The Challenge in Casting a Comedian Biopic

By  · Published on December 4th, 2015

Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

From Richard Pryor to John Belushi and now Phil Hartman, the comedian biopic is on the rise. This week, Variety reported that former TV idol Jason Priestley will direct the Hartman movie, titled Nice Guy Phil, with voice actor Daran Norris (The Fairly Oddparents; Star Wars: Clone Wars) taking on the role of the Saturday Night Live legend. Norris isn’t really known for on-screen work, but he did also have a recurring role on Veronica Mars and appears in the recent film.

Because he’s not a big star, Norris’s casting is being met with everything from shrugs to skepticism. But what prominent actor could pull off a portrayal of Hartman? Maybe another comedian, perhaps another SNL cast member or veteran? Taran Killam, also hardly a famous movie star, is the only one from the show I could see playing the man, albeit with little physical resemblance – part of that is due to his being too young for the part at the moment, though on the other end Norris is already older than Hartman was when he was murdered in 1998.

The thing about comedian biopics is that the lead needs to be able to replicate the subject’s comedy, and in most cases that’s not a simple task. Compared to musician biopics, you can’t just sample the original performance (unless you’re clever like American Splendor is with its integration of the actual Harvey Pekar in old TV clips alongside Paul Giamatti’s performance – not that Pekar is a comedian, really). And it’s not as easy as getting the actor to mimic the performance in the studio with the magic of audio wizardry.

Well, you’re not required to replicate performance, but unfortunately that is primarily what audiences want out of any biopic. They want to see and hear exact recreations of things they’ve seen before. They want to see actors playing The Doors playing on Ed Sullivan. They want to see someone do Nixon doing the “I am not a crook” bit. They want to see the guy with the job of representing Steve Jobs reenacting Apple event keynote speeches. And they want to see the guy impersonating Phil Hartman copying his familiar SNL impersonations. Milos Forman’s Man on the Moon is almost a parody of the idea given how many scenes are straight reproductions of TV appearances made by Andy Kaufman.

The ironic thing about comedian biopics, though, is that while it’s essential to find someone who can do the comedy, the movies are very rarely comedies themselves. Unlike musician biopics, which typically get to be musicals and may even star musicians-turned-actors. It’s almost a cliche that a lot of comedians are sad clowns in real life, plus a number of those who wind up with biopics are comedians who’ve died tragically or had some terrible misfortune in their lives. Hartman was killed in his sleep by his own wife, who then committed suicide, for instance. Before then, the couple had their troubles. Norris, like any comedian biopic star, has to exhibit serious dramatic chops in addition to the funny business.

Looking at those movies that are a success, it’s not certain whether the best way to go is with someone who firstly seems appropriate for the comedy routines, as Norris and Pryor biopic lead Mike Epps do, or someone more inclined to take a Method approach, as I expect Emile Hirsch will for his portrayal of Belushi (and he’ll possibly be joined by fellow serious actor Miles Teller as Dan Aykroyd). Comedy may be harder to do than drama, but dramatic actors are still regularly given more respect. Not always unfairly. I trust Hirsch will give the better performance of the three. Funny man Josh Gad possibly playing Sam Kinison in a biopic doesn’t sound quite as good, either.

The best comedian biopics show a mix of both, though they also represent a variety of styles, from the more serious stand-up of Lenny Bruce (played by mostly dramatic actor Dustin Hoffman in Lenny) to the silly stunts of Kaufman (played by mostly comedic actor Jim Carrey) to the silent cinema pratfalls of Charlie Chaplin (played by the wide ranging but until then not physical actor Robert Downey Jr. in Chaplin). However, the portrayals done by people more historically known for comedy themselves are more likely to be overlooked by the Oscars, at least. Carrey was truly snubbed 15 years ago.

For a biopic like Nice Guy Phil, it doesn’t just end with whether or not Norris is fit for the role, either. We’re sure to see supporting portrayals of some of his SNL and NewsRadio colleagues, and I presume we’ll see an actor playing Paul Reubens playing Pee-wee Herman, as Reubens and Hartman were longtime friends and collaborators (Hartman even co-wrote Pee-wee’s Big Adventure). That can extend the casting challenge, whereas music biopics can just get lookalikes to fake play instruments and a movie like The Aviator can fill in with cameos of actors made up to look the part of Hollywood legends with little else required of them.

I do have confidence in Norris. Given what I’ve seen and heard of him, he seems like he could do Hartman’s voice(s) and on-screen mannerisms just fine. I don’t know about his off-screen personality, but reportedly he campaigned hard for the part and proved that he could do it. But while the production may have gotten the right man for the movie, now we’ll just have to see if the movie is right overall. Another funny actor who similarly went out hard for a portrayal of another comedian is Chris Diamantopoulos, for Moe Howard of The Three Stooges in The Three Stooges. He did a perfect impersonation, but the rest of the movie wasn’t worthy of it. It also wasn’t a biopic, though, nor did it have any dramatic parts.

Can Priestley deliver something that does Hartman’s life and work justice? The former 90210 star has more than 20 years experience behind the camera, yet he doesn’t have a good or bad reputation as a director. But Priestley was drawn to the project because he was friendly with Hartman over the years following his 1992 appearance on SNL. For now we can only recognize is that if all it needed was a comedic copycat and a filmmaker who knew the subject personally, Nice Guy Phil would be in perfect hands.

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.