10 Comedy Directors Who Went Serious, From Jay Roach to Todd Phillips

Peter Farrelly, Adam McKay and Ben Stiller have all found awards love after turning to more dramatic movies

While some filmmakers get their starts making cheaply made B-movies or horror films, there’s a new crop of directors emerging who previously cut their teeth making classic comedies. And while most haven’t abandoned their sense of humor entirely, they’ve finally been recognized at both the box office and awards circuit by veering into prestige pictures. The latest example is Todd Phillips, the director of “Joker,” which as the darkly disturbed origin story of the iconic Batman villain is no laughing matter. Here are some other directors who have re-emerged as more than just funny men.

Jay Roach – Comedy Classic: “Austin Powers”/Dramatic Turn: “Trumbo”Jay Roach helmed not one but two comedy franchises before turning into something of a political wonk and directing the TV movie “Recount” in 2008 about the infamous 2000 election debacle in Florida. He told Vulture that he always admired the directors who find the grey area between comedy and drama like Alexander Payne and Hal Ashby. “Movies that have so much pain and angst yet fully committed humor. Those are the kind of movies I grew up on.”

Adam McKay – Comedy Classic: “Anchorman”/Dramatic Turn: “The Big Short”Movies like “The Big Short” and “Vice” are rooted in comedy and satire because of McKay’s intention to capture the absurdity and complexity of a crazy time in recent political and economic history. McKay said in an interview with The New York Times Magazine that he hopes his films capture that murky tone, and that he’s not the only funny person suddenly wading into these waters. “We’re living in a world with a tone that none of us has ever experienced. Pipe bombs are being sent to the leaders of a political party, and the guy who made ‘Dilbert’ is saying, You know the bombs were really made by left-wingers because they didn’t work,” McKay said. 

Tom Shadyac – Comedy Classic: “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective”/Dramatic Turn: “Brian Banks”Despite being one of Hollywood’s top comedy directors following Jim Carrey movies like “Ace Ventura,” “Liar Liar” and “Bruce Almighty,” Tom Shadyac found he couldn’t get work in Hollywood after both the bomb of his 2007 film “Evan Almighty” and after he suffered a life threatening concussion in an accident. But he told the LA Times he found a new outlook on life and Hollywood in directing the story of “Brian Banks,” a college football star wrongly convicted of a crime.

Todd Phillips – Comedy Classic: “The Hangover”/Dramatic Turn: “Joker”Todd Philips told Vanity Fair in support of “Joker” that he’s left comedy filmmaking entirely after feeling that “woke” culture drove his bro comedies like “Old School,” “Road Trip” and most notably “The Hangover” films out of style. “Go try to be funny nowadays with this woke culture,” Philips said. “There were articles written about why comedies don’t work anymore—I’ll tell you why, because all the f—ing funny guys are like, ‘F— this s—, because I don’t want to offend you.’ It’s hard to argue with 30 million people on Twitter. You just can’t do it, right? So you just go, ‘I’m out.’”

Peter Farrelly – Comedy Classic: “Dumb and Dumber”/Dramatic Turn: “Green Book”Yes, the guy who made “Dumb and Dumber” beat out “Roma” at the Oscars last year. And the tone between comedy and drama that director Peter Farrelly walks with “Green Book” helped his movie get made. Farrelly told Vulture he was able to pitch “Green Book” to studios based on the idea that a racial biopic is actually a buddy, road trip movie. And even though it deals with more dramatic fare, Farrelly still views his film as primarily lighter entertainment. “I’m sure there will be some criticism that [the film] is not authentic because it’s not dark enough,” Farrelly told Newsweek, “But that’s not my style.” Lighten up—it’s only a movie, right?

Woody Allen – Comedy Classic: “Annie Hall”/Dramatic Turn: “Interiors”Woody Allen found himself winning Oscars when he went beyond zany farces like “Sleeper” and “Love and Death” to telling more relatable stories like “Annie Hall” that blended comedy, drama and romance. But the prolific director would immediately follow up his Best Picture winner with a strictly dramatic take in the style of Ingmar Bergman films with his 1978 movie “Interiors.” Movies like “Another Woman” and “Blue Jasmine” have further shown Allen stepping out of his comedic comfort zone.

Preston Sturges – Comedy Classic: “The Lady Eve”/Dramatic Turn: “Sullivan’s Travels”Preston Sturges, one of the signature directors of Old Hollywood, would likely still be admired today based solely on the success of his screwball comedies like “The Great McGinty” and “The Lady Eve.” But he took a step up as an auteur with his 1941 more serious film “Sullivan’s Travels.” The film even breaks the fourth wall by telling an insider Hollywood story about a talented director who disguises himself as a hobo so he can learn about the true tragedies of the modern world for his next film, only to find he can’t ever escape Hollywood and his pigeon-holed place in the business.

Ben Stiller – Comedy Classic: “Zoolander”/Dramatic Turn: “Escape at Dannemora”In an interview with CBS News, Ben Stiller didn’t fault anyone for not knowing what to expect when he took on the job of directing the prison break miniseries “Escape at Dannemora.” In fact, Stiller was out of the country shooting “Zoolander 2” when the real life events of the series took place. While he’s veered between more dramatic roles as an actor, he teased to CBS News that he might “possibly” be considering retirement from broad comedies altogether.

Paul Feig – Comedy Classic: “Bridesmaids”/Dramatic Turn: “A Simple Favor”Paul Feig certainly has not strayed from making comedies, but he felt the urge to tackle a Hitchcockian thriller with just a dash of comedic elements with his film “A Simple Favor.” In an interview with EW, he explained he’s always tried to make genre films and finding the comedy within those tropes. “How do you walk that line where you can push the edge of the tone but you don’t spill over out of it so that you take the audience out of it? So this was definitely the biggest tonal tightrope,” Feig told EW.

David Dobkin – Comedy Classic: “Wedding Crashers”/Dramatic Turn: “The Judge”Though music videos and comedies allowed Dobkin to break into the industry, he had been plotting a pivot to drama with the Robert Downey Jr. film “The Judge” as far back as 2006 and before he began production on “Fred Claus,” according to an interview with HuffPost. However, his next film finds him squarely back in comedy with the Will Ferrell parody film “Eurovision.”
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