I am having difficulty resolving humor from seriousness in this case and need some help.

After about 05:00 in Leslie Nielsen Monologue: Serious Actor - Saturday Night Live (Season 14, aired 02/18/89):

Everybody thinks I’m a comedian but that’s not quite true. A comedian is someone who says funny things, a comic is someone who says things funny. I’m neither. I’m someone who says unfunny things. I say unfunny things in an unfunny way, and somehow it seems to end up funny.

Question: Is Leslie Nielsen's distinction between a comedian and a comic actually insightful, or is he just telling a joke here? I'm confused because he claims that he says things that are unfunny (as opposed to telling jokes) so I'm wondering if even though it seems flippant if there might be a real difference between "saying funny things" and "saying things funny".

I turned to Wikidiff's What is the difference between comedian and comic? but I am afraid that this itself is a joke:

Comedian is a related term of comic.

As nouns the difference between comedian and comic is that comedian is an entertainer who performs in a humorous manner, especially by telling jokes while comic is a comedian.

The top answer to Quora's What is the difference between a comic and a comedian? is

The terms are often used interchangeably and in fact, are usually defined in terms of each other, but the generally accepted difference among those in the comedy world is that "comic" refers to someone who does live, solo, stand-up comedy, while "comedian" can refer to someone who might do stand-up but might also do improv or sketch comedy. The implied difference is that comics are comics, but comedians are often actors.

which definitely seems different than Nielsen's distinction, but I don't know if it contradicts or is compatible with it.

  • This question might be more suited for english.stackexchange.com . However, there could be a difference: one could say a funny joke in such way that it won't be funny or say something mundane in a funny way (i.e. with exaggerated stutter, accent or intonation). Leslie Nielsen was funny because he was saying mundane things in a deadpan serious way in situations that was making his comments funny.
    – Yasskier
    Commented Mar 14, 2021 at 21:04
  • @Yasskier No I don't think that the question that I have asked: "Is Leslie Nielsen's distinction... actually insightful, or is he just telling a joke...?" would be considered on-topic in English SE. A different but related question might be, but not this one.
    – uhoh
    Commented Mar 14, 2021 at 22:59
  • 3
    I think Roger Ebert mentioned a few times that for a character in a film to be funny, they should NOT know that they are being funny. That last description fits Nielsen's characters perfectly. So a comic actor is someone who can play those characters well, while a comedian is someone who tells jokes.
    – magarnicle
    Commented Mar 14, 2021 at 23:19
  • @magarnicle I find that very helpful and insightful, that's just the "Aha!" that I'm looking for, thanks!
    – uhoh
    Commented Mar 14, 2021 at 23:28

4 Answers 4


Time magazine did a story about Michael J Fox appearing on the TV show Spin City. The essence of the article was that Fox understood what it meant to be a comedic actor, as opposed to the explosion of standup comedy based shows at the time whose principal actors were comedians, rather than comedic actors. Time called Fox's turn a relief and delight to watch a professional at his craft.

This is why Nielsen's line is insightful. A standup comic walks onto an otherwise empty stage and creates situations for the audience. They are punchers who initiate the action.

Comedic actors are, by contrast, counter-punchers. They are always responding to situations not of their own making. A comedian may or may not elicit empathy from the audience, but a comedic actor must do so. They are a stand-in for the audience, itself. Their reactions dropping the wedding cake or whathaveyou tap in to our own reactions, albeit in an exaggerated form. The emphasis in standup, on the other hand, is surprise. The standup reacts in ways we would not.

Nielsen was a smart cookie. He knows that, for his own schtick, it is the audience which does the heavy lifting. This was the distinction he was drawing in his quote.


Roger Ebert in a review of The Naked Gun 33 1/3:

It would be fatal to the movie if [Neilsen] ever betrayed the slightest suggestion that [he knew] funny things are going on.

He doesn't know that his double entendres are double entendres, which makes them funny. So, broadly, a comic actor is someone who can play comedic characters well, while a comedian is someone who tells jokes.

It's not a hard line between the two, though; there are stand-up comedians who create characters for their jokes, and movie characters who know they are being funny.

  • Thanks for your answer! To "...actually insightful, or is he just telling a joke here?" do you have any thoughts?
    – uhoh
    Commented Mar 16, 2021 at 0:19
  • 1
    I think he is somewhat describing what's in my answer while being a bit self-deprecating. As an actor he isn't Jim Carrey, he's very deadpan, which he's characterising as "unfunny".
    – magarnicle
    Commented Mar 16, 2021 at 0:44
  • Nielsen is also famous as a very serious dramatic actor. His comic chops are typically in direct contrast of this, which ofc makes it golden. Commented Mar 22, 2021 at 9:47

As a supplemental answer, here's the basic distinction between comic and comedian from who I assert is an iconic and authoritative source; Carol Burnett who recounts a discussion on the topic from earlier, historical iconic sources.

From the Colbert Show's April X, 2024 video Carol Burnett On The Difference Between A Comic And A Comedic Actor after about 01:20

COLBERT: There's sketch comedy - comedic acting, and then there's being a comic, like a stand-up. People often say to me "how did you get started in stand up?" and O go "I didn't, i started in improv, and I'm really an actor who - happy accident - ended up in this job. How did you make this decision?

BURNETT: i was doing Gary (Moore)'s show, i'm in my 20s, and this vaudevillian was a guess that week named Ed Winn, when he was guesting on Gary's show in his seventies, he had been in the Ziegfeld Follies and everything; he was a comedian.

I remember, we were talking about, we are at a reading about - on Monday we were reading sketches, and Gary asked him "What's the difference between..." I hope I get this right, "A comedic actor and a comic?" And Ed said: "A comic says funny things, and a comedic actor says things funny."

COLBERT: Wow. Yeah. That's when you made your choice?

BURNETT: i wanted to say things funny!

COLBERT: I have some good news for you. [laughter] it worked out. We have to take a break but don't go anywhere; we'll be right back with Carol Burnett everybody!


I'd describe a comedian as someone who tells jokes, and a comic as someone who could make you laugh without telling jokes. Like, you laughed at John Ritter's reactions to his roommates on Three's Company (did I just date myself?), and that would make him a Comic. You laugh at George Carlin's Seven Words You Can't Say On TV, and he's a Comedian. So there is a distinction, even though they're somewhat similar.

As far as what Nielsen said about himself, he's right. He's a deadpan actor. He says farcical things with a straight face, as if he's telling a simple story, yet we laugh at the absurdity of the story. That sort of puts him right on the line of Comic and Comedian, and simultaneously makes him both and neither.

  • Thanks for your answer! To "...actually insightful, or is he just telling a joke here?" do you have any thoughts?
    – uhoh
    Commented Mar 16, 2021 at 23:48

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