What’s so sad about being funny? Alternately: Why do people who are so good at being funny want to make us sad?
I speak, of course, of the tears of the clown, the familiar pop-culture conundrum by which a person celebrated for his or her ability to demolish audiences with laughter decides not to rest until he or she plays Hamlet. Or wins an Oscar in a role requiring prosthetic noses, debilitating diseases, and/or a repressed air of detachment. Or gives interviews stating they used to enjoy acting ridiculous for our amusement but have since, you know, grown up.
Why do they protest so much? Who says comedy has to be kids’ stuff?
I ponder these things prompted by an e-mail from a Globe colleague who has recently developed a bee in her bonnet about Steve Carell. To wit: “What is with treacly movie after treacly movie? I don’t mind the attempts at serious acting. Don’t get me wrong. But these hyper quality Lifetime movies that Carell is doing are just cringing and the motivation is so, so obvious. Can’t he get in some toilet humor in there in between these more brooding movies?”
She cited the current “Beautiful Boy” (Carell as agonized dad to meth addict Timothée Chalamet), the upcoming “Welcome to Marwen” (Carell as a brain-damaged man who builds a fantasy World War II village in his backyard), and the recent “Last Flag Flying” (Carell as an emotionally throttled Vietnam vet mourning his dead son). Then she sent me a link to a 2001 “Daily Show” clip of Carell prancing dementedly around Times Square in short-shorts. It’s really funny. My friend has a point.
In defense of the Pride of Acton, why shouldn’t Carell play any damn kind of role he wants? After coming up through the trenches of improv comedy and proving his farcical bona fides on “The Daily Show,” “The Office,” and in such idiot’s delights as “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” who can begrudge him for wanting to play, I dunno, a suicidal gay Proust scholar (“Little Miss Sunshine”) or a homicidal WASP wrestling fanatic (“Foxcatcher”)? (The latter got him an Oscar nomination and featured him with, uh, a prosthetic nose.)
And it’s not like there isn’t a grand tradition of comedians who won’t rest until they’ve convinced us they’re serious. The cliche goes back to Pagliacci and beyond, but it gets started early in film history with Charlie Chaplin, who conquered the planet through laughter in the early Silent Era, was quickly acclaimed as an artist, and — to his glory and detriment — came to believe it. The long march from “The Kid” (1921) and “The Gold Rush” (1925) to “Monsieur Verdoux” (1947) and “Limelight” (1952) is a saga of high-flying comic genius brought increasingly to earth by the need to Say Something.
As if great comedy didn’t tell us as much about mankind and the world — if not occasionally more — than the most riveting drama.
To read Chaplin interviews from as early as 1920 is to find the template for the insecure farceurs who followed: “My clowning, as the world calls it — and I dislike the word clown, for I am not a clown — may have esoteric meanings. I prefer to think of myself as a mimetic satirist,” he told The New York Times that year. Hoo boy.
One of the most schizoid instances of the “I am not a clown” mind-set is the career of Jerry Lewis. The late comedian tootled along happily as a braying man-child on the arm of Dean Martin and then in baroque but brilliant solo comedies like “The Bellboy” (1960) and “The Nutty Professor” (1963). The old pop-culture gag that “they love him in France” is an admission both that there was, in fact, an artist in Lewis and that Americans were suspicious of it. But without that acclaim, would he have made “The Day the Clown Cried,” a 1972 death-camp heart-tugger so legendarily misguided it has never been released?
Woody Allen: Whatever you think of him now, his desertion of straight-up comedy after “Annie Hall” won the 1977 Oscar for best picture was controversial enough that he struck back at fans who missed “the old, funny Woody” in “Stardust Memories” (1980). In Allen’s vast filmography, we see an inveterate jokester neurotically and continually jerking his knee against the serious impulses he believes are more worthy, with results brilliant (“Hannah and Her Sisters,” “Zelig”), dire (“Whatever Works”), and meh (too much to count, lately).
Why does such a man believe his comic vision of humanity is less valuable or less lasting than his darker considerations? How does a once-in-a-lifetime prodigy of performance humor like Robin Williams distrust his gift to the point of appearing in sanctimonious schlock like “Being Human,” “Jack,” and “Patch Adams”? Didn’t Williams understand that what he could do when he let loose onstage or in films like “Aladdin” was more meaningfully liberating than trying to make us cry?
You might cite more successful dramatic Williams outings like “Dead Poets Society” and “Good Will Hunting.” I still say they represented a diminution of his talent and a measure of a comic’s need, in the end, to be loved rather than laughed at. I will allow the actor had serious performances to treasure: “Moscow on the Hudson,” “Awakenings,” the daringly dark “World’s Greatest Dad.” Similarly, Jim Carrey, who arrived as the second coming of Jerry Lewis with 1994’s “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective,” has proved he can go deep with “The Truman Show” (1998) and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (2004) while preferring to remain his genuinely gonzo self elsewhere on screen and, apparently, in life.
Going Serious is now an accepted career option for a busy working comedian. Eddie Murphy has done it (“Dreamgirls”). Sarah Silverman has done it (“I Smile Back,” 2015). Will Ferrell has done it twice: “Stranger Than Fiction” (2005) and “Everything Must Go” (2010). Adam Sandler does it about every 10th movie, it seems (“Punch-Drunk Love,” “Funny People,” “The Meyerowitz Stories”). Louis CK turned it into a TV series. It’s proof of flexibility, chops, breadth of talent. It keeps the door open to possibility. (Arguably, it should go the other way as well: Sean Penn’s comic turn as stoner-dude Jeff Spicoli in his 1982 breakthrough, “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” remains one of his greatest cultural achievements.)
So, to a lesser degree, with Steve Carell. He’s fine and often better than fine in many of his dramatic roles, especially the ones with a bit of edge: John du Pont in “Foxcatcher,” trader Mark Baum in “The Big Short” (2015), Bobby Riggs in “Battle of the Sexes” (2017). The sad-sack parts (“Dan in Real Life,” the films excoriated by my colleague above) win sympathy from broader audiences and add to Carell’s rep as one of the nicest guys in the business. (Note: “Welcome to Marwen” has yet to be released and has been seen by no one. Also note: Carell will play Donald Rumsfeld in the soon-to-open “Vice.” So all bets are off.)
And yet, and yet. . . . I’d probably swap all of them for Brick Tamland, the majestically feeble-minded TV weatherman in “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy” (2004) and its 2013 sequel. Eternally cheerful, unable to put a coherent sentence together, failing ever upward, Brick is a holy moron for our times and, honestly, a more truthful commentary on American culture than five movies like “Foxcatcher.” The art in “low” comedy is often the hardest art to see, but it can cut to the heart of things with directness, anger, joy, and life. If that ain’t worth devoting a career to, I’m not sure what is.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.