Comedic Actors Slighted?

Imagine that actors (and actresses) have two main features:

  •  Looks – we like to watch pretty/handsome actors,
  •  Acting ability – engaging body/face/voice motions for a role.

Now on average comedic roles tend to be filled with less attractive actors.  Since there are more less attractive actors to choose from, a director can be more selective about acting ability when picking an actor for a comedic role.  If so, holding constant the resources devoted to a role, on average actors filling comedic roles should have higher acting abilities. 

But acting awards famously slight comedic roles, preferring actors who fill "dramatic" roles.  Some possible explanations:

  1. Yes, acting awards don't go to the best actors.  What did you expect?
  2. More resources are devoted to dramatic roles, relative to comedic roles.
  3. This two feature model is too simplistic, and a richer model explains it all.

What say ye?

Added 14Apr: Even if one assumes that comedic acting abilities are different abilities from other acting abilities, the argument goes through if comedic abilities are just as widely available among humans as other acting abilities, relative to the number of comedic roles to fill relative to other roles.

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  • Vladimir Slepnev

    I’d guess 1, and also awards trying to signal their “seriousness”. Can we test this stuff somehow?

  • http://michaelkirkland.org/blog Michael Kirkland

    3.

    Further, I’d argue that acting ability plays only a tertiary role in most comedies. Adam Sandler, for example, certainly doesn’t have any to speak of. Jim Carey does, yet most of his success can be attributed to his prehensile face.

  • aj

    Ugliness is a feature for comedic roles: if the actors look “funny”, that’s half the work done for you in getting the audience to laugh and enjoy the movie/show. Thus holding acting ability constant, you’d expect the uglier actor to win the job, up to a point.

    I tend to agree with the conclusion anyway — giving out awards is a way of signaling the judges’ “seriousness”, not just high quality, so given equal ability, a dramatic performance wins over a comedic one, beauty wins over ugliness (unless amenability to ugliness is what’s being signaled), and politics wins over entertainment…

  • http://profile.typepad.com/robinhanson Robin Hanson

    Michael, don’t audiences feel Adam has engaging body/face/voice motions for the roles he plays? If so in what sense is he not acting well?

  • Martin

    Well, Jim Carrey and Adam Sandler movies aren’t any fun. If we look at actors who are in movies that are actually funny, we find people like John Cleese, who are good actors.

  • Jesper

    Is ‘acting ability’ really a single variable? I’d say that that dramatic acting ability is a different talent compared to comedic acting ability. Furthermore, I think the latter is more rare. If so, it follows that comedy directors have a smaller pool to choose from.

    As for awards, my guess is that there’s a cultural bias for finer art, such as opera, literature, and so forth. Dramatic and serious acting with lots of emotions and tears is closer to this, while a comedy is closer to a farce. Perhaps the difference is in the audience reaction – awe or sadness is perceived as more important than laughter?

  • http://amckenz.googlepages.com Andy McKenzie

    1, and I have an explanation. Let’s assume that a strong corequisite to receiving an individual award for acting in a movie is the quality of the movie overall. I think this has some basis empirically. From Nate Silver’s Oscar predictions: “Button, which looks like a shutout everywhere else, is the only Best Picture nominee with a Supporting Actress nod, and Best Pic nominees tend to have an edge in the other categories.” Link here: http://nymag.com/movies/features/54335/.

    Now, Tyler Cowen writes in Creative Destruction about how domestic comedies do not perform well in the box office globally. You can see based on imdb ratings that comedies generally have lower scores than one might expect. The reason for both of these observations is that it is difficult for a comedy to receive broad cultural support. Thus comedies in generally do not perform well at major award shows.

    So, if you add up these two components, comedic actors rarely receive rewards because the movies that they act generally are not regarded as high quality. I agree that comedic actors may be underrated from a non-award standpoint as well, but the causality might run in reverse. It is possible that people underrate the acting ability of comedians *because* they never receive awards, which happens due to the reasons noted above.

  • Dagon

    Strange phrasing of the question. Did you mean to say “I imagine” instead of “Imagine” at the start? If not, why are you asking us to imagine it as a premise, rather than including it as just another feature of the puzzle?

    Personally, #3 and #1 make sense, and interact. I expect entertainers have far more than two main features, and even the features you describe have a number of different dimensions. Also, awards are not about proficiency (at least, I’ve never seen even a vague attempt at objective judging criteria). Signaling that the industry is important and meaningful doesn’t happen in comedy very often.

    So, choice of “best” actor for an awards body is based on attributes (or aspects of attributes) different than you’d list for a consumer. For consumer “best” measurement, you already have a good one: dollars.

  • Phil

    I argue that comedic actors aren’t “acting” in the same sense that dramatic actors are, and the Oscar voters don’t care about the comedic type of “acting”.

    So, I guess, 3.

  • Martin

    awards go to people that can act, and act in interesting movies. (related by some strange funcition). Now how you get to be cast in a important movie is a different story. Other experiences might help. Like a long standing comedy career. (like Robin Williams)
    The way awards are distributed might be very biased by the people choosing them. like considering only A-list movies with certain contents.
    I would bet the complication to play a role is not that well linked to the actually neeted acting perceived by the audience.

