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The Exhausting History of Comedians Playing Almost Every Role in a Movie

Marlon Wayans is keeping the trope alive in Netflix’s ‘Sextuplets,’ but why does it exist at all?

The 2008 action-comedy Tropic Thunder is mostly remembered these days for Robert Downey Jr. appearing in blackface and Ben Stiller going “full retard.” One can easily have the discussion of whether these simply aren’t topics one jokes about, or if this was actually punching up at celebrity narcissists, but I’d rather focus on Tropic Thunder’s unimpeachable moment of satire: The fake trailer for The Fatties: Fart 2.

These 55 seconds of comedy perfection — with needle-drops from the Commodores, Quiet Riot, MC Hammer and Antonio Vivaldi — feel like the end point of a certain phenomenon: comic actors playing multiple wacky characters, oftentimes family members, in garish prosthetic makeup. How could anyone ever top The Fatties: Fart 2? 

Still, you can’t keep a good trope down, so welcome the latest Netflix arrival, Marlon Wayans times five in Sextuplets.

Wayans, who co-wrote the film, stars as Alan, a likable, regular guy about to become a first-time father. Since he was adopted and never knew his birth mother, he goes on a quest to look for living relatives. First he meets Russell (Wayans in a fat suit), a twin brother and basically Comic Book Guy with a fetish for fruit-flavored cereals. But soon the pair discover they’re actually sextuplets and head out to meet the whole brood: This includes Wayans in a woman’s fat suit; then as a wacky artist; as a little person with kidney failure called “Baby Pete”; and one more that doesn’t get much play in the trailer.

It hardly looks like great cinema, but there’s definitely value in dumb, new comedies that just appear on the service you already pay for. (Netflix boasts huge numbers for their Adam Sandler collection because, let’s face it, these movies are perfect for half-watching as you fold laundry or play backgammon on your phone.)

It’s also important to recognize that there’s a treasured history of actors burying themselves in makeup or costumes to play multiple roles in a comedy. As such, and with minimal shade, let’s look at a dozen key examples, each with a different actor. (Unsurprisingly, performers who do this tend to do it over and over, so no repeats allowed!)

Charles Chaplin in The Great Dictator, 1940

It’s mainly costume changes here, but it’s hard to deny Chaplin as a wellspring for comedy. The legend goes that Chaplin, firmly established as an auteur, saw Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and couldn’t stop laughing. The silent comic and Hitler, almost identical in age, already shared a similar mustache, so he figured taking the piss out of him for his first talking picture couldn’t be too hard.

As Chaplin spat half-Teutonic gibberish as Adenoid Hynkel, he tweaked his iconic Tramp persona to play a Jewish barber caught up in the absurdity of state-sponsored bigotry. Though the satirical film is certainly on the right side of history, it’s a rather bloodless affair, and Chaplin later wrote in his autobiography that had he known the full extent of Hitler’s “final solution” he wouldn’t have made it.

Alec Guinness in Kind Hearts and Coronets, 1949

An essential title from Britain’s Ealing Studios, Guinness plays multiple characters of varying age and gender, the members of the blue-blooded D’Ascoyne family who find themselves getting bumped off by a rapscallion cousin far down the line of succession. Originally Guinness was asked to just play four of the characters, but he told the producers that if he were to do four, why not eight? He ended up playing nine. Admiral Lord Horatio D’Ascoyne certainly has the most elaborate facial hair, while General Lord Rufus D’Ascoyne and his block of shiny medals has the best costume. But Lady Agatha D’Ascoyne certainly wins the prize for best makeup — and the biggest laughs.

Peter Sellers in Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)

When Stanley Kubrick went to Columbia Pictures to finance his atomic satire Dr. Strangelove, it was conditional that he cast Sellers in four different roles. The two had just collaborated on Lolita, in which Sellers’ character Claire Quilty (greatly enlarged from Vladimir Nabokov’s original novel) appears as a man of disguises, one of which was a vocal dead ringer for Kubrick himself. Sellers had already done a triple-character performance in the 1958 film The Mouse That Roared, so everyone agreed to the deal.

