18 Comedians Who Took On Serious Roles — Who Nailed It & Who Bombed?

Many actors believe that making people laugh is a lot harder than making people cry, but when it comes to actors who have more than a few chuckles under their belt, it can be hard to picture them as capable of giving us a gut-wrenching emotional performance. These actors and actresses may know exactly what makes the world laugh, but they weren't satisfied with delivering punchlines: they wanted to make us feel all of the feels, too. While some certainly succeeded, others made us realize just why we preferred them as the comedic relief — and hey, there's nothing wrong with that. Click through to read about the comedians who took on serious roles — and whether they should have. 

Image: Focus Features

Jim Carrey

The actor made a name for himself with films like slapstick comedy Dumb & Dumber and portrayed wacky, outlandish characters in films like The Mask and Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. 

Jim Carrey

Carrey is hardly subtle in his comedy, but his role as a heartbroken man looking to erase the memories of his ex in 2004’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind proved he could carry a film with quiet emotional moments. The quirky dramedy proved that Carrey was capable of serious roles, though he probably should have chosen better ones later on in his career — after all, no one had anything nice to say about suspense thriller The Number 23. 

Image: Focus Features

Adam Sandler

Sandler has made a career out of playing man-children and sheer idiotsFrom Big Daddy to That’s My Boy, few of Sandler’s films feature characters whom you’d want to hang out with in real life. 

Adam Sandler

You can’t say that Sandler doesn’t have range. (And no, I’m not talking about him playing his own twin sister in Jack and Jill.) He received excellent reviews for his performance in Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2002 dramedy Punch-Drunk Love in which he played a repressed, lonely man seeking love. He got serious again in the 2007 film Reign Over Me, in which he played a grieving man who lost his wife and daughters in the 9/11 attacks. Though critics deemed the film uneven, Sandler’s performance was praised. 

Image: New Line Cinema 

Vince Vaughn

The Old School actor is the king of bro-y comedy, but he wasn’t always exclusive to the genre. 

Vince Vaughn

How do you feel about a Gus Van Sant shot-for-shot remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho starring Vince Vaughn as Norman Bates? Do you feel bad about it? If so, good job — Vaughn was no horror villain, and the whole thing was a total mess. 

Image: Universal Pictures 

Robin Williams

The late comedian may forever be known as the guy in the dress (a la Mrs. Doubtfire) but he proved he’s equally strong out of drag. 

Robin Williams

This Gus Van Sant movie was a much better choice for Williams than Psycho was for Vaughn. Williams delivered a gut-wrenching performance in Good Will Hunting as a psychologist determined to help an MIT janitor overcome his troubled past. 

Image: Miramax Films

Steve Carell

He loved lamp in Anchorman. He loved no one for 40 years in The 40 Year Old Virgin. And critics loved his performance in his most recent drama. 

Steve Carell

For starters, yes, the above photo is Carell — he wore facial prosthetics to take on the role of John du Pont in Foxcatcher, a film based on the true story of du Pont’s attempts to train the US Olympic wrestling team. Though the film is a huge leap from Carell’s zany characters, it may also be the one to land him an Oscar nomination. 

Image: Sony Pictures Classic 

Jennifer Aniston

She’s famous for Friends and big-screen comedies like Horrible Bosses and We’re The Millers, but it was this small film that gave her some street cred in the drama department. 

Jennifer Aniston

Aniston played a bored, unhappy housewife in The Good Girl, and critics were all about her hanging up her Rachel Green hat for a few hours. 

Image: Fox Searchlight Pictures 

Whoopi Goldberg

Long before The View, the comedian was making people shout — not to mention howl with laughter — with films like Sister Act. 

Whoopi Goldberg

Goldberg scored an Oscar nomination for the role of an abused housewife in 1985’s The Color Purple. She later scored the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role in Ghost

Image: Warner Bros.

Mo'Nique

The standup comedian and sitcom actress jumped completely out of her comedy comfort zone — and it totally paid off. 

Mo'Nique

Mo’Nique’s disturbing portrayal of an abusive mother in 2009’s Precious scored her the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress and made us look at the Phat Girlz actress in a whole new light. Though her character was far from likable, Mo’Nique displayed an emotional range surprising for someone whose first career was in comedy. 