    Martin

  • http://pancrit.org Chris Hibbert

    How about this: Non-comedic actors realize that acting ability is easier to find in comedic actors, so they’re jiggered the process to discount the contribution of actors in comedies so everyone else will have a better chance at winning.

  • Zac

    3 is true (“acting ability”, as others have pointed out, is multi-dimensional; being a good comedic actor is not necessarily ‘good acting’). 2 is probably true, but unilluminating. 1 is also true, but if the implication is that the awards don’t go to comedic actors because they’re unattractive, I’d say that’s probably false. A lot of ugly people win academy awards.

    The simple explanation: academy awards go to high-status actors in recognition of both their high status and their noteworthy performance in a high status film. Comedies and comedic actors are not as high-status as their dramatic counterparts. Also low-status (and notoriously poor performing at awards shows, LOTR aside) — fantasy and sci-fi, even when there is a large amount of dramatic acting involved.

  • Fenn

    I suspect it ties in with Robin’s notions on silliness in academia.

    In real life, we like, but don’t necessarily respect the constant cut-up or clown.
    We respect gravitas.

    Look at romantic comedies. Usually the male lead is sorta serious, yet gets to pass on his seed. Typically, he has a comedic buddy, who does not get the girl.

  • http://encyclops.com/ encyclops

    I’d agree with most other commenters: 1 and 3 are definitely true. It’s not even a given that the award goes to the best role, which I’d argue is usually as big a factor as the individual filling the role.

    You have other propositions I’d question, such as “now on average comedic roles tend to be filled with less attractive actors,” and I don’t agree with the general assumption that dramatic and comedic actors are interchangeable (though many great actors can do both, it’s not a given, especially lower in the ranks).

    I’d agree with the point I think you’re making, though, that comedic roles tend to be overlooked in award nominations. I think this is less about facial attractiveness than about a general feeling that “serious” and “important” are equivalent. Check out the list of Best Picture nominees (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Academy_Award_for_Best_Picture, for instance) and count how many are comedies.

  • Keith

    #3 seems right to me. Directors are free to choose less attractive actors for comedic roles, but they are limited in their choices to those who are generally funny. Being funny doesn’t seem to equate to better acting ability, so I wouldn’t expect to see better actors than average in comedic roles.

    And given halo effects, attractive actors, comedy or drama, probably lead to audiences perceiving better acting ability, and better productions in general.

  • Douglas Knight

    Yes, there is a trade-off between looks and acting ability, simply because they’re not the same. But why say that drama favoring looks leads to comedy favoring acting, rather than causality running the other way?

    The thread of looks from the beginning of the post seems to have been dropped and not show up in the question. Here’s an answer that incorporates it: perhaps acting awards are simply beauty contests, ignoring acting quality.

  • David Jinkins

    I’ll join the chorus of 3’s. In addition to reverse causality problems that are mentioned above, imagine that someone made a list of all the acting skills sufficient for great comedy, and all the skills sufficient for great drama. I would guess we would have some overlap, and importantly some skills unique to each list. There are some important acting skills like “timing” and “improvisation” that are necessary for comedy but less so for serious roles. For serious roles, skills such as “believability” and “range” are more important, for instance.

  • Paul Clark

    Surely being funny isn’t a function of acting ability, it is a separate variable. The relative rarity of this variable versus good looks also means the pool of good comedic actors is actually much smaller than the pool for good dramatic actors. Ergo, the best actors probably do win the awards!?

  • AS

    Let me try and make a case for 3 or rather that we may not have information to decide if it is 1,2 or 3.
    Consider the scenario where looks are positively correlated with acting ability. This would mean that statistically comedic actors would be both worse looking than dramatic actors and also have worse acting abilities. In this case, the best of comedic actors may not be be as good actor as a reasonably fine dramatic actor who is good looking. My argument rests on the assumption that good looks and acting abilities are not independent attributes, perhaps there is evidence to suggest that they actually are?

  • josh

    Leslie Nielson should have won an Oscar for The Naked Gun.

  • http://vimeo.com/inthecarmedia Brett

    Couples things – Specifying that we’re talking US *film* actors /awards.

    Generally, the two categories you’re naming are -“in the biz”- broken in to leads and ‘character actors’ – these being the comedic actors you mention. Character actors in films (supporting roles generally) are often stronger than the leads. Leads do indeed get cast with a higher consideration for their looks (& how they match with the other lead, if there is one – height, appearance, etc), as well as the fact that the lead is, broadly speaking, who the audience project themselves onto/relate to – a less distinct slate to do this on may help that.

    It’s worth noting that Comedy is, by its nature, subversive — humor is surprise, the subverting of expectations. I think this would also account for a certain discounting of its ‘top-tier’ (award winning) significance – Dramas may fit more nicely with society’s general concepts of story and character.

    Agree as well with the comments that “”SERIOUS”” things show “We take ourselves seriously, ’cause thats how you know something’s important.” Any field/group of course wants to continue to propagate themselves – considering this, unsurprising that the film industry wants to continue to assert its importance in society.

