Best acting performance by a comedian

This is a two-parter:

  1. What performances by a (standup) comedian in a movie have impressed you the most? The more dramatic the better, though they will no doubt have injected some (or much) humor into the role.

  2. Which comedian is the best dramatic actor?

My favorites:

Bill Murray in Groundhog Day. I thought he showed a much better range in this than in The Razor’s Edge and Lost in Translation.

Robin Williams in The World According to Garp was IMO better than in Awakenings.

Jim Carrey in The Truman Show. I could never get the motivation to watch The Majestic; was he any good in it, I wonder?

Steve Martin in Roxanne. I never saw Grand Canyon either.

Adam Sandler in Punch Drunk Love.

I would probably give the nod to Bill Murray for the best dramatic actor of all comedians. In addition to the roles I mentioned above, he was good in The Royal Tenenbaums and Rushmore, and I look forward to seeing The Life Aquatic.

I’m sure this thread has been done before, but new movies (and comedians) come out all the time, so there might be new additions to the list. Also, I couldn’t think of any women to put on the list. There has to be at least one. And the role doesn’t have to be lead. As an example, Bill Murray in Tootsie. (There he is again!)

Jim Carrey was awfully good in The Truman Show and in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, IMHO. I didn’t think much of The Majestic, but I’ve only seen it on an airplane so my opinion could be biased.

What about his Oscar-winning role in Good Will Hunting?

Chris Rock in New Jack City.

Kevin Pollack in The Usual Suspects is the least funny of the good comedian performances I can think of.

Good one for Chris rock; I was trying to think of one for him and couldn’t come up with anything.

And you are certainly correct about Robin Williams’ turn in GWH. When I was composing the introduction, I had in mind One Hour Photo for him, but when I got to him in the list, I forgot, so copped out with Garp. So pretend I listed OHP in the OP, and I still concede that he was better in GWH. Come to think of it, was he the weird guy in Insomnia as well?

That’s a fair amount of good performances for Robin Williams. Maybe I was too quick to name Bill Murray the best. Since nobody is offering opinions on who the best overall is, does that mean you all agree with my choice of Bill Murray?

Don Rickles and Allan King both gave good, though brief, supporting turns in Casino (Rickles as a hotel manager and King as a Hoffa-esque labor leader).

George Carlin was good as the gay neighbor in Prince of Tides.

While he’s not a stand up comedian exactly, John Cleese has given good performances in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Privates on Parade (which tried to cash in on Monty Python’s audience by billing itself as a madcap comedy about a gay song & dance man and a stiff WW2 sergeant [Cleese] but is actually far more dramatic than comedic).

Lily Tomlin has done great turns in And the Band Played On, Tea With Mussolini and on West Wing. While again not stand up exactly, Carol Burnett is a fine dramatic actress as evidenced in, among other roles, Friendly Fire.

For best, I’d go with Robin Williams, though (he is Juilliard trained after all, and John Houseman sang his praises). He can be incredibly annoying, but at his best he’s up there with the greats.

Another one who just came to mind:

Dan Akroyd in My Girl was pretty good. I seem to feel like he’s done a bunch of less comedic roles, but I can’t think of any others offhand.

Dan Ackroyd? How about Driving Miss Daisy?*

One could make an arguement for Tom Hanks. After all, he went from Bosom Buddies to winning Oscars for Forrest Gump and Philadelphia.

[sup]*I haven’t seen Driving Miss Daisy, so I don’t know for sure. But I presume it’s fairly humorless in Ackroyd’s performance.

I was stunned by Jerry Lewis’ performance in The King of Comedy - not that it was brilliant in absolute terms but the degree by which my expectations were exceeded was huge. Similarly for Sandra Bernhard in the same move, BTW.

Well, he wasn’t a standup comedian, but Peter Sellers was known almost exclusively as a comic actor when he played Chance in Being There, one of his greatest performances.

Jonathan Winters’ straight performance as the ghostly pool sharp on an episode of The Twilight Zone was at least as good as the performances of most other actors on that series, and better than William Shatner’s two or three appearances.

I haven’t seen it in a while, but I seem to recall that Jackie Gleason’s performance in Nothing in Common was pretty good.

For your part two, I agree it’s Robin Williams.

Maybe not the best yet, but Jamie Foxx is moving up the list fast. I haven’t seen Ray yet, but I’ve heard he’s fantastic in it. Also in Collateral.

The Majestic is, to date, the only movie I’ve ever walked out on. And I stuck it out through Freddie Got Fingered.


I’d have to go with Robin Williams, who CAN knock it out of the park when needed. After all, before his win for Good Will Hunting, he’d been nominated for Good Morning, Vietnam, Dead Poets Society, and The Fisher King.

And let’s not forget his subdued performance in The Birdcage.

Rickles was fantastic in Casino.

To clarify the OP, pretty much any performance qualifies, despite the fact that I only listed movies. Television and stage are both fine to use as examples.

But I’d like to confine the choices to people who have done actual standup; preferably people who started out as comedians.

And Sam, Jamie Foxx was also pretty good in Any Given Sunday.

Going back, W.C. Fields was quite good a McCawber in David Copperfield.

Dennis Leary seems to have found a niche as a dramatic actor in Rescue Me.

Hank Azaria in “The Birdcage” and “Tuesdays with Morrie.”

I can’t remember a straight role in a movie for Winters, but I did happen across an NPR program of Winters reading and interpreting A Christmas Carol that was simply amazing in its quality.

Paul Reiser as Carter Burke in Aliens.

The 'Belz, for his performances as Det. Munch.

Takeshi Kitano is superb as the shark-eyed, way beyond driven yakuza/cop in a bunch of films (Sonatine, Hana-bi, violent cop etc.). Apparently in Japan he was a famous family-orientated comedian beforehand. Amazing if true, as he is one mean bastid whenever I’ve seen him on screen, hard to imagine him entertaining the kids.