Image: Lionsgate 

Zach Braff

The Scrubs star proved that he was more than just a sitcom actor with this venture. 

Zach Braff

Not only did Braff star in 2004’s coming-of-age story Garden State, he directed and wrote the screenplay — which may be why his performance struck just the right chords with audiences. 

Image: Fox Searchlight

Will Smith

The former Fresh Prince’s foray into drama has been uneven at best. 

Will Smith

Though Smith received praise for his dramatic roles in Ali and The Pursuit of Happyness, fans and critics alike groaned at his portrayal of a grieving man in Seven Pounds, which seemed more like Oscar bait than an actual movie. Also a fail? His monotone role in the painful After Earth. Better luck next time, Smith — you’re more than capable.

Image: Sony Pictures

Bill Murray

The Ghostbusters actor may be most famous for his goofier performances, but he proved to be a dramatic force in this indie flick. 

Bill Murray

Murray received major accolades for his role as a man adrift in Sofia Coppola’s drama Lost In Translation, even earning him an Oscar nomination for Best Actor. 

Image: Focus Features

Emma Stone

The starlet began her career with high school comedies like Superbad and Easy A but later proved she could carry a drama. 

Emma Stone

She’s not in high school anymore. Stone scored her first dramatic lead in the 2011 drama The Help, a film about an aspiring journalist who published the stories of the black maids of Savannah. Recently she scored a Golden Globe nomination for her supporting role in Birdman, in which she played the rebellious, recovering addict daughter of a failing movie star. 

Image: Walt Disney Studios

John C. Reilly

Reilly’s more than just the sidekick to Will Ferrell’s wacky characters. 

John C. Reilly

Sure, he may have scored major laughs with Step Brothers, but he’s also a skilled dramatist — not to mention singer. Reilly scored an Oscar nomination for his role as loyal husband to a philandering wife in Chicago, and later appeared in the bone-chilling drama We Need To Talk About Kevin alongside Tilda Swinton. 

Image: Artificial Eye

Jack Black

The Shallow Hal actor should probably have stuck to his typical comedic roles — at least when it came to this blockbuster remake. 

Jack Black

Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake of King Kong certainly made the story a whole lot bigger (a CGI Skull Island is pretty damn sweet, no matter how you slice it) but we all could have passed on Black’s awkward, pseudo-Orson Welles impression. 

Image: Universal Pictures

Ben Stiller

We all know that Stiller’s career didn’t always consist of a million Night At the Museum sequels, but you may be surprised to learn how dark he could get. 

Ben Stiller

The world viewed Stiller’s infamous neurosis through a more dramatic lens with 2010’s Greenberg, but the actor went hardcore with his role as an aspiring comedy writer in 1998’s Permanent Midnight, which chronicled real-life writer Jerry Stahl’s descent into drug addiction. 

Image: Artisan Entertainment

Michael Keaton

Some people may be surprised to learn that this iteration of Batman actually started out as a standup comedian before moving on to bizarre roles like the titular character in Beetlejuice. 

Michael Keaton

Yes, Keaton may not be the most common comedian on this list, but he deserves a space for the sheer dramatic power in his most recent role. Birdman may be the film that brings Keaton back into the spotlight as a serious dramatic actor — which, funnily enough, is what his character so desperately wants throughout the entire film. 

Image: Fox Searchlight

Bryan Cranston

Cranston was a sitcom star long before was Heisenberg. 

Bryan Cranston

Of course, it’s hard to remember that Cranston was ever the dad from Malcolm in the Middle when he went on to star in what many would argue is the greatest American TV show of our time. (You know, if you’re not already casting your vote for The Wire.) In fact, the only person who may have made such a sharp turn in their career is Walter White himself. 

Image: AMC

Katey Segal

This sitcom actress cut her teeth on Married With Children before cutting down real people on this drama. 

Katey Sagal

Sons of Anarchy’s Gemma could have easily won the award for Worst Mother of the Year, so it’s wildly impressive that Sagal made the jump from her far more together, traditional suburban mom character on the sitcom. 

Image: FX