Opinion: Why Do Comedians Make Such Good Actors?

If your Facebook feed is anything like mine you’ll have spent the last few days reading about how good Dave Johns is in the new Ken Loach film I, Daniel Blake. It’s a serious role for the seasoned stand-up generating a big buzz at the Cannes Film Festival and one that could make Johns a bigger movie star than stand-up. And this is a man who has sold out the Hyena Club in Newcastle. More than once.

Johns isn’t the first comedian to make the (temporary) move into straight acting. And his film role is not entirely out of the blue – he acted in plays a few years ago when there was a bit of a trend for comedians to add drama to their CV. So why are comedians such good actors?

It is both a hard question to answer and an easy one. I think the best comedians are natural performers which would be suited for taking on a script. But they can also be uncontrollable show-offs, which might not go down too well with a hard taskmaster. By all accounts Loach loved Johns from day one.

Jo Brand is an interesting case study. I remember that about two decades ago she failed an audition for a Lynda La Plante drama. And the role was as a stand-up comic so it should have been a doddle. I’ve seen Brand’s new sitcom Going Forward in which she plays her nursing character Kim Wilde from Getting On and she is excellent. She was a nurse in a previous life which might have helped, but then again being a comedian didn’t help her land the La Plante gig. 

I can understand how comedians would be good in plays in the theatre. Their performance experience would clearly help them there. Rob Brydon has been excellent in a couple of productions in London recently and has recently been giving Kenneth Branagh advice on comedy as Branagh is soon to star as an ageing music hall hoofer in a revival of John Osborne’s The Entertainer.

Comedy circuit experience must also be useful. If you are appearing on the stage with a living, breathing audience in front of you timing is crucial too. The best comedians are either born with it or develop it. Either way the ability to read a crowd would give them an advantage if performing something that doesn’t have laughs.

There are probably lots of reasons why comedians make good actors. Another one springs to mind. They crave attention and will graft to get as much as possible. Eddie Izzard has frequently spoken about wanting the love of an audience to replace the love of his late mother. Oh, and comedians often have charisma and are photogenic – not necessarily sexy, but photogenic – which is also an advantage.

But there is something truly special about comedians becoming actors. A lot of the transferable skills I've mentioned here could just as easily be applied to rock stars. And yet compare the comedians who has successfully made the transition to the number of rock stars. I haven’t seen I, Daniel Blake yet but somehow I know I’d rather see Dave Johns in it than see Sting in anything.



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