Believe it or not, the pipeline from comedian to actor is more intuitive than you might expect. Improv and standup have strong performance art undertones, and comedians generally have a strong sense of tragedy (it's often what makes them so funny). Sometimes comic performers stumble into film and TV roles, and sometimes they're crafting projects that trade on their specific brand of humor. Sometimes they start their on-screen career thanks to Saturday Night Live or another comedy show, and then, once they're known as performers, they take their brand of funny elsewhere.
Either way, some of our very best actors started life as comedians. There are literally Oscar-winning actors on this list, whfo were probably always going to be great dramatic actors but initially charmed us with their humor. But there are also actors who've never deviated from their particular brand of funny, regardless of how it's being used.
Below, 32 well-known comedians who became actors.
One of Eddie Murphy's mentees, Chris Rock was an SNL cast member in the '90s and had some bit parts on TV (Miami Vice) and film (New Jack City). He's continued to do standup (including for one very memorable Oscars ceremony) and has acted in movies including Spiral, Amsterdam, and Rustin.
With the beginnings of his career in improv, including with Chicago's Second City, Sudeikis actually joined SNL as a writer and then later appeared as a cast member. With Horrible Bosses he pivoted to leading man status, which led to the (still comedic!) Ted Lasso.
While Nick Offerman didn't do comedy tours until 2017, in his early career he participated in theater productions around Chicago (and got to know Amy Poehler). Around the same time he married fellow comic legend Megan Mullally, he started having funny bit parts on shows like Will & Grace and The King of Queens before making his mark as Ron Swanson in Parks and Rec.
Before Parks and Rec, before Mean Girls, before SNL, Amy Poehler was an incredible improv performer. She started with Second City in Chicago, performed in ImprovOlympic, and then co-founded(!) legendary improv troupe Upright Citizens Brigade with other improv performers.
The Between Two Ferns host has been perfecting his awkward style of humor for a long time (fans of his from the beginning may remember that he used to do standup while playing the piano!). His most notable role is Alan from The Hangover films, but he's popped up in a lot of movies and shows.
Wiig joined improv troupe The Groundlings when she moved to Los Angeles in the 2000s, and it wasn't long after that she joined the cast of SNL (she left the cast in 2012). She's since starred in a number of big movies, from The Martian to Downsizing and Wonder Woman 1984.
Before she appeared on Black-ish, Curb Your Enthusiasm, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, and other shows, Sykes won a Primetime Emmy as a writer on The Chris Rock Show. She has also, from the very beginning, pursued a career in standup (it's how she met Rock!).
Before she starred in movies including Ocean's 12 and Ocean's 13, Izzard was just a standup who put on a dress as part of her (very popular) standup. She has been open about identifying as genderfluid, and from the very start of her career wasn't afraid to hide her self-expression.
Funnily enough, Will Ferrell first tried his hand at standup comedy (with not a ton of success) before realizing that improv and impersonation were where his true talents lay. A year after joining The Groundlings, he joined the cast of SNL and the rest was history.
The Big Hero 6, Luca, Bridesmaids, and Disenchanted star got her start—where else—at SNL. Technically, before that, she was a member of improv group The Groundlings, and had a number of bit roles before becoming a household name (whose recent impersonation work includes Vice President Kamala Harris!).
One of the more notable recent examples of an SNL star who successfully pursued a career as an actor, Samberg is one third of the comedy trio Lonely Island (which you can thank for a lot of skits). While I myself love Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, he's probably most known for Brooklyn Nine-Nine.
Jamie Foxx has done a lot in his career, and that includes standup and comedy (such as In Living Color and his own sitcom). He went on to more serious roles—his breakout being Any Given Sunday and Collateral—but he still taps into his comic chops, including with Horrible Bosses.
Even though Patton Oswalt has graced our screens in a multitude of ways (King of Queens, Parks and Rec, A.P. Bio, The Raven, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Community, just to name a few) he has said that standup comedy (because it's where he started) is the role he most identifies with.
While most people probably know Amy Schumer best from Trainwreck, her TV show, or even her guest spot on Only Murders in the Building, her big break came in the form of season 5 of Last Comic Standing, in which she placed fourth. (She has continued to do standup in between acting.)
Donald Glover did sketch comedy and was hired at 23(!) to write (and occasionally star in) 30 Rock. While he had his breakout role in the 2000s on the show Community, he has since turned to somewhat more dramatic roles (including a young Lando Calrissian in Solo!) but kept his comic sensibilities.
The late John Candy was a comedic force in all his work. He had bit parts in shows before becoming a part of Toronto's Second City in the 1970s, which then led to success in film starting with Splash in 1984. He's a part of people's favorite movies, from The Blues Brothers to National Lampoon's Vacation.
From her first appearance, on The Merv Griffin Show, Tomlin started life as a standup and sketch actor. People immediately loved her characters on Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In, and some of her most notable work carried her to SNL and beyond. Her talent brought her to 9 to 5 and more dramatic roles like Nashville.
