The Top 20 Physical Comedians of Modern Television
Now that the 2006/2007 fall TV schedule is over, it’s time to ponder what it is about television that we like so much. Is it watching people do stupid things on reality shows? How about steamy hospital dramas that have more sex than medicine? Is it comedies about fat, dumb husbands with hot wives that hate them? All of these things are well and good, but they don’t really give me what I’m looking for.
I like all types of comedy, but oddly enough, my favorite is physical comedy (oddly enough, I say, because it’s a well-known fact that women don’t “get” The Three Stooges). Perhaps I DON’T like The Three Stooges – but I do enjoy me some fallin’ down. I like people smacking themselves in the face with doors and I like people throwing themselves around the room. What makes it funnier is to see it in the middle of a sitcom where everything else is “normal” and actors get by on witty lines. It’s the physical comedians within these groups that make certain shows stand out. And, of course, there’s the stand-outs on Saturday Night Live. While I tend to consider it a bit easier to do physical comedy on a sketch show, I’ve included the standouts from that show as well.
The following is an in-depth look at physical comedy throughout the past 40 years. You will note that Dick Van Dyke and Lucille Ball, while mentioned, are not on the list. We’ll call them the far end of the “modern” scale and look past them to those they inspired.
You’ll also notice that to keep your attention, I have sprinkled a bit of nudity throughout the article. Enjoy!
20./19. (tie) Chris Farley/Will Farrel & John Belushi/Dan Akroyd – For many folks in their 20′s and 30′s, Farley and Farrel epitomize physical comedy. For the preceding generation, it’s Belushi and Akroyd. The main draw for all four of these guys is their size – seeing them take their large frames and hurl themselves through dance routines (Farley’s Chippendale, Belushi and Akroyd’s Blues Brothers, Farrel’s cheerleader) or bandy about the set in a “large” fashion (Farley’s Matt Foley, Belushi’s samurai, Farrel’s hot tub lifeguard) cemented them in our minds as guys who based their comedy on the idea that big guys doing most anything is hilarious. While they could possibly be near the top of just any “physical comedy” list, for the purposes of this list (which focuses on television), we’ll give them their rightful place near the bottom for using the unbridled comedy venue of late night, weekend, sketch comedy television to hone their skills.
18. Molly Shannon - A former SNL cast member NOT known for her movie career, Shannon makes it in to the top 20 by taking some seriously badass falls. Her work as the character Mary Katherine Gallagher was mindblowingly physical – launching oneself into a pile of boxes or chairs on “live” TV is much more impressive than doing it in a movie or even a taped sitcom. All that, and she’s wearing a short skirt! She also added a lot of dancing and gymnastics to her other characters such as Sally O’Mally (“I’m FIFTY years old!”). She probably won’t be remembered as one of the best SNL cast members of all time, and her career went pretty dead after she left the show – but she gets an A+ for effort for slinging herself around with the boys of SNL.
17./16. Sarah Chalke/Zach Braff - You don’t generally find good physical comedy in today’s sitcoms. Heck, with all the reality show buzz, it’s hard to find a sitcom at all. But along with being brilliantly written and acted, Scrubs holds up the current television schedule with a little bit of physical comedy thanks to Braff and Chalke. From the beginning, Braff has been taking shots to the head from inanimate objects and riding his scooter through seemingly solid objects. And of course, he’s been through the Ritter/Van Dyke school of falling down. Chalke gets her position on the list for being the hottest chick on television (or so I’ve read) to take the occasional fall or just flail around hopelessly.
15. Don Knotts - Knotts gets his points basically for being extremely funny-looking and putting it to use in a comedic fashion. He’s funny just when his hair is out of place as Barney Fife. He’s funny when he’s scared. Funny when he’s drunk. Funny when he’s trying to be macho. His high-pitched excited voice and spindly frame serve as a template for actors like Zach Braff (16), Andy Dick (13) and Michael Richards (10) as he fully embraced his end of the comedy spectrum as “that weird little guy.” Later in his career, on Three’s Company, he kept up his reputation as being a sort of “rubberband man” with his his bug-eyed facial expressions and slow-wittedness. While Knotts didn’t do as much falling down shtick as others known for their physical comedy, his ability to play out “anxious” through facial expressions and mannerisms sets him up as a true modern physical comedy legend.
