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Drama Queens, Lighten Up!: Can female actresses successfully transition from Drama to Comedy?

October 14th, 2011 by Brooke Citron

It’s no secret that this current fall season has rung in the year of the Female-dominated comedy on broadcast television. From Zooey Deschanel’s New Girl, to 2 Broke Girls with Kat Dennings and Beth Behrs, to Suburgatory with Jane Levy, to Whitney Cummings’ self-titled NBC sitcom, there seems to be an unprecedented estrogen-infusion flooding the networks’ programming schedules this season.

So 2011 has paved the way for an edgier, more boundary-pushing color of female comedy that invokes the crass and borderline licentious humor of this past Summer’s R-rated female-fuelled box office smash hit Bridesmaids. (Remember, the star is none other than seasoned SNL vet Kristen Wiig.) You’ll see it in CBS’ break-out hit 2 Broke Girls, wherein Max the waitress makes a lewd-but-unbelievably-funny remark about a customer’s behavior making her nether-region (ear muffs, kids) “dry up.”

This freshmen year’s flavor of comedy unequivocally positions the female as the central point of focus, rather than diminishing the female into the role of “straight” character which other goofy, out-spoken male characters play off of for some old fashioned contrast.

Women used to serve to generate jokes, rather than acting as mere props in a male-washed landscape of shock value—that whole stark contrast of female pragmatism vs. male egoism. But New Girl breaks the mold. Zooey Deschanel’s character flips the model it on its head. She’s adorably crazy. The guys are the straight men.

What’s more interesting to note, is that Zooey Deschanel seems to have seamlessly (and unusually) transitioned from drama “it-girl” of the early 2000s (think Cameron Crowe’s loose biopic Almost Famous – how could we forget the first time those doughy, big baby blues hit the silver screen?), to supporting comedy “it-girl”of the mid 2000’s (think Jim Carrey’s love-interest in The Yes Man, Martin Freeman’s love interest in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), to her just-out-of-the-plastic current endeavor as powerful comedic lead. It’s unusual for any actor (male or female) to transition from drama to comedy in such a short period of time, but even more unusual for a female ingénue to have done so within the prime of her career. (Some actresses had the luxury of aging out of the ingénue role into a funnier, more risk-taking seasoned character-actress. Think Jane Fonda in Monster-in-Law.)

But it’s proven to be a barren landscape from which few actresses dare to cross. The transition from comedy to drama seems to be a much more acceptable feat (we’re looking at you Julia Roberts, Jennifer Aniston, Sandra Bullock). Drama to comedy leaves a festering, dissatisfying taste in America’s movie-going/TV-watching audience for some inexplicable reason. Until this year.

Of course, there have been the fierce and the few throughout Hollywood’s classic era who spearheaded into this territory – Ingrid Bergman set the silver screen on her fire with her dramatic & highly acclaimed performance in Hitchcock’s 1946 thriller Notorious, but she also made audiences reel with laughter in Stanley Donen’s 1958 comedy Indiscreet.

But the past few decades have proven few renegades with which to successfully cross over. Gwyneth Paltrow’s doing it right now, anyway, it’s just taking her about a decade. She began the conversion with 2001’s Shallow Hal, and spent last year plodding a bumpy trek onto Glee as Holly Holiday.

So who else made has the chops to be the next new comedy “it-girl” if they were magically handed a sitcom? Natalie Portman seems to effortlessly bounce back and forth between two completely different genres with full audience approval, from Black Swan to Garden State to Star Wars to No Strings Attached. Check. Successful contenders of the more mature breed are Laura Dern and Laura Linney – both of whom got their careers jumpstarted with dramas, have both now transitioned into comedic bliss (Laura Dern’s Enlightened starring role, Laura Linney’s The Big C). Also check. Brittany Murphy, Amy Adams, Kate Hudson, Juliette Lewis. Four times check.

This year has created room for the first years of female-dominated sitcoms. So who’s next?