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How Channing Tatum went from generic hunk to comedic genius, explained by She's the Man

The 2006 teen comedy revealed his comic timing years before 21 Jump Street.

Duke (Tatum) fights a nosebleed with a tampon. Don't knock it 'til you've tried it.
Duke (Tatum) fights a nosebleed with a tampon. Don't knock it 'til you've tried it.
DreamWorks

If you were surprised when Channing Tatum emerged from 2012's 21 Jump Street as a comedic superstar, you must not have seen She's the Man.

The 2006 teen comedy — released 10 years ago today — is an aggressively silly reimagining of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night. Shakespeare had his heroine, Viola, pretend to be her supposedly dead twin brother to put herself in a better social position; She's the Man has Amanda Bynes in the Viola role, pretending to be her delinquent twin brother to prove her worth on an all-male soccer team.

Maybe you've seen this movie on cable while mindlessly channel-flipping at 3 am. (And lest you think this is a dig, I've done it more times than I can count and have no regrets.) Bynes is supposed to be the star; when the movie was released, the actress was one of Nickelodeon's most reliable slapstick performers, and had been since joining the network's sketch show All That at just 9 years old.

But watching She's the Man years later, it's Tatum's performance as her jock crush Duke that stands out.

The role should have been thankless. Even in Shakespeare's play, Duke is the boring, square-jawed aristocrat stuck between two far more interesting women who both fall in love with him because ... I don't know, probably the square jaw thing. But as has since become his trademark, Tatum took the role and ran with it, giving Duke depth and a real sense of humor beyond "soccer star with a decent face."

Consider the following clip, in which Bynes's "Sebastian" teaches Duke how to flirt with girls when talking about even the most banal subjects (in this case, cheese):

Dumb? Sure. But is Tatum way more delightful than he has any right to be? Absolutely.

Maybe even more telling than that scene, where Tatum has an ever-enthusiastic Bynes to work with, is a later one in which Duke tries to sweep Olivia — the popular girl he's crushing on while Viola crushes on him — off her feet at the gym:

It's a disaster, but Olivia accepts a date with Duke anyway to make "Sebastian" jealous. (Olivia has a crush on Viola as Sebastian, as dictated by Shakespeare and the laws of wacky romantic comedies.) But Duke doesn't know that, and so he celebrates with one of the goofiest, most endearing victory dances committed to film.

Here, and throughout She's the Man, Tatum sells Duke's awkwardness with exactly the kind of affable and surprisingly vulnerable charm he ended up bringing to a similar character in 21 Jump Street.

Channing Tatum's career was on a more typical track until Hollywood realized he's hilarious

Still: 21 Jump Street didn't come out until 2012, six years after She's the Man. It took some time for movie producers to realize that Tatum wasn't just the bland hunk they expected him to be.

So despite winning performances in She's the Man and the dance drama Step Up (also 2006), Tatum languished in roles whose only requirement was either that he get real broody, as in determinedly grim movies like Stop-Loss (2008) and G.I. Joe: Rise of the Cobra (2009), or lose any semblance of personality for beige romances such as Nicholas Sparks movies Dear John (2010) and The Vow (2012).

But slowly, slowly, people started to realize that these flat characters didn't fully do justice to Tatum as a person. GQ's amazing 2011 profile of Tatum — in which he and the reporter end up getting drunk in a ghost town and camping out in Snuggies — articulated this dissonance perfectly:

Tatum starts to giggle. He has a great laugh—a boyish, highly contagious stream of actual tee-hee-hee's. It's not something you get to hear much in his movies, since his chiseled-out-of-a-side-of-beef looks mean he is usually cast as soldiers, bors, or criminals. But in real life he's like a big, good-looking Tickle Me Elmo.

It's why, when Tatum finally got the chance to showcase his comedic range in 21 Jump Street a year after this profile came out, those who had been paying attention to his offscreen personality weren't wholly surprised when he not only kept up with Jonah Hill but stole the movie from him entirely. He's been on a roll ever since.

For fans of She's the Man, his success with 21 Jump Street only confirmed what we already knew: Channing Tatum is an unstoppable, one-man charm offensive, and movies are only better when they give him room to be his delightful weirdo self.

And now I'll send you off with a dance break, courtesy of Tatum's crucial 2015 feminist text, Magic Mike XXL:

God bless us, every one.