Comedians who expanded beyond funny business

Neal Justin
Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

When Louis C.K. strolls out onto the stage during his current tour, he’ll probably deliver another master class in stand-up. Then again, he might just emerge in a tutu and premiere a new ballet inspired by the Cuban missile crisis.

Don’t laugh — at least that’s what some of our best stand-ups seem to be telling their fans from time to time. In C.K.’s case that has meant turning in a touching performance as a blacklisted screenwriter in “Trumbo” and dropping “Horace and Pete,” an Emmy-nominated web series that re-imagines “Cheers” as a Greek tragedy.

Peers who have also taken left turns this past year include Tina Fey, enlisting as a war correspondent in “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot”; Steve Martin, earning Tony nominations for his Broadway musical “Bright Star,” and Sarah Silverman trading in sarcasm for severe depression in “I Smile Back.”

They’re all following in the shadow of other comics who veered onto unexpected paths — with mixed results. Comics who came before:

Jackie Gleason

Known as: Short-fused bus driver in “The Honeymooners.”

The gamble: Pool shark Minnesota Fats, putting Paul Newman on the rack in “The Hustler” (1961).

The result: His sole Oscar nod and red-carpet treatment at every billiards parlor in the country.

Richard Pryor

Known as: One of the most influential stand-ups ever.

The gamble: Desperate factory worker in “Blue Collar” (1978).

The result: A tantalizing start to a dramatic side career, derailed by drugs, bad management and “The Toy.”

Carol Burnett

Known as: Ringleader of madcap nonsense on her groundbreaking variety series.

The gamble: Mother digging for answers after her son is killed in Vietnam in “Friendly Fire” (1979).

The result: An Emmy nod, plus another one 30 years later for dramatic work in “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.”

Bill Murray

Known as: Charming slacker in “Stripes” and “Ghostbusters.”

The gamble: Drifter seeking spiritual guidance in remake of “The Razor’s Edge” (1984).

The result: People thought he had lost his marbles, but subsequent work in “Lost in Translation” and “Hyde Park on Hudson” has proved the skeptics wrong.

Eddie Murphy

Known as: The one bright spot during the gloomiest days of “Saturday Night Live.”

The gamble: Pop singer behind the Rick James-produced single, “Party All the Time” (1985).

The result: Hit No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100, but failed to rise above the title of one-hit wonder.

Rodney Dangerfield

Known as: Late bloomer who specialized in insulting himself.

The gamble: Abusive father in “Natural Born Killers” (1994).

The result: No respect, no respect at all.

Seth MacFarlane

Known as: Naughty boy behind “Family Guy” and “Ted” movies.

The gamble: Big-band crooner, starting with standards album, “Music Is Better Than Words” (2011).

The result: Will never be mistaken for Frank Sinatra or even Frank Sinatra Jr., but earned grudging respect from even those who despise Stewie Griffin.

Roseanne Barr

Known as: Mastermind behind groundbreaking sitcom “Roseanne.”

The gamble: A presidential run (2012).

The result: Was not seriously considered by Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton as a running mate.

Jon Stewart

Known as: Constantly outraged host of “The Daily Show.”

The gamble: After years of satirizing the media, writing and directing drama “Rosewater,” which celebrates a courageous journalist.

The result: Critical acclaim, but more people saw him in “Death to Smoochy.”

David Letterman

Known as: Best reason to stay up late for more than three decades.

The gamble: Traveling to India as a climate-change reporter for the National Geographic Channel.

The result: Season 2 of “Years of Living Dangerously” doesn’t start until October, but we’re intrigued, especially if Dave lets villagers rub his beard.