When R-Rated Comedians Take Surprising PG-Rated Turns

By  · Published on December 3rd, 2016

Amy Schumer continues a tradition with her title role as Barbie.

Unexpected casting news has arrived this afternoon from Deadline, which reports that Amy Schumer is in talks for the title role of Sony and Mattel’s Barbie, a live-action comedy based on the iconic dolls. This is an inspired choice and also one that will surely upset some fans of the brand who believe the character should have a certain antiquated look and personality that they’re used to from their youth.

In addition to that, Schumer is primarily known for R-rated fare, or at least TV-14 with her show, so it’s easy to immediately imagine her bringing at least some off-color innuendo to the part. She won’t, though, right? Not even any really subtle acknowledgement to the parents in the audience who definitely made their Barbies have sex, right? No, Schumer can be crass when she wants to be, but she also has class, and tact when necessary.

Mattel also isn’t going to want to do anything to tarnish the 57-year-old toy and merchandising brand. They’ve already had enough trouble with big movies based on their products (see 1987’s Masters of the Universe and this year’s Max Steel), so they’ll want to be hip – Schumer and screenwriter Diablo Cody bring just enough edge – but also tasteful for all audiences. They shouldn’t do the Hasbro PG-13 route and alienate the youngest fans.

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The aim is for Barbie to be rated PG with a simplistic story about finding beauty on the inside where the title character is kicked out of Barbieland for not being “perfect” enough then tasked with saving that world later on. That sounds like it could be fine and empowering for the kids, but the question is how much of the “perfection” issue will be directed at bodies and will the rest of Barbieland have the impossible measurements of past Barbie repute.

We have until summer 2018 to see how this all turns out, so until then (or at least until the first look at the movie after it’s made), let’s recall five other famous comedians who were known for blue material who suddenly took on more family-friendly material, usually because that’s good money.

Bob Saget

The one that comes quickest to mind is the guy who I was first surprised to learn was very R-rated in his stand-up. Actually make that X-rated. Incest humor kind of X-rated. And he had a reputation for being inappropriate on the set of Full House, too. After his stints on that sitcom and the equally wholesome America’s Funniest Home Videos, Saget continued his raunchy act. But now, of course, he’s back to the clean stuff on Fuller House.

Paul Reubens (aka Pee-wee Herman)

Everybody remembers Pee-wee Herman as a character for kids, thanks mostly to Pee-wee’s Playhouse and to a degree the mostly family-friendly movies. But Reubens’s iconic character began life in a comedy act for grown-ups, and there was an HBO special in the early 1980s that stunned me when I was young and found that on VHS. As part of the taped stage show, Pee-wee hypnotizes a woman in order to get her to take her clothes off.

Richard Pryor

Pryor starred in PG-rated releases throughout the 1970s and made appearances in the G-rated movies The Wiz and The Muppet Movie, but none were marketed to kids and families like The Toy was. He plays a man purchased as a play thing for a rich kid, a premise which has everyone now wondering in retrospect what everyone then was thinking. Pryor probably understood the subtext just fine and let himself be a clown for the children on screen and off, though. Immediately afterward, the famously profane comedian also played laughs for all audiences in the less-racist Superman III.

George Carlin

Pryor’s best contemporary, Carlin was similarly well-known for his language, enough to be best-remembered for a routine about swears that managed to inspire a Supreme Court case on indecent material. He would become more and more tame for general audiences in the 1980s, becoming familiar to kids through his role in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure and its cartoon spinoff, but his most surprising turn towards the lighter side came in the next decade, as host and narrator of PBS’s children’s program Shining Time Station.

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Joan Rivers

Rivers is known for paving the way for women to be just as raunchy and profane as men like Pryor and Carlin, but she was able to balance that with sanitized humor, mostly because she had to begin that way anyway in the more innocent days of television and stand-up. You could grow up hearing her voice on The Electric Company and in Spaceballs and see her in The Muppets Take Manhattan and, slightly less family-friendly, on The Tonight Show and have no idea how non-PC and dirty she was on the other side of her work. It’s not as big a deal now for blue comics to merely do voice work (such as Rodney Dangerfield in Rover Dangerfield and Sarah Silverman in Wreck-it Ralph), but she did everything before anybody.

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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.