Are you a “real” actor or “just a comedian”?

*NB: the following blog contains edited expletives. I tried to write it without any.. but I couldn’t.

What’s all this bullsh*t I keep hearing about “real” actors versus comedians/improvisers?

I am continually shocked by this odd separation within our community over who is really an actor and who is “just a comedian.” What’s really disconcerting is the amount of improvisers and comedians that brand themselves with this archaic label. I have heard friends who I hold in high esteem as performers condescend to themselves in a conversation about being an actor. It is completely ludicrous. Yet, I can remember being a child and watching some of my favorite comedians (Peter Sellers, Jim Carrey, Kenny Everett, etc) and marvel at their ability to transform from one person to the next. But, when asked who my favorite actor was, if I responded with the name of a comedian I would be brushed-off – and so would the comedian. I didn’t understand it. I was so swayed by the fact that only a dramatic actor could be legitimate that I spent the next gazillion years trying to hide my penchant for the kooky out of fear of being branded a hack. And look how hard it has been for the comedian to break out of their type-cast prisons to secure interesting, non-comedic roles.. not to mention to receive straight-ahead praise over their work without it being diminished by the fact that they’re comedians: Sellers in Dr Stragelove and Being There; Carrey in Eternal Sunshine and Man on the Moon; Goldberg in The Color Purple; Mo’Nique in Precious; Adam Sandler in Punchdrunk Love; Robin Williams in SO many films from The World According to Garp and on.

As an adult and after a couple of decades pouring over performances and truly beginning to understand what it is to be an actor in its truest form (or at least what it means to me, anyway) I realize what it is about comedians that I like and what it is about “classically trained actors” that turns me off. Comedians are, in a word: present. Whereas, a trained actor is usually locked into a technique making them anything but present. Of course, I am making sweeping generalizations, but I think it’s important to begin to remove this stigma from comedians – and good actors can handle a little criticism.

A large element to good acting is having the ability to be present to the moment at hand. In comedy I have been taught that a key to a good laugh is awareness. A lot of what makes us laugh as an audience is the element of surprise and catching something when it comes up. Most of our lives we spend our time ploughing through our days just trying to make it through without incident. In comedy we look for those exact incidents in a situation or relationship and address it, exaggerate it and blow it out of all proportion. I think a lot of the time, the reason we laugh at comedy is when we see our own everyday behavior underlined and highlighted in a way that makes it seem petty and ridiculous giving us a moment of relief – comic relief, if you will. It takes present awareness to master this. Comedians have extensive experience in being present and aware because their craft’s success depends on it. It is hard for dramatic actors to remain present. I think this is in part due to working with scripted material. It’s the biggest challenge to take a script, memorize it ‘til you know it backwards, rehearse the crap out of it and then keep it fresh and be able to respond to the moment as if it were a new one EVERY time you perform it. It seems less hard for comedians, though. Perhaps it is because a comedian spends so much time working/responding in the present that it just seeps into their prepared work… ?

A great actor, comedic OR dramatic, appears to have a fire in their eyes. Everything they say is alight and there is an element of danger, even, to their performance. Like they are out on a wire. I attribute that to being in the present. Not churning up some old memory, not thinking of the next line, not worrying about the mechanics of their performance, but simply being here, now. Alive to the moment at hand.

I’m not saying that study and technique are pointless. I’m saying that it’s not all there is to good, even great acting. I think trained actors could learn a lot about themselves as performers if they were to take a comedy class, especially a comic improv class. It is humbling and I think actors could use a little more humility in general. Especially considering a lot of our profession is spurred by fame, looks and money. Nothing will snap you into the present faster than standing up in front of a room full of people and have a smart, sharp, savvy comedian call you out on your bull. I’d also like to encourage comedians to take an acting class. It will ground them and give them more confidence about the fact that they are actors. I’d add a warning to improvisers who are looking for good acting classes: be sure to split the minute you hear some a-hole say anything along the lines of someone needing talent and/or special god-given gifts of actor-ness.

I’m also not saying that comedians are, without exception, amazing actors. But I am saying we shouldn’t scoff or rule them out.

Acting is nothing special. It really isn’t. It’s a process much them same as learning any other craft. You work hard at it, you practice, you perform, repeat.. you will get good.

You will need good coaches, though for both:

For “actors” I’d recommend taking a class at The Upright Citizen’s Brigade orThe Magnet.

For “improvisers” I’d recommend taking a class with John Osborne Hugheswhen he’s in town next (he’ll be here in Ocotber – let me know if you want more info..) or someone like Maggie Flanigan or Bill Esper.

Also, when it comes to talent and being gifted here’s some light reading to help prove my point:


The Mundanity of Excellence by Daniel Chambliss


About The NYC Actor

Angela Dee is a professional actress working in Film, Theatre, TV, Commercials and Voiceovers. She currently lives in New York.

2 Responses to “Are you a “real” actor or “just a comedian”?”

  1. >Thanks Alisa G!That is great to hear. I'm so glad you're getting something out of the blog : )Angela

  2. >Another great post, Angela. Before even reading that, I always sensed that when people found something I'd done extremely funny when I was SO in the present, it was completely real to them. Being trained as an actor with the Meisner technique at Maggie Flanigan studio among others, I've been considering UCB and am reading Outliers right this moment, so I love how you're on the money with your posts. One of the most useful 'Acting Tips' blogs out there. Thanks again!

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