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Comedy's New Wave: Who Are the Fresh Funny People Who Will Still Be Around in Five Years?

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Photo: Mayer/WireImage(Brand), Kopaloff/FilmMagic(Rudd), Winter/Getty(Wiig), Cohen/WireImage(Rogen)

Comic actors are everywhere, many out of the boot camps provided by Judd Apatow and Saturday Night Live. But who has the star quality to be inducted into the new generation of fun royalty? Here are my measuring standards: No 1 is obvious: Each candidate has to be hilarious. No. 2 each has to have the stuff to last beyond the moment of discovery. And No. 3, and this is a big deal to me, each must have the talent to go deeper. It's said that all comics are tortured. But the best of them have the ability to bring that haunted quality out in dramatic roles as well. Tom Hanks, Bill Murray, Steve Martin, Will Smith and Robin Williams stand on top of that mountain. And not far behind are Jim Carrey, Adam Sandler, Will Ferrell, Steve Carell and Ben Stiller. Who's out there now with the potential to join that illustrious company? Name your own favorites. Here are a few of mine:

(Check out all of Travers picks onscreen here: Comedy's New Wave

PAUL RUDD

Photo: Kopaloff/FilmMagic

Is he funny? Did you see I Love You, Man? Can he act? Did you see The Shape of Things or The Object of My Affection? No, you didn't, fools. But if you did, you'd know that Rudd can do more than tickle the funnybone. Better yet, he knows intuitively how to use humor to cut deeper (see Knocked Up). Has he found the role that really proves what he's worth? Not yet. But it's coming. Bet on it.

SETH ROGEN

Photo: Cohen/WireImage

The man is a risk taker. Go see Observe and Report next week. He kills as the mall cop from hell. Rogen plays the characters, not just the jokes, in Knocked Up, Superbad and Pineapple Express. Rogen is a writer. He knows comedy has to come from truth, which often means pain. I saw a few scenes of Rogen, playing a comedy writer, in this summer's Funny People, written and directed by Judd Apatow. It's a performance of subtlety and spirit. More surprises are on the way. Rogen says he just wants to be funny, not serious. Too late, he's already both.

KRISTEN WIIG

Photo: Winter/Getty

Am I only the one who thinks there's a kind of genius at work inside the head of this comedy sorceress?. Not just on SNL, though it's there every week, from the cougar skits to her shy girl. And I'm not "just kidding." Catch her as Suze Orman or Judy Grimes and you see a genuine madness. In movies -- as the hardass TV exec in Knocked Up and the smug surgeon opposite Ricky Gervais in Ghost Town, you see the way she inhabits a character. That's even truer in Adventureland, opening this week, in which Wiig and Bill Hader (on the way up as well) play a couple who operate a 1980s-era amusement park. Her portrayal feels fully lived in. Wiig is a genuine actress.

JASON SEGEL

Photo: Winter/Getty

Like Rogen, he is a writer turned actor. In Forgetting Sarah Marshall, which he wrote and starred in, Segel robbed from his own life to show what it feels like to be naked when your girl dumps you and to be the guy who actually wrote a Dracula musical with puppets. Segel has no shame, which is essential in an actor. From Apatow's Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared to the current How I Met Your Mother, Segel makes sitcoms not feel like sitcoms. You can sense him squirming inside, even as the lonely blowhard in I Love You, Man. Next he'll write a new Muppet movie. If he said he was playing both Kermit and Miss Piggy, I believe he'd nail both roles.

See also: The Anxiety-Ridden Joyride of Jason Segel

RUSSELL BRAND

Photo: Mayer/WireImage

The British comedian, actor, columnist, TV host and memoirist (miss reading My Booky Wook at your peril) is someone who finds the naughty humor in everything without skimping on the underlying emotions. Brand damn near stole Forgetting Sarah Marshall by playing hedonist rock star Aldous Snow as a perfect gentleman. That a sequel, Get Him to the Greek, is about to start production already makes me smile. Brand can do a Disney comedy (Bedtime Stories), Shakespeare (he plays the drunken jester Trinculo in Julie Taymor's adaptation of The Tempest with Dame Helen Mirren, no less), There's even talk of remaking Arthur with Brand in the Dudley Moore role. Sign me up.

See also: Stand-Up's New Bad Boy

MAYA RUDOLPH

Photo: Agostini/Getty

Her SNL characters were hilarious. She can impersonate anyone, from Michelle Obama to Donatella Versace, and sing out like Streisand and Beyoncé (Rudolph's mom is the late Minnie Ripperton). I first remember seeing her in movies in Robert Altman's lovely swansong, A Prairie Home Companion. Her character was pregnant (so was she) and Rudolph managed the goings on backstage at Garrison Keillor's radio variety show with an actor's finesse. I've just seen her in Away We Go (out June 5th), again she's pregnant, and her heartfelt performance blew me away. "Tell me no one's ever been in love like we're in love," she asks her husband (John Krasinski). One word: wow.

JOHN KRASINSKI

Photo: WireImage

As paper salesman Jim Halpert on The Office, Krasinski builds delicious comic twists into what is basically a straight man role. On screen, with Robin Williams in License to Wed and George Clooney in Leatherheads, he does inventive variations on what is basically the stock romantic lead. But this is a bust-out year for Krasinski. At the 2009 Sundance Film Festival, Krasinski -- as writer-director and actor -- showed off his darkly comic film version of the David Foster Wallace book Brief Interviews With Hideous Men. In June, in Sam Mendes' Away We Go, from a script by noted novelist and publisher Dave Eggers (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius) and his wife Vendela Vida, Krasinski finds the grieving heart of a guy who goes on the road to with his pregnant wife (Maya Rudolph) to find the right place -- if it exists -- to raise a family. Ambitious? I'll say. Krasinski is up to the task.

SACHA BARON COHEN

Photo: Gilkas/FilmMagic

If you can be that brilliant as Ali G, Borat, Bruno, French speed demon and tongue kisser Jean Girard opposite Will Ferrell in Talladega Nights and an Italian-Irish barber opposite Johnny Depp in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, what else can you be? The possibilities seem endless for this British comic mastermind. Baron Cohen is like no other.

See also: The Man Behind The Mustache: Sacha Baron Cohen Speaks

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Peter Travers

Rolling Stone senior writer Peter Travers has reviewed movies for the magazine for more than 20 years. Send your comments and questions to him here.

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