14. Ellen DeGeneres - Before Ellen was known as a lesbian, she was known as a great female physical comedian. Able to clumsily dance and sing her way through her sitcom (and now even her own talk show), she brought back the clumsy female lead we really hadn’t seen since I Love Lucy. Although the sitcom itself wasn’t really anything to write home about, the classic setup of miscommunication -> “madness ensues” was made more palpable and fresh by having DeGeneres herself do the pratfalls and play the dummy. DeGeneres plays as a female Don Knotts doing the comedy of Jerry Seinfeld and getting herself into situations similar to Lucille Ball.
13. Andy Dick - It would appear that while Andy Dick played America’s favorite spazz on television (Newsradio), he was also quite a spazz in real life. The Newsradio writers obviously put this to good use and used Dick as a punching bag for the show – during the second season, every show opened with Dick’s character falling down for some reason or another. While this didn’t carry through to the following seasons, falls, smacks and flailing were a part of Dick’s repertoire throughout the rest of the show’s run. Combine that with the perfectly clueless nature of Matthew Brock, and this little gem of a physical comedian shines. Much like Scrubs, which adds more humor to its already awkwardly-humorous setting (a hospital) by adding slapstick, Newsradio brings a new facet to making office life humorous by adding physical comedy in the form of Andy Dick.
12. Chevy Chase - Really not known for his work on TV…but his stint as a cast member on Saturday Night Live solidifies him as one of the most memorable physical comedians in modern TV history. Why? Well, I am a huge fan of the prat fall and no one does it better than Chase. While Chase is known as a terrific prick and was definitely not a favorite amongst fellow cast members, he sure did a hell of a job falling down on camera. He didn’t even resemble Gerald Ford in the least bit, but he ingrained the image of Ford as a clumsy boob for all future generations. Chase did the “fall of the week” during SNL openings…and that’s why he’s number 13.
11. Steve Martin – Like Chase, Martin isn’t known for his television work anymore, but he’s so good he’s remembered for being a cast member on Saturday Night Live (which he wasn’t). Martin is the modern equivalent of a Vaudeville man, using props, songs and incredibly lame humor in his act. He’s very much the guy who made the “fake arrow through the head” funny and danced around like a complete buffoon singing about King Tut. Martin’s physical appeal is in his lanky body and large voice, accompanied by his self-deprecating humor. His physicality in the “wild and crazy guys” alone earns him a spot on this list for funny catch phrase, funny costume, funny accent and funny dance.
10. Jim Carrey - Also not known for his television work, Carrey ripped on to the scene in the early 90′s on the sketch comedy show In Living Color. It was there that he caught the eye of Hollywood (and the rest of America) by taking physical comedy to a new level – contortionism and completely out-of-control slapstick. Not only did Carrey have the prat fall down pat, he took it a step further by often falling limbo-style onto his knees and springing back up. His characters, such as Fire Marshall Bill, had seemingly elastic faces. His distorted female character, bodybuilder Vera DeMilo, was so over the top she was downright gross. Carrey, like other sketch comedy stars on this list, went on to do the same in movies but his brand of physical comedy on In Living Color makes him an extremely important part of the modern physical comedy list.
9. Michael Richards - They say that on Seinfeld, Michael Richards’ entrances as Kramer met with such applause that special timing had to be allotted in the scripts to cover the audience reaction. Whether popping into a room, tripping over a chair, flailing around in tight jeans or dancing to polka while making sausages, Richards’ career as Kramer makes him an extremely important part of this list. Once again, Richards is another actor on the list who embraces his “non-traditional” appearance in order to get laughs. Like Knotts, Richards as Kramer is funny just by being in a scene. Of course, he also takes some excellent shots to the face from doors.
