A Laugh-Track-Backed Timeline of Stand-Ups Starring in Their Own Sitcoms

The stand-ups who walked so ‘Seinfeld’ could run
A Laugh-Track-Backed Timeline of Stand-Ups Starring in Their Own Sitcoms

All sitcoms, by definition, feature comedians. Even when producers hire non-comics — like when Carl Reiner cast young actress Mary Tyler Moore for The Dick Van Dyke Show — those performers now are “comedians” by definition. But TV comedy has a long history of building shows around the talents of pure stand-up comics, the men and women who build their showbiz bona fides by standing behind a microphone and telling jokes. Here’s a timeline of some of the most important moments in stand-up to sitcom history… 

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1949: Jack Benny

Before there was Bob Newhart, says comedy historian and The History of Stand-Up author Wayne Federman, there was Jack Benny, a comic who was plenty funny telling jokes but whose real strength was reacting to others like Rochester and Mary Livingstone. There’s something Seinfeldian about the way Benny would stand in front of a curtain telling jokes before entering his sitcom world. Or more accurately, there was something Bennyian about Seinfeld’s approach.

1953: Danny Thomas

Like I Love Lucy, Thomas’ sitcom Make Room for Daddy mixed the worlds of nightclub entertainment with domestic hijinks. Like Seinfeld, says Federman, Thomas had a performer’s life outside of his interactions with family and friends.

1965: Don Adams

Adams started as a stand-up in strip clubs but got fired when he refused to tell dirty jokes. He won Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts as a stand-up, leading to supporting comedy roles that eventually landed Adams on the 1965 smash Get Smart

1966: Phyllis Diller

There weren’t a lot of successful women in stand-up comedy in the 1960s, but Diller parlayed her successful act into The Pruitts of Southampton, later retitled The Phyllis Diller Show

1969: Bill Cosby

Cosby was one of the most successful stand-up comics of the 1960s, but his earliest splash was on I Spy, a secret agent thriller for which Cosby won three straight Emmys for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series. It was only after the show was canceled that he was cast in The Bill Cosby Show, a hit sitcom that lasted for two seasons. Before Cosby’s heinous fall from grace, his Cosby Show was the 1980s monster hit that spawned dozens of sitcoms based around stand-up comic personas.

1972: Bob Newhart and Redd Foxx

Newhart famously used one-sided phone conversations in his stand-up, a bit that his self-named sitcom cleverly used as well. 

Foxx was the king of the party records in the 1950s, which made him an unlikely choice to front the adaptation of a BBC sitcom, Steptoe and Son. Foxx made the role his own, naming the lead character after his real-life brother, Fred Sanford Jr. 

1974: Freddie Prinze and Jimmie Walker

No wonder Mitzi Shore didn’t want to pay the comics at the Comedy Store. Scouts from the Tonight Show would see rising stars like Prinze and Walker perform there, subsequent killer sets on late night turned the comics into hot commodities and soon they found themselves fronting sitcoms like Chico and the Man and Good Times. “Stand-up to sitcom” officially became a hot formula for winning television. 

1975: Gabe Kaplan

Federman told me that Kaplan’s Kotter was the first time a comic’s actual stand-up routine was adapted as the premise of a sitcom. Listen to Holes and Mello Rolls — this bit, featuring Arnold Horshack and other school malcontents, was the blueprint for a sitcom that ran four seasons. 

1986: Garry Shandling

A throwback to the earliest stand-up sitcoms, Garry Shandling played Garry Shandling, just as Jack Benny was Jack Benny, with an opening monologue delivered right to the camera (also shades of Benny). It was the beginning of Shandling’s experiments with deconstructing the phoniness of television comedy, a tactic he’d perfect with The Larry Sanders Show

1988: Roseanne Barr

The success of The Cosby Show, based on its star’s popular stand-up about the trials of parenting and family, sent networks looking for other comics with a strong persona and point-of-view. Barr’s domestic goddess routines were ready-made for weekly half-hours, and Roseanne became a huge hit. 

1989: Jerry Seinfeld

Seinfeld featured a stand-up comic starring in a sitcom about a stand-up comic who would eventually star in a sitcom. 

1994: Ellen DeGeneres

Ellen’s self-titled sitcom was amusing enough and a modest hit, but it made history when it acknowledged that yes, gay people exist. Even in sitcoms! 

1996: Ray Romano

Romano might represent the last of the Roseanne Barr/Tim Allen/Jerry Seinfeld line of comics who landed studio deals based mainly on their stand-up routines. By the end of his killer five-minute set on Late Show with David Letterman in 1995, says Letterman producer Rob Burnett,we already had lawyers lined up to work a deal with him.”

2000: Larry David

David already had lightning strike once, combining his stand-up sensibilities with Seinfeld’s to create a classic sitcom. But damned if another bolt didn’t hit earth when David put his own cranky stand-up persona front and center in the still-running Curb Your Enthusiasm

2001: Bernie Mac

A bit from one of Mac’s stand-up routines in 2000’s The Original Kings of Comedy was blown out as the premise of The Bernie Mac Show, with the comic taking in his sister’s kids after she enters rehab. And yep, Mac is another stand-up comedian in a sitcom playing a stand-up comedian. 

2009: Louis C.K.

Another of this list’s disgraced comics, Louis C.K. created, wrote, directed and starred in Louie, one of the most celebrated sitcoms of its era. C.K.’s unapologetic bad behavior means that comedy fans probably won’t revisit it for a long, long time. 

2017: Pete Holmes

Yet another sitcom with a stand-up comic playing a stand-up comic. For good measure, Crashing features homeless Holmes surfing the couches of real-life comics who put him up until they can’t stand him in their apartments anymore. In this clip, he opens for John Mulaney, another comic who played a sitcom comic in Mulaney. That show was too uncomfortably close to Seinfeld to succeed.

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