Funny Character, Boring Actor
Interviewer: Are you hilarious offscreen?
Rowan Atkinson:Exactly What It Says on the Tin
Definitely not, as this interview is probably proving.
: The comedy counterpart of Mean Character, Nice Actor
Some people have a great talent for comedy, and are absolutely hilarious onscreen. Everyone expects them to be hilarious all the time. Not the case. Comedy is difficult to do well, and often takes a lot of planning and writing. These comedians are some of the greatest in the field, but they were/are very serious or dry in real life.
Note that a true inversion would not simply be a funny actor who plays serious roles, but a comedian
who plays deadpan and is actually hilarious off screen. See Zeppo Marx below.
To their friends and family who knew them before they became famous there's a hint of Beware the Quiet Ones
- Woody Allen is apparently unable to tell jokes in Real Life. He cheerfully admits to being a bland, rather mousy person, and many of his colleagues confirmed that. For further, proof see Wild Man Blues, the documentary chronicling his tour as a clarinetist. He isn't "cute" neurotic like in his movies, either; he's really that messed up.
- Bea Arthur, as described by her colleagues as "shy, reserved and retiring"... something that you don't often see when she plays the title character in Maude or Dorothy Zbornak on The Golden Girls.
- Johnny Carson, who for many defined outrageous, outspoken late-night comedy as the iconic host of The Tonight Show, was a well-known quiet introvert in private.
- Rowan Atkinson, famous for his role as Mr. Bean, among other things, is a maddening perfectionist who finds it extremely difficult to be witty spontaneously; as a result, interviews are kind of dull. He doesn't do any better when the roles are reversed, either. When interviewing Elton John on TV in the mid 90s, he scripted his entire portion of the interview.
- Tony Hancock could be hilarious on stage, TV and radio, but was notoriously shy and introspective in real life, as witness his rather nervous replies to his Face to Face interview. This introspection was a major factor in his eventual suicide.
- Julian Barrett of The Mighty Boosh is extremely nervous in interviews, and very quiet indeed when separated from Noel Fielding. Although, in an interview, Noel says Julian is actually really funny, but just doesn't realize it.
- Peter Sellers — from The Goon Show, the original Pink Panther movies, Dr. Strangelove, etc. — was known for this. His friends thought he was kind of weird and quiet but as soon as he was given a character to play he was super-animated and hysterical. Directors described him as not having any real personality of his own — which made him a perfect actor. Friends, family, and costars tend to agree that his character in Being There, Seemingly Profound Fool Chance the Gardener, is the closest analogue to who he actually was as a person. In fact, that's why he wanted to play the role.
- In his The Muppet Show appearance, he's told by Kermit the Frog that he can relax and act like himself when he's not onstage. He replies with the now-iconic quote "There is no me. I do not exist. There used to be a me, but I had it surgically removed."
- Sellers invoked this trope in an interview: "I'm a classic example of all humorists - only funny when I'm working."
- Christopher Eccleston can definitely be silly and eccentric when he's acting, but he's rather calm and flat while being interviewed. And that's on his good days, when he doesn't seem to be suppressing his urge to flip a table and leave. John Barrowman says he takes acting very seriously - even when playing a flippant time traveler.
- Robert De Niro can have some of the most devastating comic timing in the room, but in interviews he reverts way back into his shell, and is a quiet mumbler in real life. Roger Ebert has said that the most interesting thing De Niro's ever told him in an interview was "Yeah? yeah."
- Will Ferrell tends to do interviews and promos as the character in his most recent movie because when being interviewed as himself, he is shy and reserved.
- Richard Mulligan of Soap, according to castmate Jay Johnson, was an extremely serious, methodical actor. Although Burt's physical comedy looked improvised and off-the-cuff, it was actually painstakingly plotted and reworked by Mulligan.
- Lucille Ball, perhaps one of the greatest screwball comediennes of all time, was this behind the scenes. She didn't believe in her ability to improvise, so every gag and physical comedy that she did on I Love Lucy was rehearsed to death till she believed she had it perfected, including practicing blowing up and popping a balloon until "it looked funny". (Dousing her burning fake nose in water was one of the very few times she improvised and kept it on film.) Desi Arnaz, on the other hand, was quite funny in real life.
- Steve Coogan, who played the awkwardly funny Alan Partridge comes across as moody and introverted in interviews, and doesn't seem to enjoy them a great deal.
- Johnny Depp, despite playing a number of flamboyant comic characters (Captain Jack Sparrow, Willy Wonka, Rochester from The Libertine), comes off in interviews more like Edward Scissorhands; a bit shy and on the quiet side.