Sellers finagled his way out of playing Major Kong (that went to Slim Pickens) in Strangelove, but there’s still plenty of broad comedy left. He’s outstanding as the frazzled, mustachioed British officer Captain Lionel Mandrake (the closest thing the movie has to a voice of reason) and as the bald, nasal-voiced President Merkin Muffley. Yet though he only pops up at the end, the wavy blonde, wheelchair-bound ex-Nazi, Dr. Strangelove, oozing perversity and prone to uncontrollable fascist salutes, is the character that’s spawned decades of impersonations.

Richard Pryor in Which Way Is Up? (1977)

Released just as Pryor was crossing over into mainstream success, Which Way Is Up? (a remake of Lina Wertmüller’s The Seduction of Mimi) is a little all over the place, but it affords us an opportunity to see some of the character types found in Pryor’s standup work in a narrative film. His Leroy Jones is a philandering fruit-picker who somehow gets embroiled in labor union mischief, but he also dons a gray wig and beard to play Leroy’s foul-mouthed old man Rufus. Additionally, Pryor gets behind the pulpit as a holy rolling preacher who later impregnates Leroy’s wife. The film then spirals into levels of problematic that are hard to quickly summarize, but it’s still worth it to see Pryor’s exuberant performances. 

George Hamilton in Zorro, The Gay Blade (1981)

There’s no makeup in this one, but the movie is so freaking bizarre that it’s important to me that you learn about it. Okay, so Zorro, right? You know Zorro. Imagine a Zorro movie but in it Zorro gets hurt, so he needs help fighting the baddies. In swishes Zorro’s stereotypically queer brother, Bunny Wigglesworth. The “new” Zorro wears a colorful outfit and has a whip. This was a real movie in theaters that my grandfather took me to when I was five years old.

Lily Tomlin in The Incredible Shrinking Woman (1981)

This entry doesn’t have too much in the way of latex or fat suits either, but it’s notable for being a rare example of the trope featuring a woman. This goofy comedy (which ran on HBO on a seemingly endless loop in the early 1980s) stars Tomlin as an overwhelmed housewife who gets exposed to too many chemicals from the products of our modern age, and begins to shrink. (Charles Grodin rules, as he always does, as the ad exec husband.)

Tomlin gets a chance to strut her comedy chops by also playing Judith Beasley, an asshole neighbor speaking a bizarre Texas-Midwestern hybrid accent, a character imported from Tomlin’s stage act. We also get a cameo appearance from Ernestine, the squeaky-voiced telephone operator (“one ringy-dingy (snort!), two ringy-dingies (snort!)”), a favorite dating back from Tomlin’s time on Laugh-In.

Mel Brooks in Spaceballs (1987)

“Please, please, don’t make a fuss. I’m just plain Yogurt.”

Spaceballs is one of the best dumbass movies ever made, and part of that is due to Mel Brooks’ dual role. As President Skroob, he’s a fairly straightforward baddie, looking to steal the air from Planet Druidia and lead an evil empire. But as Yogurt, a sagacious face-painted dwarf that’s a cross between Yoda and David Ben-Gurion, he’s the heart of the picture, promoting the twin values of believing in yourself and exhausting every avenue of ancillary marketing. “Merchandising! Where the real money from the movie is made!”

It’s worth pointing out that Brooks did a similar routine in Blazing Saddles, playing both the corrupt Governor Le Petomane and the helpfully haimish Sioux Indian Chief who inexplicably speaks Yiddish.

Michael J. Fox in Back to the Future II (1989)

Don’t think too much about the logistics of the Back to the Future films, or you’re liable to get a fourth-dimensional headache, but know that hoverboards, holographic movies, automatically lacing shoes and hydratable pizza are all waiting for us when we get to the year 2015. (Wait, what?)

