On the surface, comedians may seem light and funny because of their work. Anyone given to making people laugh surely must be happy all the time. And yet we know this isn’t true—the miserable, self-hating comedian is an old cliché, in part because it so often seems to be true. Despite their propensity to create goofy characters, write hilarious one-liners and more, comedians often have a knack for great dramatic performances. We wrote about this a few years ago, but it’s time to take another look. Sometimes the funnier comedians seem to be, the more readily they’re able to tap into some deep, dark well of reality and pain.
The type of serious roles the following comedians play differ—some are solemn and reserved, others are full-blown psychopaths—but no matter the part, each one reveals the comedian’s acting depth. Here are 13 comedians who have turned in stellar dramatic performances, proving that their talent isn’t limited to earning laughs.
1. Bill Hader
Hader really can play it all. We all know how great he is at making people laugh, but he’s proven he’s equally adept at making us cry. Appearing opposite his SNL co-star and friend Kristen Wiig in The Skeleton Twins, Hader played a depressed gay man who attempts suicide in the film’s opening moments. Hader as Milo didn’t have to say much in terms of dialogue for his pain to come across; he effectively wore his heart on his sleeve. Like some of the best actors in the business, he can say it all with a simple glance.
2. Sarah Silverman
The Jesus is Magic comedian may be known for her honest opinions and equal opportunity offensiveness, but Silverman has turned in some equally memorable dramatic performances as well. In 2011’s Take this Waltz she played a recovering alcoholic with a propensity for self-destruction, lending the character a touch of humor and grace. Silverman again takes on a darker, dramatic role in the upcoming I Smile Back, in which she plays a depressed mother and wife who seeks out personal catastrophe.
3. Kristen Wiig
Wiig rose to fame with several outlandish characters on SNL, including Gilly and Kat (of Garth & Kat fame), but she’s done numerous dramatic performances. In fact, Wiig appears as willing to dive into darker material as she is to explore comedy’s absurd side. In Girl Most Likely, The Skeleton Twins and Welcome to Me, she adeptly explored bruised or broken characters struggling to find their place in the world. Even her role in Bridesmaids had a tinge of melancholy about it.
4. Will Ferrell
Audiences may most often associate Ferrell with his funny-man performances, including as the pompous anchorman Ron Burgundy or one half of the world’s favorite pair of stepbrothers. But he’s also done his share of dramatic roles. Whether it was 2006’s Stranger than Fiction, which had a somber tone about it even while Ferrell brought heart and warmth to his character, or 2010’s Everything Must Go, which had a much more dismal tone due to the main character’s spiraling out of control, Ferrell has repeatedly shown that he can play a spectrum of pain.
5. Adam Sandler
Paste’s previous list about dramatic comedians featured Sandler’s memorable turn in Punch Drunk Love, a role that allowed his neurotic side to flourish in a far more serious way than audiences had previously seen. But Sandler also starred in 2007’s Reign Over Me opposite Don Cheadle. As a man who lost his family on 9/11, Sandler gave a stellar performance rife with pain. His physicality exuded someone who had been through one of life’s greatest traumas and was still lost on the road to recovering even a part of who he had been.
6. Robin Williams
Williams may have rose to fame doing stand-up before taking on the big screen, but some of his most memorable film roles are dramatic in nature. Really, no matter who he played, Williams had a special ability to bring out the heart in every character. Whether it was English teacher John Keating in Dead Poets Society, the disturbed Parry in The Fischer King, or even the widowed counselor in Good Will Hunting (which earned Williams the best supporting actor Oscar in 1998), he offered audiences profound performances.