  • jim

    Dramatic actors and comedians typically travel very different career paths. Male comedians, especially, usually start as stand-ups. (Comedic film actresses are more likely to be funny actors, not stand-ups.)

    Successful stand-ups don’t need a great range. If they hit on a particular style or attitude or look that connects with audiences then they just hit that note over and over.

    Some comedians, like Jerry Seinfeld, are just horrible actors. Seinfeld can do clever witty sarcasm and clever mock outrage, and that’s about it … but that was enough to make a spectacular career.

    Actors, on the other hand, go to drama schools, are in school plays from young ages, and generally practice putting on a lot of different personas and emotional extremes.

    I’ll also defend Adam Sandler here. I find him very funny (and a decade long string of $100 million+ hits means he’s the most consistently bankable comedian). Happy Gilmore was hilarious. Sandler does impotent rage extremely well.

    Sandler also is one of the few comedians who can pull off romantic leads because he is so likable (40 First Dates, Wedding Singer). Most can’t. Robin Williams can do serious drama, but not be a romantic lead. Chris Rock, like Seinfeld, is funny but can’t act. Rock can do funny and angry, but that’s about it.

    So, to answer the original question. Dramatic actors are better actors. By the time they hit it big in their 20s or 30s they have spent decades honing their craft and trying on a range of roles.

    But when comedians become famous it’s more often after years of stand-up where they focus intensely on a certain bit of schtick that resonates with audiences. Night after night doing variations on the same bit. Then they become famous and try to take acting lessons to become real actors … for many it’s like trying to learn a foreign language as an adult … it’s possible, but much harder.

  • Tom

    Perhaps laughing at someone creates a psychological response of lack of respect. For example, if the cool kid falls down and gets hurt no one laughs at him, if the nerd does, everybody laughs. So perhaps the people who give awards are reluctant to signal respect for low status others(people who get laughed at).

    I have heard that laughing with someone else (laughing at their intended cues) is a submission symbol though. We could test this theory by rating people’s acting judgment for comedians who do self-mocking comedy and those who tell jokes about other people or do observational humor. So a Rodney Dangerfield type should receive lower reviews than a Dane Cook/Jerry Seinfeld.

  • http://shagbark.livejournal.com Phil Goetz

    When /The Mask/ came out, I said that Jim Carrey should have gotten an Oscar for best actor. Whoever won Best Actor that year, I guarantee there were many other actors who could have done similar performances. No one else could have done what Jim Carrey did in that movie. The fact that my proposal seemed ridiculous to everyone showed the level of bias against comedians in acting.

  • http://t-a-w.blogspot.com/ Tomasz Wegrzanowski

    This is a wonderful post. I’d say #2 and #1 are enough. Best actor is awarded on combination of looks and skills, not just skill (plus it’s biased for some kind of films like live drama, as opposed to comedy and animation). And drama gets more resources than comedy, so they get better combinations of looks&skills than comedy.

  • http://disputedissues.blogspot.com Stephen R. Diamond

    If, as seems the case, comedians are worse actors and worse looking, the assumption that comedic and dramatic roles get the same resources must be false.

  • http://profile.typepad.com/Tangurena Tangurena

    Generally, in the US, actors (whether comedic or otherwise) are selected for looks. British actors tend to be selected for acting ability.

    >When /The Mask/ came out, I said that Jim Carrey should have gotten an Oscar for best actor. Whoever won Best Actor that year, I guarantee there were many other actors who could have done similar performances.

    Tom Hanks got it for Forest Gump. Both The Mask and Forest Gump could not have happened without CGI/special effects. In one, the fx were meant to be visible, in the other, invisible.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/67th_Academy_Awards

  • R.

    A lot of the comments here show in general the misunderstanding the public has of comedic acting, as EVERY real actor knows that acting in a drama is MUCH EASIER than acting in a comedy, most people can be adept at playing dramatic scenes, but only very very few people have the comedic timing and the talent to make people laugh, and it’s not something that anybody can just learn easily (just watch any amateur comedy routine anywhere, and you’ll see a million amateurs). And how is this obvious? There are very few successful comedians, Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt can cry on camera and gather those emotions, but do they have the chops to make people laugh in a comedic role and do they have the right cadence and nuance and timing to act in a comedy? Well, the answer is a resounding hell no, look at that movie they did together, it was a huge flop, and for good reason.

  • R.

    Here’s an excerpt from a great article, and he explains it a lot better than I do:

    Comedy is underrated. It’s arguably the most difficult genre to pull off, but when a comedy works, the talent and effort that went into it is not readily apparent on the screen. Consistently, comedies are passed over by the Academy Awards and other award shows; it’s easier to give Oscars to powerful dramatic films and actors who make dramatic performances. But comedy is very difficult: it requires not only inspiration and talent but precision and balance as well. The slightest variation in the delivery of a line can mean the difference between funny and not funny. The placement of the camera, lighting, editing: these and all other technical areas of filmmaking can successfully support a gag or undermine it completely.

    http://www.rinkworks.com/movies/articles/comedies.shtml