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Stand-up comedians who became sitcom stars

by Richard Keller, posted Apr 10th 2008 1:20PM

Stand-up to Sitcom. TV Squad presents a comprehensive list of those who made itAs AOL Television continues their look at the 50 Best TV Comedies -- Ever with numbers 40-31, we here at TV Squad are also looking at them as well, but in a different light. Last week, we took a look at the top ten sitcom sidekicks. This time around we look at the stars of these shows. In particular, those stars that began their career between a brick wall (or a curtain) and a microphone.

We're talking about stand-up comedians. During the early days of television they were found very infrequently in situation comedies (yet, they were plentiful in variety shows). However, as the decades progressed, more and more of them found a home in front of three cameras and a live studio audience. Many of them became bigger stars then they ever were performing routines in front of a drunken audience at 1:00 AM.

We've compiled a pretty comprehensive (in my opinion) list of those stand-ups who made it big in the sitcom world. In order to keep the list down to under a thousand entries, we set a few standards: The sitcom needed to last at least two seasons, the show had to be a comedy and not a variety program, and the comedian needed to have a prominent role in the sitcom. Even with those rules the list is pretty extensive. So, without further pontification...

Tim Allen -- "The Tool Man" began his comedy career in Detroit, got arrested and thrown in jail, and then continued his comedy career in Los Angeles. Eventually he got noticed by Walt Disney Studios and, in 1991, Home Improvement took its place on the ABC stage and lasted until 1999.

Morey Amsterdam -- Before he even said his first line on the famous The Dick Van Dyke Show, Mr. Amsterdam was a top-billed sitcom star himself, starring in The Morey Amsterdam Show on both CBS and the DuMont network back in the late 1940's. As a side note, one of his co-stars on the show was Art Carney -- a man who would go on to more fame and fortune with Jackie Gleason.

Roseanne Barr -- Or Roseanne Arnold, or Rosanne Thomas, or just Roseanne. Whatever name you give her she was one of the first women stand-up comedians who turned her routine into a successful situation comedy. And, while Roseanne, which aired on ABC from 1988-1997, faltered a bit towards the end of its run, it did set the stage for more edgy sitcoms that would soon appear on the small screen.

Jack Benny -- I was a bit unsure of Benny because he went from the comedy circuit to Hollywood fairly quickly. Yet, he was there telling jokes at the beginning and end of every show. Plus, his The Jack Benny Program, which ran from 1950 to 1965, was a groundbreaking situation comedy for its time.

Joey Bishop -- Not only was Joey Bishop a member of the famous "Rat Pack", but he was an accomplished stand-up comic as well, appearing on Jack Paar's Tonight Show several times (and hosting Johnny Carson's version of the show nearly 180 times). From 1961 to 1965 he starred in The Joey Bishop Show as a talk-show host named Joey. Not too much of a stretch there.

George Burns -- Throw wife Gracie Allen into this as well, since she was the comedic talent of the duo. After gaining stardom on stage and in radio, Burns and Allen took their talents to television in 1950 with The Burns and Allen Show. The program ran until 1958 (with Gracie retiring the year before) and produced nearly 300 half-hour episodes.

Brett Butler -- Wow. I was just looking up Butler's ABC sitcom, Grace under Fire, and discovered two things: It ran from 1993 to 1998, which surprised me since I thought it had a much shorter run, and it was the highest rated new comedy of the 1993-94 season. It also co-starred Dave Thomas and it was created by Chuck Lorre. Why isn't this sitcom on Nick at Nite?

Drew Carey -- He was the "everyman" comedian with the horn-rimmed glasses and the slightly pudgy frame that audiences could relate to. He took that "everyman" persona to The Drew Carey Show in 1995 and made it one of the more successful sitcoms on the ABC schedule until the end in 2004.

