5 Comedians Who Returned to Stand-Up After Doing Movies and TV But Didn’t Hit the Same
For decades, the dream for stand-up comics was to leverage their routines into a sitcom or a movie deal. Tim Allen, Ellen DeGeneres and Ray Romano all started as stand-ups but made their riches when TV and the movies came calling. But sometimes a funny thing happens to comics who search for greener pastures — after a stint making sitcoms and comedies, the grass starts looking leafy and lush again on the stand-up side of the fence.
Here are five comedians who left stand-up only to return years later — with less than satisfying results…
If there ever was a role model for aspiring stand-ups who wanted to cross over into TV stardom, it’s Seinfeld, the wealthiest comic in the world thanks to Seinfeld syndication riches. He even got to play a stand-up comic on TV, although the show eventually phased out the comedy club openings to make room for more Kramer antics.
Hollywood would let the guy do anything, even an animated film about bees. But a return to stand-up was Seinfeld’s main choice. “I like a simple life, actually,” he told Extra. “There’s a simplicity and a poetry to doing stand-up. You just write and perform it. And if (audiences) like it, you’ve had a great night."
Seinfeld’s problem: His wry, observational style that made him a fresh face in the mid-1980s became the most imitated cadence in comedy. At least he had a sense of humor about it.
All that makes his current stand-up completely comfortable. But he no longer feels like a guy pointing to where comedy is heading, just a reminder of where it’s been.
Like Seinfeld, Roseanne translated her stand-up persona into the biggest show on television. In fact, she did it twice — when Roseanne rebooted in 2017, it got the biggest ratings for a network comedy in years. We won’t do a complete rehash of what happened next, but the TL;DR version: Roseanne imploded on social media, leading to her ouster from the show that bore her name.
So Roseanne returned to stand-up, but unlike Seinfeld, it was because she had no choice. While other comics had also been “canceled,” Roseanne told the Los Angeles Times that “I’m the only person who’s lost everything.” What choice did she have but to film a new stand-up special, Cancel This, for Fox Nation? It wasn’t great. “Her timing and pacing is all off, even when the material is on-point,” said Decider, “making her seem like just any old grandmother complaining about kids these days rather than a comedian or even a storyteller.”
There’s only one Oscar winner on this list, proof of how far Foxx came from humble stand-up comic to sketch comedy TV star on In Living Color to celebrated dramatic actor in Ray. But he’s been making a lot of noise about his return to stand-up, telling HipHollywood that he’s ready to film his next special. We’re guessing his recent health issues have pushed “pause” on those plans.
But we can guess what’s coming. “First joke, I'm getting canceled. Let the motherf***ers know I'm coming,” he said. “I did a Fallon episode where I did five jokes. I got five different organizations to call me but don’t kill the comedian.”
The Fallon appearance seemed to have comic promise — the very idea of enlisting Snoop Dogg to shake up his daughter’s boyfriend gets laughs — but no obvious punchlines follow, much less anything that might get Foxx canceled. It makes us less than optimistic about the promised stand-up special.
The funny thing about Apatow returning to stand-up after becoming the most successful comedy filmmaker of the century is that he wasn’t that great at stand-up to begin with. Okay, that’s not fair. Any comic funny enough to land on HBO’s Young Comedians Special back in the 1980s had some juice. But by Apatow’s own admission, he was never going to reach the heights of his comedy pals like Jim Carrey. “It felt like the universe was telling me to be a writer and producer,” he told Variety.
When he decided to give stand-up another try decades later, “what I learned quickly … was that people seemed amused to see me,” he has explained. “What was happening was they felt like they knew me already from watching the movies, and that the stand-up was an extension of what they already knew about me. Once I tapped into that, it all became easier.” So was he any funnier after his 25-year hiatus? Or were people just laughing because he’s Judd Apatow?
We’re projecting here. If it weren’t for a pandemic, we would already know if Murphy’s return to stand-up comedy was a triumph or a tragedy. He’d planned a comeback tour that was canceled like everything else in 2020, but he told Complex earlier this year that he’s still eager to get back on the horse. After completing some film obligations, Murphy promised “to try to get some new material in and see if I could still do stand-up.”
Why does Murphy’s return concern us? For one, he has to not only live up to the stand-up heights he achieved in the 1980s — he has to live up to the memories of those days in which he challenged Richard Pryor and George Carlin for all-time status. Then there are Murphy’s other artistic impulses, which don’t always serve him well. “My show won’t just be a stand-up show; my show will be music and stand-up,” he has said. “Because I can’t just get on the stage and just do jokes because I have all this other stuff now.”