Before Ben Stiller won a primetime Emmy for his sketch show The Ben Stiller Show, he produced some comedy work and briefly did some work on SNL. Arguably, his guest spot on the most popular show at the time (Friends, as Rachel's rage-filled boyfriend) was the first a lot of people discovered him, but Stiller was doing comedy long before.
As cast member and (the first female) head writer for SNL, Fey achieved national notice as a comic actor. She actually started life at The Second City and later parlayed her comedic success into huge mainstream projects (Mean Girls, 30 Rock, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt).
Crystal's early career was in standup with some bit acting parts (he appeared on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson) with his first notable acting role as a gay character on the sitcom Soap. But his breakthrough would be Saturday Night Live in 1984, and his comedy and film career would go hand in hand.
Before he wrote and starred as the (sorta) fictionalized Jerry Seinfeld in Seinfeld, the real-life comic was revered for his chatty, observational, dryly funny standup routines. After the show ended, he returned to standup and has chosen his on-screen roles carefully since then.
Before he had a recurring guest role in the underrated show Undeclared in the '00s, Hart won several standup comedy competitions (and for a while was known primarily as a viral standup). But he's also parlayed that into on-screen stardom, including with the Jumanji movies.
One of the original cast members of SNL, Chase also co-founded a comedy group, did some writing and acting for The National Lampoon Radio Hour, and honed his acting in an off-Broadway revue. His SNL comedy work made him a star nearly immediately (particularly his impression of a klutzy President Ford).
Murphy cites his standup career starting in the '70s (when he was just a teenager) with his discovery of Richard Pryor. It wouldn't be long until he joined the cast of SNL in the 1980s and then not long after achieve leading man status with Trading Places and Beverly Hills Cop.
EGOT winner Whoopi Goldberg started out her career with a one-woman show, Spook Show, which ended up on Broadway. Her breakout film role in The Color Purple was decidedly not comedic, but some of her subsequent film roles (the Oscar-winning psychic in Ghost) absolutely have.
Longtime fans of Carell will know that a stint at Second City led to The Dana Carvey Show and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. He's leaned into more dramatic roles more recently, including The Morning Show, but his comedy is rarely far from his characterizations (dramatic or not).
Even though some of Hader's later roles wouldn't draw from his impressive comedic chops as much (The Skeleton Twins, Barry) he's always been able to lend some dramatic depth to comic characters—and vice versa. He actually started his career as a PA, then discovered improv was the way to channel his creativity.
If you're only familiar with Short (and his pal Steve Martin) from Only Murders in the Building, you're missing out on a career's worth of funny. Short was a sketch comedy guy from the beginning, joining Chicago's Second City Toronto location in the 1970s. Sitcoms, Second City TV, and SNL followed.
Steve Martin was a popular standup in the '70s, but did you know that he actually was a writer first, for The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour (he won an Emmy in his 20s for the work!)? His actual acting career kicked off in the '70s with The Jerk, but people knew him as an absurdist comic performer first.
Jim Carrey started standup as a literal teen and honed his craft in the '70s and '80s—first in Canada and then in Hollywood. After a popular role in In Living Color, then back-to-back comedy hits in the '90s (Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, The Mask and Dumb and Dumber), a legendary actor was born.
If you only know Emma Thompson for her beautiful dramatic roles (hello, Love Actually), it might surprise you to learn that she started acting in a sketch comedy group in England and, a short time later, the sketch comedy show Alfresco. And, throughout her career, she's continued to bring her sense of humor to roles quite effectively.
One of the funniest of them all, Robin Williams had improv skills that he used in a multitude of projects. But his start was in California standup, where people recognized his talent immediately. His bit part in Happy Days led to a spinoff show and the start of his Oscar-winning career.
Stay In The Know
Marie Claire email subscribers get intel on fashion and beauty trends, hot-off-the-press celebrity news, and more. Sign up here.
Katherine’s a Boston-based contributor at Marie Claire who covers fashion, culture, and lifestyle—from “Clueless” to Everlane to news about Lizzo. She’s been a freelancer for 11 years and has had roles with Cosmopolitan and Bustle, with bylines in Parents, Seventeen, and elsewhere. It’s “I go to dinner,” not “Her huge ego,” but she responds to both.
Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, and Anne Hathaway Step Right Back Into Character from 'The Devil Wears Prada' at the Screen Actors Guild Awards
The trio presented an award together onstage at tonight's ceremony, a reunion we didn't know we needed so badly.
By Rachel Burchfield
Jennifer Lopez’s Stylist Begged Her Not to Wear the Green Versace Dress to the Grammys That Launched Her Into Superstardom
“It caused quite a stir.”
By Rachel Burchfield
Meghan Markle “Will Share Stories” from Her Own Life and Do “Some Inner Reflecting” on Her New Podcast
“She doesn’t want the podcast to be celebrity-driven, though she’ll have some stars on.”
By Rachel Burchfield