I watched Richard Brest's 1988 Midnight Run last night. What a hoot! I saw it a a few times in my teens and it's been one of my faves ever since. I bought a copy a few nights ago and I can say it remains as watchable and intelligent and hilarious as ever. And here's the funniest thing: Robert De Niro is actually really funny in it! His attempts at comedy in Analyze This (and That), Rocky and Bullwinkle (which, admittedly, he did for the sake of his then-young son), and A Shark's Tale convinced me of a hunch I've had for years: funny actors can be good actors, sometimes even great, but great actors just can't be funny. The harder "good actors" try to "be funny", the less funny they become. Just try to imagine Merryl Streep in a funny role. Try to imagine her actively seeking to evoke laughter through slapstick and one-liners. The mind shudders. Now try the same thing with Christian Bale. Could he be funny on-screen? I doubt it. I really doubt it, baby.
This does not, of course, mean that the roles played by great actors cannot make us laugh. That's my whole point about Midnight Run: De Niro's character, Jack Walsh, is truly funny at times, even though he is a characteristically gruff and cynical person. So, then, since De Niro can obviously "be funny" onscreen, what happened in his overtly comedic roles? I think it's all a case of "trying too hard." De Niro was not funny in his "funny" roles because he was too conscious of everyone watching him trying so hard to be funny that he came across as huffy and frustrated––to wit, not funny. But when he focused on just being Jack Walsh, he could let his own charisma as Robert De Niro shine through Walsh's charisma.
This paradox––call it The Mystery of Unfunny Great Actors––is part of a larger theory I have about art, comedy, creativity, imagination, empathy, and human psychology, but I'll try to keep it brief: Comedy is all about being able to look "difocally" at life. I say difocally, as opposed to bifocally, since bifocals bring two lens-captures into a single optical picture, whereas, let us say, "difocals" keep both lens-captures separate, and thereby require the viewer to view one situation simultaneously under two aspects. Through one lens––call it the empathy lens––the comedic actor must be able to "feel" how a serious, normal situation is just that: normal, serious, unfunny. If he can't "get" the normalcy of the scene, he can't produce believable responses as the character in that situation. Through the other lens, however, the comedic actor must be able to step back and view any normal, even grim, situation as somehow funny, off, unexpected, shocking, ironic, etc. If he can't see how the situation in which he's acting is also funny under a different aspect, he can't produce believable comedic energy. How sad, or at least telling, is it that De Niro's Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver––a lonely, schizophrenic sociopath––is funnier than his Paul Vitti in Analyze This? Most of the humor in Analyze This comes from knowing, nudge nudge, that we're really just seeing one of De Niro's harder criminal roles absurdly transplanted into "a comedy." (Pretty funny, right! Never thought you'd see that, eh!) De Niro, I'm sorry to say, doesn't generate the comedy. Rather, the script, and the incongruous viewing experience itself, generates comedic energy around him, like rushing water creates a hydraulic around a large, immobile boulder in a river. Consdier, by contrast, the tremendous pathos Tom Hanks and Jackie Gleason created in Nothing in Common. How can two "funny men" make us cry but, say, two "great actors" can't make us laugh from the belly?
It's not only De Niro's problem. The problem that great actors in general have with funny roles, is that they focus too much on being the character in a situation, and thus lose the difocal tension that comedy requires. Poor actors remain unifocal––flat, wooden, cliched, rehearsed––but great actors jut as easily succumb to a bifocal vision of the scene, and thus dissolve the comedic pole into the normal aspect. The instant that serious actors start consciously trying to cleave their vision of the role into "authentic" and "comedic," they feel themselves slipping from their main goals, namely, to really be the person they are playing. It's hardly the case that they take themselves too seriously, as if they were skittish about having their serious reputation laughed. Rather, the problem is that they take their characters too seriously. This handicap is especially acute for method actors, who really do become their roles (Daniel Day-Lewis, Robert De Niro, Merryl Streep, Dustin Hoffman, et al.). Interestingly, this analysis leads me to classify Matt Damon, despite his breakout fame in the ever-so-serious and cerebral Good Will Hunting, as a comedic actor. This is why he's able to toggle so impresisvely through very funny roles like Bob Tenor in Stuck on You and Lenny Pepperidge in Ocean's Thirteen and arch-dramatic roles like Jason Bourne in the Bourne films, Colin in The Departed, and Edward Wilson in The Good Shepherd. Same goes for Nicholas Cage. Even in his serious roles he can bring a grin to our face and make us laugh despite ourselves.
In light of the foregoing, therefore, I will try to tighten my claim about comedic actors: An actor that starts off doing funny (or at least "lighthearted") roles well can eventually blossom into a "serious actor," but the converse does not hold. As for Jack Nicholson, no matter how serious an actor he is, we have always known he is naturally nutty enough to play The Joker in Batman and Melvin Udall in As Good As It Gets.
Again, I admit lots of great actors can have funny moments. But this is a collateral function of good scriptwriting, and of them allowing the inherent funniness of their characters to shine forth in certain obviously funny moments. But I reiterate my claim that any reputably "serious actor" that consciously tries to play a funny role, will look forced and unfunny. By contrast, consider how dark and gripping some comedic actors can be: Tom Hanks in Castaway, Robin Williams in One Hour Photo and Insomnia, Jim Carrey in The Truman Show, Peter Sellars in Being There, etc. Consider as well the more general phenomenon of melancholic, angry, or bitter comedians: Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, Bill Hicks, George Carlin, Steven Wright, Richard Lewis, Dennis Miller, et al. (I leave Bill Maher off the list, since one requirement for being an "angry funny man" is actually being funny.) Comedians have to be able to identify serious and dark material, otherwise their jokes will lack any psychic "traction" on their usually less eccentric audience. They have to know what issues will grab the normal, serious mind, and then they have to know how to yank that mind, once attentive to a "serious" trigger word, down a comedic rabbit hole. Comedy is all about showing us sides or dimensions of even the darkest issues that make us say, "I never thought about it like that." Comedy, to be blunt, is about making us laugh even when we know we aren't supposed. This is, after all, exactly what Arsenio Hall's "Things that make you go, 'Hmmmm…'" gag was all about: drawing farcical attention to real news. Thinking so closely about something mundane until you laugh. Laughing at what's not funny until you try not to laugh at it.
My advice? Put on your difocals next time you watch the news and see if anything tickles your funny bone (which we all know is really the uvula) until you upchuckle.