"Every clown wants to play Hamlet."
— Showbiz proverb
The casting opposite of Leslie Nielsen Syndrome
. It's a story found time and time again: a successful comedian, usually a film actor, suddenly tries to play against type
and stars in a big, heavily dramatic movie, playing a dramatic role and generally acting all dramatic. Oddly enough, this shift has a pretty high chance of actually working
, and becoming a permanent shift in the actor's roles.
The first question a viewer might have would be, Why does this happen so often? Well, As You Know
, True Art Is Angsty
. Many comic performers begin to feel they cannot get the acclaim and respect their dramatic counterparts do unless they start doing "serious" films. In addition, comedic films almost never win Oscars, leading stars to resort to Oscar Bait
. It's instructive that most examples are film stars, since television's Emmys have separate categories for comedy and drama.
The second would be, You say this has a good chance of working
. How can that be true? Well, what most non-actors aren't aware of is the fact that comedy is more difficult
to act in successfully than drama. A mediocre performance is much more readable/watchable in a drama than in a comedy, because once comedy starts to fall apart, it's very hard to pull it back together again. Hence, a sufficiently good comic actor usually has the talent — the knowledge of their body, of timing, of the effects of subtle gestures — that can serve to make them brilliant at serious works as well. In some cases, when an actor does this long enough and successfully enough, they can become better
known as a dramatic actor than a comedic one (just look at the Trope Namer
Compare Cerebus Syndrome
, where a series does this rather than an actor. As the examples below show, this doesn't always work well, but when the actor in question manages to do a really good job, it can lead to a surprised reaction: He Really Can Act
! Contrast Leslie Nielsen Syndrome
, where a successful drama actor becomes an equally successful comedian. Can be related to Comedy Ghetto
When including examples, don't add natter
saying they weren't funny in the first place. We all know about Chevy Chase
and his problems already, God bless him.
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- Jack Black, Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly sang this number about their plight at the 2006 Oscars.
- Comediennes Mary Lynn Rajskub and Camryn Manheim are best known for their dramatic roles in 24 and The Practice, respectively.
- Several Hong Kong actors have moved on from otherwise lighthearted comedies to full-blown critical acclaim in this manner. Case in point, the two leads of Infernal Affairs, Tony Leung and Andy Lau — both even co-starred in a '70s period dramedy, "The Royal Tramp", and Andy's Guiness Record for starring in the most movies was a direct result of padding his resume with dozens of comedic roles. Recently, one such actor, Alfred Cheung, who made his name as the Plucky Comic Relief, even won an award for his first serious role.
- It should be noted here that Andy and Tony first got into show business as part of a Five-Man Band of teen idols, while Alfred... let's just say he's got the Plucky Comic Relief look down pat.
- Tom Hanks Syndrome is parodied in Tropic Thunder by Jack Black and Ben Stiller's characters, Jeff Portnoy and Tug Speedman respectively. Jeff is a comedic actor trying to get out of his typecasting through a more serious role, and Tug is an action star who'd previously starred in a dramatic Oscar Bait bomb.
- Many of the best-known actors from Spanish '60s comedies (José Luis López Vázquez, Alfredo Landa, Concha Velasco, José Sacristan et al.) started sweeping awards and praise when they played breakthrough dramatic roles in the '70s, with audiences not having noticed until then they were pretty good actors.
- This went as far back as the movie Show People about a silent film actress who wanted to be taken seriously but instead got her start as a comedienne.
- Meta example: The classic movie To Be or Not to Be (both versions) is a dramedy about a comedian who wants to play Hamlet who is actually played by "a comedian who wants to play Hamlet"—Jack Benny in the original and Mel Brooks in the remake.
- The comedian does play Hamlet — very, very badly. So badly that in Mel Brooks' version, he needs to be fed the lines from the "To Be or Not To Be" soliloquy of Act 3, Scene 1 of Hamlet.
- "Meta" in that the comedy genre expands to take on a serious subject: the original movie is a very funny comedy about Hitler's invasion of Poland.
- Referenced in 30 Rock. Tracy is afraid of losing his youthful edge because "do you know what happens to a comedian when he gets old and loses his audience? He starts getting offered serious roles!"
- Also parodied after Tracey wins an Oscar. He gets sick of being viewed as a serious actor and wants to be seen as a crazy comedian again, so he tries to lose the respect of the media. It backfires when all of his crazy antics are misinterpreted as insightful commentaries on society. Then Jack Donaghy tells him all he has to do is go back to acting on television, and no one will ever respect him again.
- Kevin Spacey, Al Pacino, and Peter Lorre did stand-up comedy before launching their respective film careers.
- Shia Lebeouf also did stand-up before branching out his roles. The change did occur later, however.
- Overlaps with Only So Many Canadian Actors: almost half the current cast of Degrassi were formerly Kid Com main cast members on shows made for the Canadian Family channel.
- A lot of Voice Actors who primarily do Western Animation (as opposed to Anime) could be seen as this in some roles. Most Western animated shows are comedic, so when they play characters in DC or Marvel superhero cartoons, or action/story-driven series (that are more dramatic and serious in tone), it can be seen as this. Jeff Bennett in Gargoyles, Dee Bradley Baker in The Legend of Korra and Tara Strong and John DiMaggio in Sym-Bionic Titan could be seen as this. Additional, some more story and drama-driven video game roles can also serve this purpose, such as Rob Paulsen voicing the Cyborg Ninja in Metal Gear Solid: The Twin Snakes.
- Some voice actors who normally works in anime can fall into this trope. For example, Yuri Lowenthal is best well-known for his Wide-Eyed Idealist Kid Hero roles such as Ben Tennyson, Yuri Shibuya, and Simon; or flatout comedic Butt Monkey like Yosuke. However, ever since his Playing Against Type role as Sasuke Uchiha, he has been getting more dramatic roles that are very angsty such as Barnaby Brooks Jr., Cecil Harvey and Suzaku Kururugi.
- Toshio Furukawa whose famous early role included Ataru Morobishi from Urusei Yatsura would also star as Sakamoto, goofy sidekick to Godai in Maison Ikkoku. In Legend of the Galactic Heroes, he voices Oliver Poplin, who looks and acts like an older version of Sakamoto. Many of his comedic roles were snarky, cackling, pervy and clueless characters. Kai Shiden from Mobile Suit Gundam started out this way but became more serious (just a little) due to Characterization Marches On. On the other hand, later on in his career, he also later voiced serious roles such as Shin from Fist of the North Star and Freeman from Crying Freeman both of which were not only serious roles but handsome, alpha male characters. And then there's the gruff, humorless Piccolo from Dragon Ball Z.