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The 11 Best Performances by Comic Actors in Dramatic Roles on TV

Photo of Ben Travers By Ben Travers | Indiewire May 30, 2014 at 9:34AM

These fine thespians have proven themselves champions of both comedy and drama, though one came before the other.
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Cheers Harrelson

RIcky Gervais' second season of "Derek" may not have lived up to the first (though, really, that would've been difficult), but the man himself remains a terrific talent. Gervais, who broke out on the original version of "The Office" after also appearing on the British comedy "The 11 O'Clock Show," certainly is known as a comic. He's dry, sure, but always with a quick wit and a knack for taking on characters. On "Derek," he plays it relatively straight. Though the Netflix original certainly has comic moments, timing is about the only comic talent needed from Gervais. Tears stream more than laughs resound, and Gervais handles the difficult role with incredible poise. 

It's not the first or the last time a talented comedian has made the transition to drama. It's been happening on television for decades, and the below actors have proven themselves the best (or at least most memorable) of the bunch. The only real stipulation for qualifying is being known or breaking out as a comedian (or in a comedy) before shifting to drama. Plenty have gone the other way, of course, but that's another list. Enjoy (actors are listed in alphabetical order).

1) Christine Baranski: "Cybil" to "The Good Wife"

Christine Baranski won the first Emmy she was ever nominated for in 1995 for her supporting role on "Cybil" as Cybil Shepherd's hard-drinking best friend. The show only lasted four seasons -- after not living up to Shepherd's previous smash TV comedy with Bruce Willis -- but Baranski was nominated every year and received the show's only nod in its last season. 

Now, she's on a three-year streak for the legal drama "The Good Wife" as a very liberal senior partner with a habit for straight talk. She's still got personality to spare, but Baranski has nevertheless redefined herself this decade as a woman who can do it all. 

2) Alison Brie: "Community" to "Mad Men"

Community History 101

Unlike Baranski and many others on this list, Alison Brie didn't begin as a comedian and later transition to drama. She did both at the same time. She appeared on "Mad Men" first, in 2007 as a recurring character but not a regular, and no one took notice of the young actress until she broke out (thanks to many, may gifs) in "Community." Then, all of a sudden, people were asking why Annie Edison was all buttoned up and fawning over the despicable Pete Campbell (remember when we hated Pete?). 

3) Lizzy Caplan: "Freaks and Geeks"/"Party Down" to "Masters of Sex"

Depending on who you talk to, Lizzy Caplan could have broke out in a number of different shows. She was on "True Blood," "Tru Calling," "Related," and "The Class" all before "Party Down" debuted to little fanfare before later becoming a cult sensation. But her first credited role came on "Freaks and Geeks" as Sara, Nick's girlfriend (Nick of course being played by Jason Segal), making her genre origins comedic before anything else.

Now she's on the cusp of earning her first Emmy nomination for Best Actress in a Drama, not a Comedy. "Masters of Sex" plays to the physical advantages that have always been present in the actress' young career, but Caplan has added degrees of depth appropriate for her first starring, dramatic role. She's showing off some range, and she may very well be rewarded for it shortly.

4) Linda Cardellini: "Freaks and Geeks" to "Mad Men"

Another "Freaks and Geeks" grad who grew up to do something (almost as) special, Linda Cardellini cemented her place in comedic and dramatic cultural history when she shocked the world by showing up in season six of "Mad Men" as Don's new lover. Matthew Weiner's secretive side kept her under wraps until the season premiere -- much like Neve Campbell in season seven -- but when she showed up, she left a mark. Sally will certainly never forget her, and we won't soon either.

5) George Clooney: "Facts of Life" to "E.R."

George Clooney has flexed his dramatic and comedic muscles in film (no, we're not just talking about the unintentionally laughable "Batman and Robin"), but he did it long before on the small screen. In fact, he did it on the same show. Kind of. Before Clooney became the mullet-sporting charmer on NBC's long-running medical drama, "E.R.," he had a supporting role on "E/R," a half-hour medical comedy starring Elliot Gould. The lesser known "E/R" only ran for a season, so Clooney's comedy "break out" came with "Facts of Life." 