8./7. Penny Marshall/Cindy Williams - The first of two comedy teams on the list, Penny Marshall and Cindy Williams are better known as Laverne and Shirley. While the show was a bit of a yawn at the end of the Happy Days craze of the 80′s, it was certainly the showcase for physical comedy in that era. Williams played the “straight man” Shirley to Marshall’s off-the-wall Laverne – definitely an homage to I Love Lucy‘s Ethel and Lucy, but since it was no longer the 50′s (in real life – it actually was the 50′s/60′s on the show) the drunkeness could be more apparent and the cat fights nastier. As with most of the other entrants on this list, Marshall and Williams could throw themselves around, fall down and get smacked in the face with the rest of them. And Marshall clearly used her physical comedy skills to get ahead in Hollywood due to the fact that her looks probably couldn’t have gotten her as far. The reason Marshall and Williams are so high on this list, even though their show sucked, is that they deserve it for being women doing this sort of comedy during this time period in television. When other women were “making their place in this world” (Rhoda, Alice, Maude, Mary Tyler Moore, Flo), saving the world (Wonder Woman, Charlie’s Angels, M*A*S*H) or just being cute (The Waltons, WKRP) the girls of Laverne and Shirley were throwing themselves around Milwaukee acting like idiots, just to get a laugh.
6. John Cleese - What’s not to love about John Cleese? While Monty Python worked more on a level of wordplay, intellectual humor and downright absurdity, when the situation called for physical comedy, John Cleese was the man. The most obvious case of this is, of course, the “Ministry of Silly Walks” sketch where Cleese flails his large, lanky legs about the street. Another subtle example is the “Fish Slapping Dance,” 15 seconds of utter hilarity where Cleese gets slapped about the face with a small fish. If that’s not brilliance, I don’t know what is. While you won’t find too much more in the way of physical humor in Flying Circus (other than the occasional 16-ton weight smashing), Cleese shines as the harried and anxious innkeeper Basil Fawlty in Fawlty Towers. Fawlty Towers was definitely a “madness ensues” type of sitcom, usually as the result of a miscommunication or an outrageous lie. However, Cleese carried the sitcom with his “large” sense of physical comedy, often yelling himself into a tizzy or running gawkishly about the hotel trying to correct his own mistakes. Fawlty Towers is definitely a clear cut from any Python work, but is a shining example of the type of character Cleese was meant to play.
5. Bryan Cranston - Who is Bryan Cranston? He’s known as the dad (Hal) from Malcom in the Middle, but astute viewers might also remember him as the “dentist who converted to Judaism just for the jokes” on Seinfeld (“Whatley!”). I realize it’s odd to see Cranston up here near the top of the list, but while doing research (read: watching 6 seasons of Malcom back-to-back) it goes without saying the Cranston is sitcom television’s most talented and relentless physical comedian of the past 10 years. Granted, the entire television family of Malcom does an amazing job of beating each other up (and other random characters) but Cranston shines as the most physical of the group. Most notable are his roller skating scenes (in which he reportedly did most of the “stunts” himself), his work in a Dance, Dance Revolution contest and his new hobby of race walking (note the fabulous costumes in each clip). Cranston is an all-around physical comedian on the show, giving a performance that completely defines “hapless boob.” From flustered screaming to girly whining, Bryan Cranston currently holds the torch for best television physical comedian of the 21st century. Since his show has been off the air for a year now, let’s hope Scrubs‘ Zach Braff (16) kicks it up a notch and decides to join a circus.
4. John Ritter - There are two types of TV fans in this world – those who like Three’s Company and those who think it’s just ok. I find myself falling in with the latter category. If you’re going to watch Three’s Company at all, you’re either there for the hot chicks or for the brilliant physical comedian that is John Ritter. Unlike other list-ees who seem to have gotten in to physical comedy because they were extremely goofy looking, Ritter doesn’t seem to have been touched by the ugly stick. Instead, he is just pure drive and skill when it comes to physical comedy. He’s got it all – he has funny stares, funny walks, funny falls. He gets tied up in things, trips over things and gets hit with things. He plays drunk, he dances funny, he sings funny. As I said, Ritter was definitely there to drive the show for those of us not interested in the girls. Ritter was known as a true physical comedy veteran – not only was he on Three’s Company with fellow list-ee Don Knotts (15), he also made guest appearances on Scrubs as Zach Braff’s (16) dad, on Newsradio with Andy Dick (14) and on the short-lived The Ellen Show with Ellen DeGeneres. Although he did not reprise his physical comedy role in his final sitcom 8 Simple Rules (or so I’m told – I will admit to not having seen that series), he will always be remembered as a good guy and a damn fine trip-er (!).