The best scenes in the movie are when we see the entire McFly family, including Marty as something of a schlep in middle age, his son as a tech-obsessed twerp and his daughter as a typically disaffected teen. All are played by Fox beneath different wigs and makeup, and now’s the time to say, loudly and proudly, that Marlene McFly isn’t just played by a Fox, she is a fox. 

Roberto Benigni in Johnny Stecchino (1991)

There are a lot of movies where an actor plays two lookalikes characters who swap identities. There’s Douglas Fairbanks Jr. in The Corsican Brothers (1941); Gene Wilder and Donald Sutherland in the Corsican Brothers riff Start The Revolution Without Me (1970); Tatsuya Nakadai in Kagemusha (1980); and Kevin Kline in the Kagemusha riff Dave (1993).

Johnny Stecchino gets my pick because a) barely anyone’s ever heard of this European import and I like to look cultured; and b) it shows how sometimes you don’t need a lot of special effects makeup to play two different characters. Begnini is Dante, a likable putz, banana thief and bus driver for special needs kids who’s bilking the government for disability pay. But put a tiny mole on his face and a toothpick in Begnini’s mouth and he’s also the ruthless mafia boss Johnny Stecchino. Wackiness and Italian stereotypes ensue.

Eddie Murphy in The Nutty Professor (1996)

Prior to The Nutty Professor, Murphy’s best supplemental character under heavy makeup was surely the old Jewish man at the barber shop in Coming To America (“taste the soup!”), but when we got to the legendary dinner table scene in The Nutty Professor, it was all over. 

The shy, lovable Professor Sherman Klump nervously waddling through life is fat-suited Eddie Murphy at his finest. He’ll later transform into the slender Buddy Love, but what everyone remembers is the rest of the family: the fart-happy father (Cletus), the proud mama (Anna), the creepy brother (Ernie) and the DGAF grannie Ida Mae who reminisces about how Mike Douglas used to make her moist.

Yes, Murphy killed the joke with an unnecessary sequel (The Nutty Professor II: The Klumps) and directly inspired the Fatties: Fart 2 smackdown, but the comic timing in that first dinner table scene is, I swear, pure perfection. 

Lesser known fact: Murphy also plays the Richard Simmons-esque workout guru we see on TV in the movie’s opening scenes.

Mike Myers in Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, The Spy Who Shagged Me and Goldmember (1997, 1999 and 2002)

I’m listing all three films here because with each sequel, Myers appeared as another makeup-rich character, each one less funny than the last. Austin Powers himself, the hirsute, dentist-deprived swinging 1960s British fop is, undeniably, great. “Do I make you hohhhhny baby?” is some of the finest poetry of the last fin de siècle.

The overkill came with the warbly voiced, extremely pale Dr. Evil, making “shhhhp” noises instead of telling jokes. Next came Fat Bastard, which, I dunno, just meant doing the Shrek voice again only louder. Finally there was Johan van der Smut, aka Goldmember, arguably the most annoying thing in Myers’ oeuvre, and that’s really saying something. I’m hardly an expert in Dutch culture, but may God turn me into a tulip if that weirdo accent resembles any actual human from The Netherlands.

Adam Sandler in Jack & Jill (2011)

Finally it comes to this. Yes, only men of courage like Sandler and Wayans would dare don the latex to play an obese sibling in a post-The Fatties: Fart 2 world. We want them on that wall. We need them on that wall. And it’s best when that wall is on Netflix, where we don’t have to shell out money for a theater ticket. 

In Jack & Jill, Sandler plays an ad exec (why are they always ad execs?) gritting his teeth through the holidays when his boorish twin sister comes to visit. I gotta admit the movie is a bit of a blur to me now (it’s no That’s My Boy) but at some point Jill runs a lawn mower through a flower bed, rides a jet ski in a swimming pool, flattens a horse with her enormous girth and, oh yeah, it’s all coming back to me, catches the eye of Al Pacino. Not Al Pacino playing a character, Al Pacino playing Al Pacino.

Okay, I take it back. Any movie without a comedian in a fat suit isn’t worth our time.