When I heard that Pee-Wee Herman would be returning to the stage this November in Los Angeles, part of me was excited and intrigued to see how Pee-Wee’s childish naivete would play now that actor Paul Reubens is 57. You can watch any of these 10 videos of Pee-Wee Herman in action to relive some of his great moments since Reubens first developed the character as a member of The Groundlings in the late 1970s. There’s a part of me, though, and perhaps a part of you that has wondered about Reubens over the years since he ran afoul of the law in 1991. That incident put a kibosh on Pee-Wee, but what about the comedian/actor who was Reubens? Although he has had some delightfully quirky character parts recently on shows such as 30 Rock and Pushing Daisies, Reubens never really has gotten us to forget about Pee-Wee. Is it typecasting when you cast the type yourself? It really couldn’t surprise anyone, then, to see Reubens going back to the well once more.
He’s not alone, though.
Comedians have created and pulled off countless characters over the years (just think of your favorite sketch groups or shows, such as Saturday Night Live, Monty Python or Kids in the Hall, for plenty of examples). But every once in a while, a comedian creates a character so memorable that the alter-ego takes on a life of his/her own, so much so that the comedian’s ego is fed by the alter-ego. Here are 9 more comedy acts, who, for better or worse, are known for being someone else.
Dan Whitney grew up in Nebraska and Florida, and went about pursuing his stand-up career in the 1980s. It was going well enough, one would suppose. Here’s a clip of Dan Whitney performing on TV at a “Comedy From the Caribbean” show. S’ok, but let’s just say it was not getting it done. Then Whitney’s radio career took a twist, and during a period in which he was calling in to radio programs with various characters, he hit upon Larry the Cable Guy, a redneck with family values and a catchphrase. “Git-R-Done!” would not only make him a comedy club headliner, but catapult him to stardom, and after going on the Blue Collar Comedy Tour, he began becoming as big, if not bigger, than his cohorts. A 60 Minutes profile in 2006 revealed how many millions of dollars “Larry” was raking in, despite a couple of “Larry” movies that didn’t go anywhere. It’s rare to see or hear him out of character. And when you can turn that catchphrase into a foundation that can make a $1 million donation, as he did earlier this month, well, we don’t blame him for continuing to put on a fake accent and sleeveless flannel. He played to a stadium crowd at the University of Nebraska this July 4, and will release the “Tailgate Party” performance as a CD in September.
Would you believe that Bob Einstein is a comedy genius? Just ask his younger brother: Albert Brooks. Einstein was a writer for The Smothers Brothers on TV in the 1960s, but he first appeared as an inept parody of daredevil stuntmen in the early 1970s, when Evel Knievel had the nation’s rapt attention. While Knievel retired, Super Dave Osborne just kept going and going, from Showtime’s Bizzare in the 1980s to his own variety show and animated series. He still shows up as Super Dave on Jimmy Kimmel’s show and Spike TV agreed to air a four-part Super Dave special this summer.
Rowan Atkinson’s alter-ego has been mumbling and grousing about for decades now. Atkinson debuted his Mr. Bean character during Montreal’s Just For Laughs festival in 1987 by testing him out on French-speaking audiences. His British TV show ran from 1990-1995, but Mr. Bean continued to live on as a global star in two films, Bean (1997) and Mr. Bean’s Holiday (2007). Atkinson has had other roles in British TV and film, but nothing has quite matched Bean. Here’s a great clip of Atkinson explaining Bean in a 2007 BBC interview.
Australian comedian Barry Humphries has created a couple of characters. I’m sure if you’re Australian or British, you may even be able to name them. But none of them keep showing up on American television, unless you count Dame Edna. Humphries first showed up onstage in Melbourne as “Mrs. Norm Everage” back in the 1950s! She developed a stage show in London in the 1970s, and made repeated TV appearances throughout the 1980s. In a Tootsie-like twist, Barry Humphries began getting more and more work as Dame Edna, with roles in TV (Ally McBeal) and movies (Nicholas Nickleby). She had a talk show in Britain in 2007, and over the past few years, showed up frequently as a guest on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.
