The first season of Louie, the FX sitcom written and directed by star Louis C.K., hits DVD and Blu-ray today; this innovative, somewhat subversive, and reliably uproarious series takes the notion of the tightly-constructed stand-up sit-com and turns it on its head, with a stream-of-consciousness narrative style and surrealist streak that brands it a true original. Of course, the stages of comedy clubs (and, before that, coffee houses and vaudeville stages) have been television’s most reliable source of comedy stars; Louie is the latest in a very long line of television series created for (and sometimes by) stand-up comedians.
In assembling this list of our favorites, we concentrated only on those who starred in their own series, rather than in a supporting role in someone else’s (so no Andy Kaufman, Patton Oswalt, David Cross, Billy Crystal, or Kathy Griffin); only those whose sitcoms were hits (sorry, Margaret Cho); and only those who were successful stand-ups first (hence, no Larry David — by his own admission). The rest is opinion, and sorry, there’s no convincing us that either Tim Allen’s stand-up act or Home Improvement were funny. With those parameters in mind, our list of the best stand-ups-turned-sitcom stars is after the jump.
We don’t tend to think of Benny as a “stand-up comic,” because he was mostly doing it before the term existed. But on the vaudeville stages of 1910s and 1920s, Benny was a comic monologist, doing a “patter-and-fiddle” act and slowly developing the comic character that he would take to radio in the 1930s and 1940s on his durable and popular Jack Benny Program. That show made the transition to television in 1950; both radio show and the early seasons of the television version would begin with Benny doing a monologue for the audience, before continuing into the show proper, and these monologues helped further establish the Benny character (perpetually 39-year-old skinflint, egotist, and untalented violinist). In the second half of is run, The Jack Benny Program developed into a more traditional sitcom (with a crew of broad but relatable characters), and became the one of the format’s template shows for years to come.
Bill Cosby had only a few years of nightclub experience and a couple of albums under his belt when he was signed to a regular role on a weekly television show — but surprisingly, it was not a comedy. Cosby co-starred with Robert Culp on the action drama I Spy for three seasons in the mid-1960s, and won three consecutive Emmys (for Best Actor in a Drama) over the show’s run. After a couple of years off, Cosby finally got the opportunity to star in a comic series; his first sitcom, The Bill Cosby Show, premiered in 1969. This cinematic, laugh-track-free show was decades ahead of its time; it only lasted two seasons, but its low-key, slice-of-life sensibility was a perfect reflection of Cosby’s stand-up style at the time. When he had his next sitcom hit a decade-and-a-half later, it similarly mirrored the progression of his stage act. The Cosby Show premiered in 1984, following the success of his stand-up film Bill Cosby Himself, and while Cos played a fictional character (obstetrician Cliff Huxtable), it was a fictional character who, like Cosby, had a professional wife and five children (four girls and a boy); the show skewed so closely to his stage work that the pilot episode even included material from Himself. A smash hit, The Cosby Show ran for eight seasons; when Cosby returned to the sitcom form in 1996, his new show Cosby was yet another mirror of his current on-stage persona, which had developed into that of a somewhat grouchier raconteur. It ran for four seasons on CBS. Cosby continues to tour as a stand-up, and remains one of the best in the business.
Accountant-turned-nightclub-comic Bob Newhart was one of the most successful recording artists of the 1960s — not just among comedians, but among all recording artists, period (his 1960 album The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart hit #1 on the pop charts, unseating Elvis, and won the Grammy for Album of the Year). He released several additional records, made numerous guest appearances, and fronted a one-season variety show, but Newhart didn’t find his niche on television until 1972. The Bob Newhart Show cast Newhart as Chicago psychologist Bob Hartley; it was a perfect showcase for the comic, who played straight man (not only to his somewhat unstable patients, but to his wife, co-workers, and neighbors) in a style not unlike the one-sided phone calls and speeches of his stage act. The Bob Newhart Show ran six seasons; his second TV hit, Newhart, ran even longer (eight seasons, from 1982 to 1990). Newhart starred as Dick Louden — small-town innkeeper, do-it-yourself book author, and local TV host, again playing straight man (this time to yuppies, townfolk, and various people named Darrell). When the show came to a close, Newhart merged his two shows in an unforgettable finale (above).
Born John Elroy Sanford, Foxx first gained notoriety as a “blue” nightclub comic, and cranked out dozens of popular underground “party records” featuring his dirty jokes and comic observations. But his mainstream success came in 1972, when Norman Lear, looking for a follow-up to his sitcom All in the Family, teamed with Bud Yorkin to create Sanford and Son. Based (as All in the Family was) on a popular BBC series, Lear and Yorkin reworked the show to focus on an African-American junk dealer in South Central Los Angeles, and so Foxx was cast in the role of Fred G. Sanford. The show ran six seasons and made Foxx a star — he appeared in films and headlined on the Las Vegas Strip — but ultimately folded due to salary disputes. The network tried to keep the show going without Foxx (under the title The Sanford Arms), but failed; three years later, Foxx starred in a follow-up show without co-star Demond Wilson (called simply Sanford) but it didn’t work either. Foxx had finally found television success again, with the Eddie Murphy-produced sitcom The Royal Family, when he died on-set in 1991 of a heart attack — and when he was stricken, his co-stars thought he was doing the famous “I’m coming, Elizabeth” bit from Sanford and Son.
Williams was a fairly obscure comic and bit player (he was in the cast of Richard Pryor’s notoriously short-lived NBC variety show) when producer Garry Marshall cast him for a one-shot appearance on Happy Days as an alien who visited Fonzie in an episode from 1977 (the year of Star Wars, which explains a lot). His character, a visitor named Mork from the planet Ork, proved so popular that Marshall quickly devised a spin-off. That show, Mork and Mindy, landed Mork in present-day Boulder, where he is sent by his superior Orson to observe and report on human behavior. The show ran for four seasons and not only made Williams a high-profile stand-up comic, but launched his film career as well.
