There was a time when Martin Short (above right) and Catherine O'Hara used to mock comedians in dramatic roles. They'd appear on those old SCTV "Days of the Week" episodes and take the mickey out of melodrama.
It is a measure of just how talented these actors are that they can slip into some intensely dramatic roles now without provoking laughter. Short, after all, used to twirl and dance, don'tcha know, as completely mental Ed Grimley. Tonight, he makes his debut as a no-nonsense lawyer on the third season premiere of Damages (Showcase, 10 p.m.).
Short isn't the only veteran comedian getting a little dramatic face time this season on the award-winning FX series. Lily Tomlin (right) also stars as the matriarch of a wealthy family who seeks Short's legal protection after being accused of Bernie Madoff-level financial fraud.
The two were at press tour via satellite a few weeks ago in Pasadena, Calif., along with live and in person cast regulars Glenn Close, Rose Byrne and Tate Donovan, as well as the producers. You can read my Canadian Press account of that encounter here.
Comedians doing drama used to be an oddity on television. Now and then, Milton Berle or Alan King would try to bust out in a movie-of-the-week or series guest role. Sometimes it came off about as well as Bobby Bittman doing Shakespeare on SCTV.
Short says he sees himself as a character actor, which makes sense since he's played so many characters. Close remarked that she's always believed that comedy is way harder than drama anyway so why shouldn't these comedy stars be excellent at both.
Certainly O'Hara shines in both arenas. In HBO's Temple Grandin (premiering Sat., Feb. 6 at 8 p.m. on HBO and HBO Canada), which is based on a true story, she plays a farm woman who helps raise an autistic student who grows up to be a leader in the field of animal husbandry (played with astonishing precision by Clare Danes, above). O'Hara is never less than fully authentic in the role, shedding completely any notion that this was the same woman who once blew up real good as Brooke Shields.
That ability to slip effortlessly into characters has been a hallmark of all those great SCTV players. Other veteran Canadian comedians, including Mary Walsh and Cathy Jones, are coming up later this season in dramatic roles on the Republic of Doyle. Lighthearted Doyle (which bumped up over 700,000 viewers in its fourth outing Wednesday in the ratings) does not have the same dramatic intensity as Damages, but, still, when Shaun Majumder turned up on the premiere as a prison misfit, he had to make you forget very quickly about sweaty Raj Binder. Speaking of which, in and out of 22 Minutes this season, Majumder will be back for the season's final four episodes.