Imagine you’re actor Jim Varney. You’re in your early 20s and looking for a big break when you audition for a local TV commercial in Kentucky. Would you ever have figured that that ad, in which you play a rubber-faced guy named Ernest, would turn into a full-time career? As Ernest? It’d be like getting a job as a professional sports mascot, except instead of being inside the costume, you are the costume. “KnoWhutIMean” became a catchphrase, and Varney ended up starring in several Ernest films: Ernest Goes To Camp; Ernest Saves Christmas; Ernest Goes to Jail; Ernest Scared Stupid; Ernest Rides Again; Ernest Goes to School; Slam Dunk Ernest; Ernest Goes to Africa; Ernest in the Army. Varney died in 2000.
Has there been a comedian who has embraced and tried to distance himself as much from his persona as Andrew Clay? He created the vulgar “Diceman” character in his 20s, and after appearing in character in Making the Grade and Pretty in Pink, Andrew Dice Clay really took off as a stand-up comedian in the late 1980s thanks to his naughty nursery rhymes. There was the Rodney Dangerfield special in 1987, and then, a rapid rise that had him selling millions of records, playing Madison Square Garden, hosting SNL and starring in his own major motion picture. But the rapid rise begat an equally tragic fall, getting banned from MTV and bombing all over the place. It got bad enough in the mid-1990s that he tried to front a CBS sitcom as Andrew Clay and play completely against the Diceman type, but fans and foes alike didn’t buy it, and it was done in its first season. So Clay picked up his “Dice” again, making a comeback via basic cable reality, and is still on the road with fans who still love the old filthy jokes. He didn’t fare so well as “Dice” this year on Donald Trump’s Celebrity Apprentice, however, even though he boasted he was the greatest stand-up in history. Oh, brother.
I bet you thought Minnie Pearl was her real name, now, didn’t ya? How-DEE!!! Minnie Pearl was like the hillbilly version of Mae West. Sarah Colley developed the character of “Cousin Minnie Pearl” and shortly thereafter, got her a spot performing with the Grand Ole Opry in 1940. She remained part of the Opry until her death in 1996. You also saw Minnie Pearl, with the fruity hat with the dangling pricetag, spinning her down-home and flirty humor on Hee Haw and several other variety and talk shows
Ah, The Three Stooges. Moe Howard (Moses Horwitz), Larry Fine, Curly Howard (Jerome Horwitz), Shemp Howard (Samuel Horwitz), Joe Besser, and Curly Joe DeRita (Joseph Wardell) made slapstick movies from the 1930s into the 1960s, which in itself, is quite a physical feat for guys who kept beating each other up again and again and again. So indelible a mark on the culture that I don’t recall ever hearing about any of the guys doing anything that wasn’t Stooge-like. The Farrelly Brothers are trying to re-create them in a new movie. Good luck with that.
Before the Stooges, there were the Marx Brothers: Chico, Harpo, Groucho, Gummo and Zeppo. Their real names were Leonard, Adolph, Julius, Milton and Herbert, but we’re happy about the changes. And as they moved from vaudeville to Broadway to the big screen, their singing and musical abilities were only topped by their senses of humor. Wicked senses of humor. Each one came up with their own stage character and persona, and by the time movies became talking pictures, the Marx Brothers were ready for their close-ups. Their films of the early 1930s are bonafide classics, Duck Soup and A Night at the Opera among several. Groucho continued his career in character on radio and then TV, hosting the quiz show You Bet Your Life throughout the 1950s. His character is so famous that it’s been sold in costume shops and toy stores for decades, simply with glasses, eyebrows, and mustache. You add the fake cigar.
Honorable mentions? Borat, Bruno and Ali G. (Sacha Baron Cohen), Stephen Colbert on “The Colbert Report” (Stephen Colbert), Triumph the Insult Dog (Robert Smigel), Latka and Tony Clifton (Andy Kaufman), Carlos Mencia (Ned Holness), Otis Lee Crenshaw (Rich Hall), Neil Hamburger (Gregg Turkington), Raaaaaaaandy! (Aziz Ansari), Father Guido Sarducci (Don Novello), Madea (Tyler Perry), Dolemite (Rudy Ray Moore)