- Kal Penn, who plays loose, freewheeling Kumar in the Harold and Kumar movies, has stated his real-life personality is almost exactly the reverse. Similarly, John Cho, his other half in the films, is relaxed and freewheeling - the opposite of his straight-laced Asian everyman in the films.
- Bob Elliott and Ray Goulding, aka Bob & Ray, were renowned for their ability to improvise subversive, cutting-edge comedy skits — so much so that interviewers wrote entire articles around how underwhelmed they were to meet the same shy, very conventional men in real life. "By the time we realised we were introverts," Bob is supposed to have once claimed, "it was too late to do anything about it."
- Their mutual friend Andy Rooney put a slightly different spin on this, in the foreword to a book collection of some of their best-known routines:
"Bob and Ray have three distinct personalities. There’s Bob’s, there’s Ray’s and there’s Bob and Ray’s. Both Bob and Ray are interesting to meet separately because two duller people you never talked to. Every Sunday morning I meet funnier people down at the news store when I go out to get the paper. If you run into Bob and Ray together, it’s a different matter. Over a year’s time they must give away a million dollars worth of comedy material free to people they meet on the street."
- Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy. Said in interview: "I'm not a wit. I'm a comedy writer. A wit says something funny on the spot. A comedy writer says something very funny two minutes later. Or in my case, two weeks later."
- Christopher Lloyd made a career of playing loopy, over-the-top characters like Reverend Jim Ignatowski and Doc Brown, but in real life is very shy and laconic. According to Bob Gale's commentary on the Back to the Future Part III DVD, when he tried to do promotional interviews on talk shows, he froze up and had to be gently coached by the interviewer; and in a New York Times interview, he just sat there silently, leaving the interviewer resorting to piecing together statements by Lloyd's costars. Robert Zemeckis says it took the entirety of shooting the first Back to the Future movie just for Lloyd to strike up a conversation with him (and note that it took twice as long to film that movie as originally scheduled, because they had to re-shoot almost the whole thing due to the replacement of Eric Stoltz with Michael J. Fox).
- Christopher Guest has said that many people are disappointed when they find out that he's not non-stop hilarious in real life. According to Cary Elwes and Robin Wright, he also doubles as a Mean Character, Nice Actor. He's actually known for coming across as fairly prickly in interviews, though often because he strongly dislikes questions about his personal life.
- Jerome "Curly" Howard of The Three Stooges fame was a plucky, chatterbox, bumbling clown who excelled at madcap physical comedy on camera. In real life, he suffered from crippling shyness and barely spoke to anyone he didn't know.
- Rodney Dangerfield's wife was always a little annoyed that people assumed her husband was a wacky, boorish slob all the time. In person, he was a shy, well-mannered gentleman.
- Michael Showalter is known for being pretty serious and aloof in real life, a complete 180 from his work on shows like Stella and The State.
- Paul Reubens is this when he's not playing Pee-Wee Herman. During a promotional interview for Mystery Men, he managed to get through the first few minutes without saying a word.
- Charlie Adler plays insane characters, but in person is very serious, to the point of depressing.
- Much like Peter Sellers, Zero Mostel was said by his family to usually be very quiet and shy, only to explode into the life of the party when given a character to play.
- Harrison Ford is known for charismatic quip-a-minute characters like Han Solo and Indiana Jones, but in real life is famous for being a very reserved, thoughtful man who needs a good interviewer asking the right questions to make his interviews interesting. Even then he has a very dry, understated sense of humour.
- Hugh Laurie, who suffers from depression, comes across as extremely quiet and insecure when not given a script. This was most notable during the first episode of QI, when Stephen Fry thought it would be very nice to have his best friend on the panel for the show's introduction... whereupon Laurie said about ten words total. Interestingly Fry has said that, in private, Hugh is actually the funnier, smarter one of the two; Hugh denies this.
- Michael Palin is universally known offstage as 'the nice Python', and comes across in his published diaries as remarkably sane and well-grounded for a man who has spent his performing career being very silly indeed.
- Stephen Chow Sing-Chi is an influential Hong Kong comedian, actor and film director, best known in the west for his slapstick martial arts movies Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle. When not making a film, though, he is reported to be a taciturn and serious individual who rarely if ever smiles.
- Onstage, the late George Carlin was animated, boisterous, hilarious, and relentlessly misanthropic. In his interviews however, he was fairly quiet, and while he retained his famously filthy mouth, cracked relatively few jokes. He also claimed that he actually hated people a lot less than his stand-up would have you believe.