3. Rowan Atkinson - Mr. Bean. The original British “rubber band man.” Possibly the fugliest man on the BBC, Rowan Atkinson is also one of the funniest. His series, Mr. Bean (which has been playing on American PBS for centuries, it seems) is the epitome of physical comedy, as the title character is completely silent. In the same vein as silent movie stars Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, Atkinson draws his humor for Bean from facial expressions, odd situations and naÃ¯vetÃ©. While his odd looks certainly help with the humor, as in the case of Knotts (15), Richards (9) and Carrey (10), Atkinson does not draw on his size as a case for hilarity (Farley (20), Farrell (19), Cleese (6), etc.). Instead, the character of Mr. Bean is often very silently doing something wrong in the background, or even just getting into a complete mess at home. Unlike other list-ees who are part of an ensemble cast, the Bean character is performed and written by Atkinson (along with other mega-comedy BBC writers Robin Driscoll, Richard Curtis and Ben Elton) which really makes Atkinson stand out as an actor. Atkinson has been a part of ensemble casts and sketch shows – the Blackadder series and Not the Nine O’Clock News (also written with Curtis and Elton) on which he was also exceedingly funny. However, it was not until the Mr. Bean that his amazing talent as a physical comedian came to the forefront. While in the first Blackadder series, Atkinson’s role as the title character was one of a pathetic little man, the following series had him in a more stern and serious character, reacting sharply to the idiots around him (most notably Tony Robinson and Hugh Laurie). In these roles he was more of the argumentative Cleese-type with all of the laughs coming at the expense of underlings (or in the case of Laurie as Prince George – his charge). Atkinson’s ability to “run the show,” as it were, also comes out in his stage act which is not traditional stand-up, but more short character studies in which Atkinson goes between the angry schoolmaster type (harkened from Blackadder) and the hapless idiot (Bean). There has been nothing else on television that one can describe as a “one man physical comedy show” other than Mr. Bean, which is why Atkinson makes it to number 3 on the list.
2./1. Rick Mayall/Adrian Edmonson – Like Rowan Atkinson, Rick Mayall and Adrian Edmonson got their fame from the BBC and Bel Elton. I often describe this pair to others as a “live action, British Beavis and Butthead.” Their physical comedy is indeed extreme and they play off each other brilliantly – with highly-choreographed fight scenes, explosions and a complete love/hate relationship that most likely stems from the fact that no one else can stand their characters so they (the characters) end up together. Unlike other list-ees, these two work best as a duo. They also incorporate more than just prat falls and silly entrances into their performances – they are indeed violent. In fact, such violence has not been seen since The Three Stooges. But in the case of Mayall and Edmonson characters, the violence is usually done out of malice in contrast to the Stooges’ brand of “take that, ya numbskull!” joshery. Throughout their careers, Mayall and Edmonson have been smashing up furniture and windows, setting each other on fire (more Edmonson on fire than Mayall), repeatedly knocking each other in the nads, choking each other (a la The Simpsons) and, most often, bashing each other with frying pans and the most useful cricket bat. The characters they play – as The Dangerous Brothers on Saturday Live; Rik and Vyvian on The Young Ones; and Rick and Eddie in both Filthy, Rich and Catflap and Bottom – are lowly, sad, poor, idiots with egos the size of Albert Hall. They are extremely socially and sexually frustrated and are quite possibly a mix between American “white trash” and the British “upper class twit”. As with Mr. Bean, Edmonson and Mayall’s latest show, Bottom, includes very little interaction with – or at least very little regards to – the outside world. For the most part, the pair just stay home and beat the bejeezus out of each other when not out looking for “birds” to “shag.” This format lends itself brilliantly to a stage show version which the two embarked on during the show’s run on television and after (there were 5 stage “plays” in all, over 10 years). The stage shows showcase the absolute physicality of their performances, with Edmonson and Mayall sweating, cues going wrong and both forgetting their lines (and ad-libbing beautifully). While seeing the stage shows does add more appreciation of the pair for the casual viewer, any fan of physical comedy must bow down to Rick and Adrian as the ballsiest, craziest, most driven physical comedians to have come on the telly in the past 30 years.
Did I miss anyone? Share your thoughts!Written by JessB
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