Like Newhart and Cosby, Shandling starred on not one, but two of the most popular and influential sitcoms of their eras. Shandling, who got his start as a television writer (his credits included Sanford and Son and Welcome Back Kotter), was a popular stand-up and frequent guest (and guest host) of The Tonight Show when his first series, It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, premiered on Showtime in 1986. Modeled on George Burns and Jack Benny’s program, with a decidedly absurdist bent, this ingenious, fourth-wall-smashing show ran four seasons on the cable outlet (with reruns on Fox), wrapping up in 1990. Two years later, Shandling co-created and starred in the HBO series The Larry Sanders Show, a combination faux-talk-show and behind-the-scenes look at the business of show, featuring countless appearances by film and television stars gleefully sending up their own images, pitch-perfect supporting work from Jeffrey Tambor and Rip Torn (among many others), and a brilliant centerpiece performance by Shandling as the damaged, narcissistic Larry.
Roseanne’s blunt, bold, and frequently hilarious stand-up act was downright revolutionary for its era (the early ‘80s); taken from her experiences as a housewife and mother of three, the self-proclaimed “domestic goddess” became a sensation for proving she could be just as mean, vulgar, and funny as anybody on the male-dominated comedy circuit. After her hugely successful HBO special The Roseanne Barr Show, the creators of The Cosby Show set about creating a sitcom vehicle for her distinctive style of comedy. The result was Roseanne, which ran on ABC from 1988 to 1997 and all but rewrote the rules of the TV sitcom by tackling controversial subject matter from a working-class point of view (except in that terrible last season, but let’s all forget about that). In the years since, Roseanne has tried her hand at the talk show, cooking show, and reality show, but her groundbreaking sitcom remains her greatest legacy.
Well, obviously. Created by Seinfeld and fellow comic Larry David, the show was originally titled The Seinfeld Chronicles and was a combination of Seinfeld’s stand-up act and his off-stage life, in which his interactions with friends and strangers would inspire his material. However, the inspired writing of Seinfeld, David, and their brilliant staff, as well as the terrific ensemble playing of Jason Alexander, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and Michael Richards, quickly elevated to the show to a nearly-perfect comedy; the mixture of astute observation, memorable catchphrases, and tight plotting quickly the gave the show a life of its own (the stand-up segments were slowly scaled back, then phased out altogether). When it folded in 1998 after nine seasons, Seinfeld was one of the most critically and financially successful series in modern television history.
When Ellen DeGeneres’s sitcom premiered as a mid-season replacement in March of 1994, it was titled These Friends of Mine; when its second season began that fall, it had been retitled Ellen, perhaps to avoid confusion with a somewhat similar show on NBC called Friends. Whatever the reason, the show’s new title was more accurate, as the focus was certainly more on the comedienne’s neurotic Ellen Morgan than her buddies (including Joely Fisher, Arye Gross, and a young Jeremy Piven). Over most of its run, it was an agreeable and funny — if rather forgettable — comedy in the Friends/Seinfeld mold, but that all changed in season four, when DeGeneres decided to come out as a lesbian, and to have her character do the same. “The Puppy Episode,” airing in April 1997, was a smart, funny, and thoughtful piece of television, pointing the series in a new direction for its fifth and final season. Though some complained (from both sides of the spectrum) that Ellen became too serious and issues-oriented in that last year, it broke considerable ground for gay characters on television. DeGeneres returned to television for the short-lived sitcom The Ellen Show in 2001 before her runaway success with her eponymous talk show, which began in 2003.
Everybody Loves Raymond wasn’t Ray Romano’s first attempt at sitcom success — he was originally hired to play the role of Joe the fix-it guy on NewsRadio, but was a bad fit with that show’s fast-paced style and was replaced by Joe Rogan. A year later, Romano and comic writer Philip Rosenthal created Everybody Loves Raymond, a more appropriate vehicle based on Romano’s family-based stand-up act (and, thus, his real family life). Though a bit of a slow starter, ratings-wise, the show eventually became one of the biggest comedies on television, running nine seasons on CBS and anchoring their Monday night sitcom line-up. Romano went on to co-create and star in the wonderful comedy/drama Men of a Certain Age, currently in its second season on TNT.
Mac was unquestionably the breakout star of the comedy tour (and Spike Lee concert film) The Original Kings of Comedy, but his Pryor-influenced, autobiographical comic voice had been honed over decades of hard work on stages across the country. A year after the Kings film was released, Fox gave Mac the chance to turn his life into a sitcom, and The Bernie Mac Show was born — and as with The Cosby Show, it was basically an adaptation of his autobiographical stand-up act. The show was created with future Daily Show “Senior Black Correspondent” Larry Wilmore, who wrote Mac the role of a fictionalized version of himself, a married stand-up comic taking care of his sister’s children; like George Burns, Jack Benny, and Garry Shandling before him, Mac broke the fourth wall to reflect on his problems to his audience, always referred to as “America” (i.e., “Now hold on America, don’t start writing no letters. I’m just kidding”). The Bernie Mac Show ran five seasons before Fox pulled the plug in 2006; tragically, Mac died two years later of complications brought on by sarcoidosis.
HONORABLE MENTIONS: Gabe Kaplan, Freddie Prinze, Paul Reiser, Brett Butler, Martin Lawrence, and Sarah Silverman are all fine comics who starred in popular sitcoms, but hey, there’s only so many spots on a list like this. Who would you add?