6) Bryan Cranston: "Malcolm in the Middle" to "Breaking Bad"

Malcolm In The Middle Breaking Bad

Both of Bryan Cranston's biggest roles are important to their genre for more reasons than can be summed up in a paragraph. "Malcolm in the Middle" helped bring back the single camera comedy, and "Breaking Bad," well, "Breaking Bad" is "Breaking Bad." Cranston, who won a Golden Globe and three Emmys for his landmark turn as Walter White, also received nominations from both for his role as the tighty-whitey-wearing Dad with a tendency to panic on "Malcolm." He seems destined for more awards, but we'll have to wait to see in which category.

7) Ted Danson: "Cheers" to "Damages"

A couple of "Cheers" alums are next on our list, and while it's certainly hard to imagine Woody the barkeep becoming Woody the adulterous detective, watching Ted Danson transform from lovable ladies' man to corrupt CEO. His character on "Damages" was nothing like Sam Malone, a character as iconic to television as any.

Danson reportedly studied under Glenn Close's acting coach for the role, and even studied real life white collar corruption to prepare for the part. It worked. While his smiling face always be recognizable, he disappeared into the part, becoming an essential cog on the show and an unforgettable guest actor. Yes, he'd proven himself in film as well ("Saving Private Ryan"), but Danson will always be a television star first.

8) Woody Harrelson: "Cheers" to "True Detective"

Woody Harrelson may have defied the odds -- and constraints of his physical appearance -- more than any other actor. He's always looked a little goofy, and it would have been easy to typecast him as the farmland hick after he portrayed it so well on "Cheers" (and again in "White Men Can't Jump"). But the fearless actor showed off his dark side in "Natural Born Killers" and "The Messenger" among other choice roles post-NBC. Then, just this year, he proved himself all over again in "True Detective." Taking the subtler of the two roles was no easy task, especially when sharing the screen with McConaughey, a man on fire. He excelled, even if awards recognition continues to elude him

9) Matthew Perry: "Friends" to "The West Wing"/"Studio 60"

cast of Friends

The "Friends" star has basically made it his mission to erase Chandler Bing from the hearts and minds of Americans after the last great NBC sitcom (multi-cam, live audience, et all) went off the air. He took a supporting role on Aaron Sorkin's "The West Wing" to prove himself worthy of a role on the dramatic writer's next foray into television, and even his choices after than have dealt in a darkness alien to Perry during his film and TV run in the '90s. "Mr. Sunshine" was anything but bright, and "Go On" dealt with loss in a way that kept the show from being a blissful bit of fun like "Friends." "Studio 60" may not have lasted much longer than Perry's guest sting on "The West Wing," but both prove the actor is capable of more than he's been given.

10) Ray Romano: "Everybody Loves Raymond" to "Parenthood"

Romano played a rather straightforward, sitcom version of himself on the CBS hit sitcom. He played Ray Barone, the family sports writer, pretty well, don't get me wrong. But it wasn't the most complex persona. The same could not be said for Hank Rizzoli, Romano's character on "Parenthood." Hank entered in bits and pieces, slowly divulging a messy background of divorce and drinking after being initially standoffish. He didn't even seem like he would be sticking around that long. Obviously, he did, and with every unexpected appearance Romano showed a new side of himself. Who woulda thunk it?

11) Katey Segal: "Married With Children" to "Sons of Anarchy" 

Al Bundy may have grown older and got himself a new "Modern Family," but his wife Peggy nabbed herself a biker gang. As Gemma on "Sons of Anarchy," Segal's first act was to threaten someone's life, not a very Peggy thing to do (well, maybe as a joke). Segal embodied both with vigor -- one was quite funny and the other extremely dark, but Segal found passion in both and was able to portray each uniquely. An underrated talent, Segal also flexed her dramatic chops in a guest stint on "Lost." She may never hit the jackpot like her former TV husband did, but her work stands up next to his and then some.

This article is related to: Derek, Netflix, NetFlix-Studio, Lists, Television