Bill Cosby -- Television has been good to Bill Cosby. After his run on the successful '60s spy drama I Spy, Cosby starred in his first sitcom, The Bill Cosby Show, in the late '60s, then came out with the ultra popular The Cosby Show back in 1984, and ended with the CBS comedy Cosby in the late '90s.

Dave Coulier -- Who knew that impressions of Popeye and Bullwinkle would lead to a successful sitcom career in the '80s? Along with comedian Bob Saget (see below), these two made Full House the hit it was in the late '80s and early '90s.

David Cross -- A good many of us knew David Cross from the HBO sketch comedy Mr. Show. And, while he appeared in other sitcoms during the '90s and '00s he was best known as Dr. Tobias Funke from the FOX comedy Arrested Development.

Billy Crystal -- Your scratching your head thinking 'What sitcom was Billy Crystal on in the '70s?' You mean, you don't remember Soap? He played Jodie Dallas, one of the first openly gay characters on primetime television. After that we went onto fame and fortune, and a short stint with the New York Yankees.

Ellen DeGeneres -- At first, These Friends of Mine (renamed Ellen after the first season) was very much the Friends rip-off. But, as the series progressed it became a showcase for DeGeneres, and then the center of attention when her character came out of the closet towards the end of the series.

Larry David -- For a stand-up comedian who only had one sketch air on Saturday Night Live while he was a writer, Larry David did pretty well for himself. After co-creating a small little sitcom called Seinfeld for NBC, David moved over to HBO where he currently stars in the comedy Curb Your Enthusiasm. Oh, and he was on a recent episode of Hannah Montana as himself, which is bigger than both his NBC and HBO shows combined.

Andy Dick -- Some of us want to forget that Andy Dick was actually on a number of successful sitcoms, but he was. In the early '90s he appeared with the great Phil Hartman on NBC's NewsRadio. Then, in the '00s, Andy jumped over to ABC to co-star in Less Than Perfect.

Craig Ferguson -- Ferguson began is stand-up career in the UK underground circuit under the stage name Bing Hitler. He decided to go with his real name as he got more mainstream, and he eventually ended up on The Drew Carey Show starting with its second season.

Jamie Foxx -- Somewhere between his stand-up career, his stint on In Living Color, and an Academy Award for his role in Ray, Jamie Foxx was a sitcom star on the former WB network. The Jamie Foxx Show, in which he played a character named Jamie who worked at his family's hotel, ran from 1996 until 2001.

Redd Foxx -- Foxx and Sanford and Son, which ran from 1972 to 1977, will always be connected. And, not because it is seen over and over on TV Land. It was a change-of-pace role for the stand-up comedian, whose routine was a bit blue. As an aside, Foxx tried to return to the sitcom world in the early 90s with the The Royal Family. Unfortunately, he died of a heart attack in the middle of filming.

Jackie Gleason -- While originally a Broadway and Hollywood star, "The Great One" began a nightclub routine that included comedy and music. He turned that into television gold in the early 50's, first as aircraft worker Chester A. Riley in the radio-turned-television hit Life of Riley, then as the lovable but blustery Ralph Kramden in The Honeymooners.

Eddie Griffin -- Yes, comedian Eddie Griffin did have a fairly successful sitcom career back in the mid-'90s with the show Malcolm & Eddie. The show aired on the old UPN from 1996 until the turn of the century.

Kathy Griffin -- She's mostly known for her stand-up routine as well as her many appearances on the yenta-fest known as The View. Yet, for four seasons (1996-2000) she was restaurant critic Vicki Groener on the NBC comedy Suddenly Susan.

Steve Harvey -- Harvey began his comedy career in the mid-'80s, and it didn't take long for him to be recognized by the world of television. By the mid-90s he was starring in WB's The Steve Harvey Show, which ran from 1996 to 2000 and garnered a number of awards.

D. L. Hughley -- Before his serio-comic role on the now-forgotten Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, Hughley starred in a sitcom that bared his name. The Hughleys aired from 1998 to 2002 on both ABC and UPN.

