and comedic radio personality grappling with the horrors of the Vietnam War. So how does one play in these two worlds?

My leading theory is that in order to grasp that aura of a “funny person,” there has to be an inherent darkness within you that makes the comedy necessary. Comedy is a wall of defense against sadness, and no one has built that wall better than those who make a career out of joke-making. Robin Williams himself was known to suffer from depression and ultimately took his own life. Many were surprised that the same mind who came up with a bit about a committee that designed our reproductive organs could have even considered suicide, but what if the two are just part of a correlated relationship? 

I think sadness breeds darkness, which leads people to search for any way out, and this creates some of the funniest moments in our popular culture. To give another example, you could look at Adam Sandler’s recent turn to dramas. No one in the early 2000s thought that the mind behind “Happy Gilmore” (1996) and “Billy Madison” (1995) could ever produce the man they saw in “Uncut Gems” (2019).

This was almost proven after the absurdity of “Grown-Ups” (2010) and the even more perplexing “Grown-Ups 2” (2013). Yet, in 2019, audiences saw the “Sandman” take the screen playing a hard-pressed gambling addict whose performance kept the audience on the edge of their seat in “Uncut Gems.” Did this come about merely because underneath the guy who played golf like a hockey player was a hard inner layer of anxiety and loneliness? 

I think it’s a marker of truly great acting when an actor can transition from comedic to dramatic roles. And we need both. We need dramas to speak to the human condition and to showcase the highs and lows of existence. We then need comedies to remind us that it’s not all bad and if we choose to not take things so seriously all the time, we would be better off for it.

Since humans need both of these emotions, it makes sense why a good actor, who is meant to embody the human experience, would be able to express the whole range. They know that life is full of pain, anxiety and depression, but they also know that laughter is the best way to continue through all this. 

We are at a weird moment in our cultural zeitgeist where people are taking themselves too seriously. Even when you look at the comedies coming out, most of them are just dramas with a couple of jokes. We’ve lost those wacky films that are not meant to make sense.

While you could argue this subject has shifted to television, I think the entertainment industry needs to cool it with the sad talk and recognize that we need both absurdity and melancholy. We need more actors like Offerman and Sandler to remind us that, just as we need to take things seriously sometimes, we also need to make fun of what’s around us to remind ourselves that life is too short to be without laughter. 

As Wake Forest students, there is a real danger of getting caught up in the drama of school and parties and the future. But we can’t let ourselves get bogged down by that. Right now, “The Last of Us” is one of the most popular shows. Maybe after watching the new episode of this, though, turn on an episode of “Parks and Recreation” or an old Will Ferrell movie. Students should try to get some laughs out instead of wallowing in how the world sucks. It does, but it doesn’t mean we have to think about it all the time.