After struggling as a stand-up — maybe the only stage medium where the audience is free to yell terrible things at you if you're no good, they're inebriated or if they just feel like it — the world of trailers and catered meals that is film acting must seem like a cakewalk in comparison. So it's no surprise that some great stand-ups, including Robin Williams, Lily Tomlin and Jamie Foxx, have gone on to become great actors as well.
But sometimes, the guys and gals who started in stand-up end up better suited for other careers in the moviemaking business, catch their big break elsewhere and leave the damp basement stank of comedy clubs behind permanently. Here are seven actors you might not know made their hay — or at least tried to — by telling jokes before they hit the big screen.
1. Eric Bana
Bana didn't exactly bring the chuckles in his superhero-on-prozac role in "Hulk" or in Steven Spielberg's "Munich." But before he landed stateside, Bana was actually a prominent comedian in his native Australia, where he starred in a sketch show called "Full Frontal" and even briefly starred in his own sketch series, "The Eric Bana Show." Turns out, however, that Bana was good-looking and talented enough to also make it as a star here in the good old U.S. of A. He'll be putting on his leading man hat once again in this month's terrorism thriller, "Closed Circuit." We've hunted down this video of him riffing on auto-racing, which we'll go ahead and assume is the backbone of every Australian stand-up comedy act.
2. Simon Pegg
From his cult TV show "Spaced" to the Cornetto Trilogy, which was rounded out this month with "The World's End," Simon Pegg has always been a fellow with some nifty comedic chops. But unless you were hitting London comedy clubs in the early '90s, you've probably never seen a minute of the stand-up routine where he fine-tuned the funny-man sensibilities that made him an unlikely movie star. The clip below, from 1995, sees a young Pegg with a '90s-tastic bleached dome making references to limey stuff you may or may not understand. Since it's Pegg and all, we'll go ahead and assume it's funny.
3. Kevin Spacey
Kevin Space isn't just an actor, he's a two-time Oscar-winning Julliard graduate who has served as the artistic director of London's Old Vic Theatre since 2003. (If you're theatre nerd you know that is incredibly impressive, and if you're not, you probably just realized why he took paper-thin roles in movies like "21" and "Fred Claus.") But before breaking out in movies like "Glengarry Glen Ross" and "The Usual Suspects" and then going on to engage in some incredibly uncomfortable Netflix sex with Rooney Mara's sister, Spacey was trying to make it as a young comic — and if you've ever seen him host SNL, you know he's actually pretty great at making with the funny. His stand-up act is in fact so rare that not a single video of it appears to exist on the web. So, instead, here's a clip of him on Inside the Actor's Studio showing off his uncanny impersonation skills.
4. Michael Keaton
Having hit it big with Ron Howard's "Night Shift" and even bigger in Tim Burton's "Beetlejuice," Michael Keaton was mostly seen as a comedic actor until he donned the batsuit in Burton's "Batman." But before he got a movie break, Keaton was a seasoned veteran of the L.A. comedy scene, having studied at the Second City and given the stand-up circuit a go. He's seen here working the crowd at Gotham Comedy Club with a baller '80s mullet/sweater vest combo. Fast forward to 2:40 to hear a pretty great joke about Bazooka Joe comics.
5. Ron Perlman
Even if you don't know him by name (and you probably do), there's no doubt you remember Ron Perlman's oh-so memorable face from somewhere, be it as the vigilante Clay Morrow on "Sons of Anarchy," slimy crime boss Nino in "Drive" or as the cat-cuddling Hellboy in the "Hellboy" movies. Considering the wide range of bad-ass mofos he's played, it's hard to imagine Perlman getting heckled by a boozed-up crowd at a comedy club, but it no doubt happened when Perlman was trying to make a pre-acting stand-up career happen. He's seen here in a rare return to the stand-up stage hosting An Evening at the Improv, discussing how all of his acting roles require him to spend hours and hours in a makeup chair — which we imagine has only gotten worse since he started making "Hellboy" movies.
6. Steve Buscemi
Like Ron Perlman, Steve Buscemi is an accomplished character actor whose world-wearied face has popped up all over some of the best films ("Fargo," "Reservoir Dogs"), television shows ("Boardwalk Empire," "The Sopranos") and memes (Steve Buscemi eyes) of the past two decades. And, like Perlman, he started out trying to make his way as a funny man before a respectable acting career came calling, working as New York City fireman for years (true story: after 9/11, he returned to his old engine to clean up rubble) before breaking out in the 1986 film, "Parting Glances." He's seen here performing a skit with Mark Boone Junior, another tough mug you probably recognize from one place or another.
7. Emma Thompson
The immensely talented and generally adorable Emma Thompson is a jack of all movie trades, having earned an Oscar for her "Sense and Sensibility" script, another for her acting in "Howards End" and flexed her considerable funnybone with "Stranger Than Fiction" and "Nanny McPhee." She's also written several books, presumably just to make us feel bad about constitutes a productive day for us (sitting through several movies and brainstorming wisecracks for future watches, in case you were wondering). But before she took on Hollywood, Thompson was palling around with the likes of Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry in her college's comedy group and working on a stand-up act which she says consisted of jokes that were "all rude ... basically, herpes and things like that" — quite different than Jane Austen, no? She's seen below showcasing her comedy chops at the Golden Globes as she gives one of the funnier award acceptance speeches of all time.