- "Weird Al" Yankovic is one of the most lasting comedians in entertainment, but has noted in interviews that because of his stage name people expect him to be crazy at all times. He is generally a friendly guy and cracks jokes at times like anyone else, but besides his music he is never outlandish or "weird."
- Frank Zappa made (mostly) humorous music, but took it utterly seriously, scoring his compositions as if an orchestra was to play them, spending hours mixing his work for the perfect sound quality, and regularly replacing musicians if he felt they weren't good enough. He treated his music like a business. Steve Vai, who worked with Zappa in the early 80s, has said that he wasn't sure if he was in the band at first because Zappa didn't give him any indication at his audition.
- Wallace Shawn, who is perhaps well known for playing goofy oddball characters like Vizzini, Grand Nagus Zek, Stuart Best, and Rex, is a self-proclaimed stoic—in an interview about The Princess Bride, Shawn claimed that he completely lacks a sense of humor and only manages to do funny because he tries to act his funnily written characters as best as can. If you're used to his funny roles, it's quite jarring to see him in something quiet like My Dinner With Andre, where he's basically playing himself. He also writes incredibly dark, serious, and often politically charged plays; if you think of him as a guy who mostly appears in kids' movies, plays like A Thought in Three Parts (which contains eye-popping amounts of onstage sex) and The Designated Mourner (which is about political murder) will surprise you.
- Jim Carrey is very well known for his over-the-top roles as Ace Ventura, The Mask, Lloyd Christmas, The Grinch and, in a bit of Ham and Cheese, the Riddler. In reality, he has battled depression, and has stated that his character in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is closer to the real him than any of his other roles.
- Colin Mochrie is renowned for being perhaps the most hysterical and out-there member of the Whose Line Is It Anyway? cast. Still, when Mochrie's offstage or doing interviews, he's quite mellow and humble.
- Dan Aykroyd, the wild-and-crazy Blues Brother among many other outrageously funny characters, in real-life claims to have mild Asperger's Syndrome. When he's not playing a role he's introverted, quiet and thoughtful, and when asked to talk about himself can have trouble meeting the interviewer's eye.
- Robert Webb and David Mitchell of That Mitchell and Webb Look and Peep Show fame, both invoke this and invert this respectively. While Webb tends to play snarky, quick-witted characters and Mitchell is The Stoic and reserved Straight Man in their act, Webb has commented that it's the opposite when it comes to hosting or being a panellist on Panel Shows, where he is more shy and quiet and Mitchell is more laid back and prone to unleashing scathing retorts and rants at a moment's notice.
- Alice Cooper is, in real life, a born-again Christian and a volunteer Sunday school teacher, his dark, menacing stage persona being entirely an act. The film Wayne's World parodied this in the scene where Wayne and Garth meet Cooper, and are so awestruck they don't realise that he's nowhere near the party animal they thought he was, as he gives an intelligent lecture on the history of Milwaukee.
- Jimmie Walker aka J.J. "Dy'no' mite" Evans from Good Times. He has been a successful stand up comic througout the decades but he prefers to take his image in a totally different direction from the buffoonish character that made him famous. He is very calm, introspective and candid in interviews. Much of this might be attributed to the popularity of the J.J. character causing a rift between fellow cast member Esther Rolle who felt that the J.J. character was sending the wrong message. Sadly, there was no reconciliation before Rolle's death in 1998.
- Zeppo Marx's movie persona was always a bland Straight Man and romantic hero, but off-screen he was said to be the funniest of The Marx Brothers. He would fill in for Groucho when he was ill and performed perfectly.
- Speaking of the Marx Brothers, Margaret Dumont, who was frequently cast as snobby widows that acted as the (very) straight woman to the brothers' zaniness. Despite urban legend, she got the joke just fine, and during a live television recreation of a scene from Animal Crackers, broke up entirely after Groucho told her not to step on the few laughs he had.
- Peter Lorre: Known for playing the first serial-killer on screen and many more, he was renowned among the Hollywood community of the time for his scathing wit, and, when given the rare chance, as a great comedic actor.
- Brent Spiner as Data — a completely emotionless character played by an utter goofball of an actor. On the same series, the uptight, honour-obsessed Klingon warrior Worf was played by easygoing and laid-back Michael Dorn, who has also described himself as a bit of a giggler.
- Christopher Judge as Teal'c in Stargate SG-1. He's extremely stoic on screen and his character laughed out loud exactly once during the show's ten-year run, but in the blooper reels he's the one making immature jokes off the lines and giggling.
- Adrien Brody has a tendency to play solemn, stoic characters who perpetually seem to be at the verge of tears. He accepted his Academy Award by planting a Big Damn Kiss on Halle Berry.