When The Daily Show host Jon Stewart announced he was taking a 12-week break from his program to direct his first feature-length film, the Internet erupted into cheer. The man we’d been watching for years was finally going to lend his comedic eye to film.
However, the film was not going to be a comedy. When Stewart announced he would be adapting journalist Maziar Bahari’s Then They Came for Me, a memoir about his time as a prisoner in Iran, initial confusion and apprehension from Stewart’s fans about the movie changed into a discourse about high expectations. Critics and commenters argued that if anyone could pull off a film with geo-political commentary, it would be Stewart.
Stewart’s identity as a comedian, which appealed to late-night stoners and political junkies hovered over the public’s anticipation of the film, with many questioning whether Stewart’s first feature-length production would emulate the tone of his show. This collective stubborn attitude of seeing Stewart as a satirist carried into interviews about Rosewater. Questions about when he was going to direct the next great comedic film almost overpowered questions about Rosewater itself.
While he may be the most recent comedian to take on the daunting task of writing and directing a film, Stewart is far from the only performer who’s ventured down this path. From Chris Rock to Larry David, here are five other comedians who stepped out from under the acting spotlight and stepped behind the camera lens to direct their own film.
English comedian Richard Ayoade was best known for his role as the stereotypical geeky genius Maurice Moss on The IT Crowd. His razor-sharp tongue and hilarious facial contortions earned him a place in the hearts of many sitcom watchers. But comedy is only one aspect in Ayoade’s career. In 2010 he adapted Joe Dunthorne’s popular coming-of-age novel Submarine and in 2013 directed Jesse Eisenberg in the critically acclaimed existential science-fiction thriller The Double.
Chris Rock built his comedy career around his controversial stand-up material and regular appearances on Saturday Night Live and In Living Color. It wasn’t until 2003 that Rock decided to make his own film, Head of State, starring himself and another comedic legend, Bernie Mac. The film wasn’t well received, but it didn’t deter Rock from directing future films, including I Think I Love My Wife (co-written with Louis C.K.), and the upcoming semi-autobiographical Top Five.
Richard Pryor’s 1986 semi-autobiographical dramedy Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling used Pryor’s own suicide attempt as the backdrop for its black comedy. Using wry and heavy-handed humor allowed the controversial comic to explore racy topics like suicide, prostitution, poverty, and drug abuse.
Like his good friend Chris Rock, Louis C.K. made his name as one of the best stand-up comedians and writers working in the industry. He first directed and wrote two shorts, Ceaser’s Salad (1990) and Ice Cream (1993). His feature films Tomorrow Night (1998) and Pootie Tang (2001) weren’t successful, but he’s since gained major critical credibility as the creator, writer and director of his FX show, Louie.
Unlike his comedian counterparts featured on this list, Gervais wasn’t a stranger to directing before becoming famous. He directed episodes of The Office and his HBO series Extras between 2001 and 2007. In 2009, Gervais entered the world of film with The Invention of Lying, which he wrote, directed and starred in. It was only a year later that Gervais released his second film, Cemetery Junction. A 1970s-set comedy focusing on three deadbeat friends in an English suburb, Cemetery Junction was well received by critics and those who saw it, but it didn’t reach the level of success Gervais expected. He has since returned to television directing, focusing on his own shows Life with Derek and Derek. He is rumoured, to direct next year’s Life on the Road, a movie based on his popular The Office character David Brent.