Kevin James -- In another example of the fat guy getting the beautiful girl, James starred in the (surprisingly?) long-running The King of Queens. Feeding off the success of older sibling Everybody Loves Raymond, the show ran from 1998 to 2007.

Gabe Kaplan -- He's a professional poker player now, but before his role as Gabe Kotter in the ABC comedy Welcome Back, Kotter (1975 to 1979), Kaplan was a stand-up comedian. In a period of 18 months he appeared five times on The Tonight Show and even recorded a successful comedy album. Outside of his television stardom, Kaplan gained praise for his one-man show about Groucho Marx.

Andy Kaufman -- You can admit it: Andy Kaufman was the star of Taxi. His Latka character pretty much stole the show every time he appeared. It's a shame that his life ended so soon.

Martin Lawrence -- If you don't remember FOX's Martin, which aired from 1992-1997, then you are a youngster. This was Martin Lawrence in his crazy days, before he softened up and started doing movies with Raven and Donnie Osmond.

George Lopez -- You may think differently, but George Lopez did have a successful sitcom run on ABC with The George Lopez Show (2002-2007). If anything, it was hipper and a bit more controversial than the very plain According to Jim. If you still think I'm wrong, maybe watching the reruns on Nick at Nite will change your mind.

Bernie Mac -- Named one of the 100 greatest stand-up comedians of all time by Comedy Central, Bernie Mac starred in self-titled The Bernie Mac Show, which aired on FOX from 2001 to 2006. Unlike your standard sitcoms, Bernie would break the fourth wall of television and speak directly to the viewing audience from time to time.

Mo'Nique -- She's now the weekend security guard for MODE magazine on ABC's Ugly Betty; however, from 1999 to 2004 she was the older Parker in the UPN series The Parkers.

Tracy Morgan -- The sitcom that this stand-up comedian, and former SNL cast member, was a success in was not The Tracy Morgan Show, which briefly aired on NBC in 2003. The show that Tracy has really shined on is 30 Rock, which is in its second season right now and doing just fine, thank you very much.

Bob Newhart -- Button-Down Bob had had a pretty good relationship with television. After some critically-acclaimed, but poorly viewed variety shows in the '60s, Newhart gained success with The Bob Newhart Show, which aired on CBS from 1972 to 1978. A few years later Bob returned to CBS with the quirky Newhart, which aired until 1990 and ended with one of the best finale scenes ever.

Patton Oswalt -- He's popular now, but even before he was on The King of Queens with Kevin James he was headlining in the stand-up circuit and writing for MADtv.

Freddie Prinze -- Another comedian whose life ended way too soon. After dropping out of high school to do stand-up and appearing on The Tonight Show, Prinze got the role of Chico Rodriquez in the NBC comedy Chico and the Man. Unfortunately, fame and drugs killed Prinze during the show's final seasons.

Paul Reiser -- At first I thought Mad About You, which aired on NBC from 1992 to 1999, was Paul Reiser's only sitcom role on television. Then, while doing research for this post (yes, I do research) I realized that he had another NBC sitcom -- My Two Dads -- which aired from 1987 to 1990. That's pretty good for a 12-year time span.

Michael Richards -- Some people may think that Michael Richards began his stand-up career in 2006 when he began raining racial slurs against a bunch of hecklers at his show. Actually, he began his stand-up career back in the late 70s. After appearing as a guest-star on a number of shows he landed the role of Kramer on NBC's Seinfeld. By the way, Richards has retired from stand-up for spiritual healing purposes. Uh-huh.

Joe Rogan -- NewsRadio was so full of talent that it was hard to take it all in on a regular basis. Take Joe Rogan, for example. Sometimes he was do deadpan in his comebacks to the other employees it was downright hilarious.

Ray Romano -- Probably the most successful comedian-turned-sitcom stars for this generation of viewers. Everybody Loves Raymond, which ran from 1996 to 2005, could have probably run for a few more years before petering out.

