They may make us laugh, but if comic actors want respect, they have to join the drama club. Just ask Oscar winners like Tom Hanks and Robin Williams.

By Steve Wulf
Updated February 06, 2004 at 12:00 PM EST

There’s a lot to be said for making people laugh. Did you know that’s all some people have? It isn’t much, but it’s better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan. — Sullivan’s Travels, 1941

It may be better than nothing, but laughter is not better than an Oscar, not in cockeyed Hollywood at least. While the Academy is only too happy to let a comedian host its annual show, it rarely calls one to the podium for a role that made people laugh. So if a clown really wants recognition, he or she has to follow the career path the director (Joel McCrea) takes in Sullivan’s Travels: Get serious.

With his Best Actor nomination for Lost in Translation, Bill Murray is the latest in a long line of comedians to trade in their props for chops. The line really began with Charlie Chaplin, who got a nomination as Best Actor at the very first Academy Awards (1927 — 28) for The Circus — only to have it withdrawn because he was, presumably, too funny.

And so it went. Chaplin was again nominated as Best Actor for The Great Dictator (1940), playing a caricature of Adolf

Hitler, but he didn’t win. Over the years, comedic roles have yielded a bundle of nominations, but very few Oscars. The odds are even worse when it’s a comedian in a comic role. There have been some exceptions, of course, including Judy Holliday, who won a Best Actress statuette for Born Yesterday (1950); Jack Lemmon, Best Supporting Actor for Mister Roberts (1955); Goldie Hawn, Best Supporting Actress for Cactus Flower (1969); George Burns, Best Supporting Actor for The Sunshine Boys (1975); and Whoopi Goldberg, Best Supporting Actress for Ghost (1990). Make ’em laugh — but don’t expect ’em to put your name in the envelope. Says James Lipton, dean of the Actors Studio Drama School: ”Woody Allen said it best when he compared being a comedian to sitting at the children’s table. The grown-ups just won’t take you seriously until you act like one.”

Now Lipton, also the host of Bravo’s Inside the Actors Studio, is something of a comedic presence himself, lampooned by Will Ferrell on Saturday Night Live. But Lipton knows a thing or two about acting, and over the years he’s hosted any number of comic actors and comedians who’ve gone dramatic on us: Robin Williams, Tom Hanks, Mary Tyler Moore, Whoopi Goldberg, Sally Field, Ron Howard, Helen Hunt, Jerry Lewis, Ben Stiller…

”They have a lot in common,” says Lipton. ”A fierce desire to please. The bravery it takes to expose oneself. And the talent to move us. I daresay there are only a handful of serious actors who can make us laugh. But we have a whole new generation of comedians who can cross over into drama.”

Another reason for the proliferation of these transformers is the birth and breeding of the TV sitcom. Out of The Honeymooners came both Jackie Gleason, nominated as Best Supporting Actor for playing Minnesota Fats in 1961’s The Hustler, and Art Carney, who won a 1974 Best Actor award for Harry & Tonto — beating out Jack Nicholson in Chinatown and Al Pacino in The Godfather Part II. The funny thing was, the role of the widower who takes to the road was originally intended for James Cagney, who passed on it, as did Frank Sinatra and Laurence Olivier. Carney took the part because, as he said, ”you don’t like going through life with your name synonymous with sewers.”

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Saturday Night Live - Season 42

Saturday Night Live

The original late-night comedy sketch show from the one and only Lorne Michaels.

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