Pop Goes the Culture: Depp exploring comedic depths
Pop Goes the Culture: Depp exploring comedic depths

After Johnny Depp’s brief, but a very funny cameo in the recent comedy “21 Jump Street,” I found myself wondering about his sense of humor and whether the guy even possessed one.

Depp has cultivated a public persona that is weird at best and aloof at worst, but there is always a twinkle in his eye that betrays an actor who is very self-aware.

Plus, I figure that anybody who shows up in person dressed as his most iconic character, Captain Jack Sparrow, to answer a fan letter from a British elementary schoolgirl, as Depp did in 2010, is not a total stick in the mud.

So while Depp most assuredly possesses a sense of humor, albeit an odd one, it led me to a greater question: Is Depp slyly one of the most gifted comedic actors of his generation?

Surely when describing Depp no one would bust out the word “comedian” unless they were running out of things to say, but looking back over his career you will find an entire menagerie of hilarious characters, although none of them appeared in straightforward comedies.

We might as well start with Jack Sparrow, Depp’s loopy, pirate-homage to Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards. Even though the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies became increasingly ridiculous and overwrought, every time Captain Jack appeared on-screen Depp could at the very least elicit a chuckle from a sideways glance or a confused line reading.

In his long partnership with director Tim Burton, Depp has often been amusing if not outright funny by playing strange characters in odd or intense circumstances, such as Edward Scissorhands, Ichabod Crane in “Sleepy Hollow” or the Mad Hatter in “Alice in Wonderland.”

Occasionally, Depp and Burton are a little more obviously playing for laughs. Depp’s portrayal of Willy Wonka in “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” was divisive, to put it mildly, but I found him to be oddly delightful and at times incredibly funny.

And in “Ed Wood,” Burton’s loving biopic of the notoriously schlocky, cross-dressing director, Depp gave his first truly gonzo performance by diving headfirst into Wood’s wild-eyed optimism and obliviousness to his own shortcomings.

If I had to pick Depp’s funniest performances I’d put Jack Sparrow near the top along with Raoul Duke/Hunter S. Thompson in “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” and as CIA Agent Sands in “Once Upon a Time in Mexico.”

As Thompson, Depp fully embodies the infamous, drug-fueled journalist and somehow his conviction brings an air of believability to his insanely decadent misadventures in Las Vegas. Only Depp could convincingly deliver the line “Let’s get down to brass tacks, how much for the ape?”

His turn as Sands in Robert Rodriguez’s over-the-top, shoot-’em-up capper to the “El Mariachi” trilogy, might be one of Depp’s most overlooked and underappreciated roles. In a supporting turn, Depp steals every scene he is in as the brazenly crooked agent. This character is all about the little touches, such as the CIA T-shirt he wears while undercover.

Again, since none of these movies are out-and-out, go-for-the-big-laugh comedies, Depp flies under the radar as one of the funniest guys in Hollywood.

If I had to make a list of the most talented (I won’t say funniest, since what makes us laugh is subjective at best) comedic actors working today the top names would probably be Will Ferrell, Robert Downey Jr. (his “Tropic Thunder” performance will go down as one of the best ever), Zach Galifianakis, Steve Carel, Ben Stiller, Jonah Hill, Owen Wilson, Paul Rudd, and Ed Helms in roughly that order.

I would have no problem putting Depp in the top three or four of that list which is sort of staggering when you think about it.

Later this summer Depp and Burton are at it again with “Dark Shadows,” a darkly funny take on the old supernatural soap opera. Look for Depp to once again have everyone rolling in the aisles without anyone considering him to be a comedian.

Sometimes the funniest guy at the party is the one you don’t see coming. Depp has been that guy in Hollywood for years and with a little luck, nobody will notice for years to come.

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