Joe E. Ross -- You may not recognize the name, but you would probably recognize his trademark 'Ooh! Ooh!' exclamation that got him out of the nightclub circuit and into television. In the late '50s and early '60s he appeared with Phil Silvers in The Phil Silvers Show and with a pre-Herman Munster on Car 54, Where Are You?. And, while not sitcoms, his voice could be heard on Hanna-Barbera cartoons like Hong Kong Phooey and Help! It's the Hair Bear Bunch.

Bob Saget -- Here's another example of a stand-up comedian with two personalities. On ABC's Full House, which ran from 1987 to 1995 he was the clean-cut family man who constantly hugged his children. Yet, his stand-up routine was quite edgy. I don't know which one I prefer.

Jerry Seinfeld -- Did I say Ray Romano was the most successful comedian-turned-sitcom star for this generation? I'll need to retract that. Considering all of the moments we remember from NBC's Seinfeld (1989-1998), and all the money he makes from syndication, I would say that Jerry is the more successful of the two.

Gary Shandling -- Even though Shandling had two very popular comedies, not many people saw them initially as they both aired on premium cable channels. It's Gary Shandling Show aired on Showtime from 1985 to 1990 while The Larry Sanders Show aired on HBO from 1992 to 1998. it wasn't until they made it into syndication did viewers get to see how brilliant these shows were.

Sinbad -- How could I have forgotten Sinbad? From 1987 to 1991 the comedian starred in The Cosby Show spinoff A Different World, where he played Coach Walter Oakes.

Wanda Sykes -- While she had her own FOX sitcom Wanda at Large, which ran for two seasons starting in 2003. Sykes is known today for her co-starring role in the Julia Louis-Dreyfus comedy The New Adventures of Old Christine. In the meantime, Wanda continues to do her stand-up routine.

Danny Thomas -- Before he became a successful producer of television shows like The Andy Griffith Show and The Dick Van Dyke Show, this nightclub comedian was the star of Make Room For Daddy (known later as The Danny Thomas Show) from 1953 to 1964.

Christopher Titus -- Chris Titus took his stand-up routine, which centered around his dysfunctional family, and transferred it to television as the FOX comedy Titus. The show ran from 2000 to 2002 and was at the mercy of network censors many times due to the shows storylines.

Robin Williams -- Nanoo, Nanoo. The fast-talking and stream-of-conscious Robin Williams exploded on the scene during an episode of Happy Days (during one of its many 'Jump the Shark' phases). That guest-starring role resulted in the classic Mork & Mindy, which aired on ABC from 1978 to 1982.

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I recently purchased 'Titus' on DVD and I can't recommend it enough. Brilliantly funny, would still hold up today. Stacey Keach in his finest role..

April 11 2008 at 11:20 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Richard Keller

Larry David has been added, as has Sinbad.

April 11 2008 at 12:39 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I'm pretty sure Raymond did better than Seinfeld in the ratings...

April 10 2008 at 11:10 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

yes some obvious ommisions here!!

larry david being the most obvious one! one of the funniest sitcoms on TV, by one of the most talented people in the industry.

shame on you!

April 10 2008 at 10:52 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Will Koffel

Mike Birbiglia is another comic who I believe has just signed for a pilot starring him and his comedy. Might make this list officially of the show takes off.

April 10 2008 at 9:51 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Saget's also doing the voice overs as "future Ted" on How I Met Your Mother.

April 10 2008 at 2:57 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

And Brad Garrett

April 10 2008 at 2:22 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

What no mention of Sinbad?!!! How dare you! I say good day to you sir!

April 10 2008 at 2:17 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Michael Richards

April 10 2008 at 2:12 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Regarding AOL's list: Putting Golden Girls at 42 is sacrilege. This show is easily in the top 20.

April 10 2008 at 2:09 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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