“I’m always suspicious if I think a comedian is too good-looking. I just can’t believe that they’re gonna be any good,” said Conan O’Brien on the podcast WTF with Marc Maron. “This is for us. This is our consolation prize.” Conan O’Brien is charismatic, talented, charming. Canonically beautiful? No. The debate about whether beauty and comedy are enemies is not new, but thanks to social media we are now witnessing a wave of new figures trying to prove that harmonious faces, deep looks and good triceps are not necessarily incompatible with jokes. Nevertheless, the most attractive comedians know well that even if their physique is a great ally to get followers and likes, it does not necessarily help to spark laughter.
“When I started doing comedy, the audience kinda made me into a villain. When I was starting out, 20 years ago, I looked much different, like a pretty boy. The audience hated me right away. And I thought, ‘That’s interesting, let’s go with that.’ And it’s fun to play the villain. When you watch a movie, the villain’s the fun role, and I enjoy that,” says Anthony Jeselnik in an interview. Tall and slender, with the sculpted features of a model, Jeselnik seems too handsome to be a comedian. In a way, his good looks set the course of his career. He explains that when he started he quickly realized that he couldn’t make, for instance, self-deprecating jokes about not being able to get a girlfriend. If comedy is based largely on highlighting one’s flaws, laughing at them, pointing out our worst part and celebrating our own ridicule in front of the whole world, is it believable when a gorgeous person does it?
Apparently, in 2023, it is. With social media as the new platform for humor, we are witnessing the birth of a generation of comedians whose beauty is precisely the punchline. That is the case of Matt Rife, who has more than six million followers (many may not even watch his videos with the sound on) and who boasts that most of his fans are women. While the masters of comedy usually upload their monologues to their accounts, he alternates his with videos of him training shirtless and images worthy of a fashion editorial in which he shows off a pair of biceps that look like they deserve their own solo career. Even though he has tried to keep his spectacular physique from becoming an obstacle, many believe that his appearance is an unmistakable sign that now one must be handsome to hold any position of success. Some, like Conan O’Brien, consider it almost offensive that more and more comedians have cheekbones as sharp as their wit.
Some think that “handsome comedian” is an oxymoron. After consulting various comics on the matter, however, they all agreed that physical appearance, in theory, should not matter at all. “It shouldn’t matter if the content is good, unless it plays with physical elements intentionally. There is a wonderful episode of 30 Rock about the bubble in which good-looking people live [the protagonist is Jon Hamm] and how everyone around them is more forgiving and understanding of their flaws thanks to the dazzle caused by their beauty. There is an enduring idea that beautiful people are idiots, when in reality, we’re all idiots,” explains Spanish comedian, writer, journalist and screenwriter Pepe Colubi, before mentioning Jeselnik as an example of a Herculean comedian, fully aware that this is a notable exception.
“Is Jim Carrey handsome?” he continues. “Is he still handsome when he exaggerates, when he twists and contorts his face to achieve delirious impressions? I think that in comedy you also play the fascinating role of being so ugly that you are handsome... whatever that means.” In a text published on the literary website Lit Hub, comedian Jena Friedman asks various male colleagues some of the questions that female comedians frequently face — including, of course, whether comedians can be sexy. Bob Odenkirk is blunt: “Actually, no. I don’t think comedians can be sexy. I suppose there might be a few who are, only to fetish freaks. I think part of being a comedian is being an underdog… not being cool, or sexy… I’ve always thought you can’t have both, to be funny, you have to be making fun of convention. Beauty and sexiness is very often fitting an ideal.”
Spanish host and actor Arturo Valls, a veteran comic whose showman style is complemented with a mischievous look, says that what should matter is a comedian’s quality and attitude, but at the same time he admits that the role of the winner raises a barrier with the public; losers are funnier, and it is easier to empathize with them. “Perhaps a good-looking person has not had to develop the weapon of likeability, nor have they had to be funny, because they have gained ground on a social level. In the world of acting and entertainment, there will be beautiful people who will have taken advantage of their beauty to be the leading man or the protagonist of romantic comedies, not to go to bars to do stand-up... What is clear is that good-looking people are disgusting, so they have to find mechanisms to show their stuff and make people connect. I think that perhaps ugly people have it easier in that sense, because the cute ones have to find ways to divert attention from their captivating physique, to prevent it from being the most important thing.”
“Although, in theory, looks shouldn’t matter to make comedy, I think that if you are a pretty boy, everything falls into your lap, so you don’t have to make any effort,” says Spanish director and screenwriter Juan Flahn. “If you are good-looking, girls and boys just come to you, while those of us who are ugly, or those of us who feel that way, develop from a young age the ability to attract attention, to be likeable and make people have a good time with us, because otherwise we wouldn’t have the same attention as the cute ones, whose face is enough of an attraction. That is why I think it’s rare for comedians to be really attractive, but things are changing. In addition to their natural beauty, they have developed such intelligence and eloquence that they can be good-looking and funny comedians.”
“I think that self-parody has reached such a point of sophistication and intelligence that even good-looking people practice it,” Flahn continues. “They are trying to prove that everyone, even handsome people, make similar mistakes, have complexes and insecurities. Laughing about it beyond the physical aspect is a gift of humor.”
“Humorous self-abuse is incontestable and unbeatable, but a comedian’s material should not be reduced to that dynamic alone,” concludes Colubi. “Being aware of your deformity, your awkwardness and your repulsiveness helps humor a lot, but there are other traits that compensate for all that misery: wit, charisma and empathy. They are all creatures in the garden of comedy.”
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