Stand-up comedians are taking over television! Comics, not all of them trained actors, are getting the opportunity to play the roles they were meant to play: comedians. The old stand-up-to-sitcom model was that maybe you’d get discovered at the Just For Laughs comedy festival in Montreal or a producer might see you headlining on the road and believe he could create an entire show around a few minutes of a comic’s act– or, at least, the comic’s presentation, look or attitude. Of course, the subsequent sitcoms would perform with wildly varying degrees of success. Comedians would mostly play fictional versions of themselves with random professions (George Carlin played a taxi driver on The George Carlin Show). Some would adapt the show around their act, having their character work the job they used to have, (like when Greg Giraldo played a lawyer on Common Law) or they were given a job they’d like to have (Ray Romano as a sports writer in Everybody Loves Raymond). More and more shows are now featuring comics playing comics. Here’s a list of shows from the present, past and near future that feature stand-up comedians acting like stand-up comedians.
Wanda at Large
Before she hosted her own late-night talk show on Fox and revived NBC’s Last Comic Standing, Wanda Sykes was a Washington, D.C. comedian who made her big break opening for Chris Rock and later writing for him on The Chris Rock Show. In 2003, already an established act, she starred in her own sitcom on Fox. Wanda at Large was about Wanda Hawkins (Sykes) as an outspoken stand-up comic chosen to be a correspondent on a Washington, D.C. political talk show, despite infuriating the show’s moderators, while managing a home life. The show was cancelled during its second season.
Seinfeld was, of course, the quintessential sitcom of the 90s. Jerry Seinfeld, with co-creator Larry David, took his observational comedy style to television playing himself: a single stand-up comedian in New York City commenting on the idiosyncrasies he and his friends faced on a daily basis. Seinfeld was one of the first shows to truly normalize the profession of a stand-up comedian. Despite executives almost passing on the show entirely, the NBC sitcom dominated for nine seasons, averaging nearly 40 million viewers per episode in its final season. Its final episode, The Finale, brought in 76 million viewers, making it one of the most-watched television events of all time.
The Bernie Mac Show
The late Bernie Mac played a fictionalized version of himself on his eponymous hit Fox sitcom. Based off of his stand-up act, the show revolved around Mac’s character, a stand-up comedian. He takes in his sister’s children after she enters rehab, being thrust into the role of a parent. He commonly would break the fourth wall by talking directly to the audience while looking into the camera in a usually-empty living room. The show won a Peabody Award and creator Larry Wilmore won a Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series for the show’s pilot episode. The Bernie Mac Show ran from 2001-2006 for five seasons. The Original Kings of Comedy comic died in 2008 from sarcoidosis complicated by pneumonia.
It’s Garry Shandling’s Show
Before the success of his HBO program The Larry Sanders Show, Garry Shandling had a fairly successful show on Showtime called It’s Garry Shandling’s Show. The comedian starred in the series as a self-obssessed comic who happens to be aware that he is a TV sitcom character, as were all of the other characters. In a similar vain to The Jack Benny Program, he would do monologues directly to the studio audience as well as show-closing summations of the episode’s events. Shandling’s sitcom was nominated for four Primetime Emmy Awards over the course of its four seasons on Showtime from 1986-1990. The show’s meta self-awareness was ahead of its time before mockumentary sitcoms like The Office and Parks and Recreation became a popular format.
He wasn’t head-of-the-household Danny Tanner (played by fellow comedian Bob Saget), but Dave Coulier played the iconic Joey Gladstone on the classic 90s family sitcom Full House. Gladstone was a working stand-up comedian in San Francisco and pulled us in with his impressions of Popeye, Bullwinkle, and other cartoon characters. Through various B-line plots, we see the struggle of a comic questioning if he’s meant to do stand-up or if he can truly make it in the entertainment biz. It worked for the real-life Coulier, who on an episode of You Made It Weird with Pete Holmes described getting paid “truckfulls” of money during the eight seasons of the hit ABC show.
Jim Jefferies took the explicit stories from his stand-up comedy routine and brought them to FX Networks with his recently-ended series Legit. The dark comedy aired its final episode last Wednesday after two full seasons. The show starred Jefferies as himself, an expat Australian comedian living in Los Angeles. With his hard drinking best friend Steve (Dan Bakkedahl) and Steve’s disabled brother (DJ Qualls), the trio embarked on hilarious misadventures. The show’s first season aired on FX and was moved to the newly-launched FXX channel for its second season. The network announced it would not pick up Legit for a third season the same day as its finale.
Marc Maron was a well-respected, self described “marginalized act” who had thought he’d hit a ceiling in his career, destined to never have mainstream success in the business. But in 2009, he started the now blockbuster podcast WTF with Marc Maron in his garage in Highland Park, California. Now his semi-autobiographical hit comedy series Maron has started its second season on IFC. The show stars Maron as a somewhat fictional version of himself, a stand-up comedian who hosts a podcast out of his garage. His friends, father and assistant bring him both solace and frustration. Just like on his podcast, he has had big time guest stars including co-executive producer Denis Leary, Anthony Jeselnik, Ken Jeong and Pete Holmes. He’s even appeared in a very heartfelt episode of his friend Louis C.K.’s FX series Louie!
Louis C.K. has blown away the nation with his stand-up comedy specials, late-night talk show appearances, Twitter rants and hit FX show Louie. The dark comedy stars C.K. as a divorced stand-up comedian raising his two daughters in New York City. The show depicts life both off-stage and on with guest appearances by some of the biggest stand-up comedians in the country. The show has won two Primetime Emmy Awards and even more nominations. Louie recently started its fourth season on FX and has been a mainstream breakthrough for the comedian. His last show, the anti-sitcom Lucky Louie, was quickly loved by fans. Despite HBO ordering eight scripts for a second season, it was curiously cancelled soon after. But now we get to see Louis be a comedian instead of a part-time mechanic.
Former Saturday Night Live writer and comedian John Mulaney’s sitcom, which was described by programming chief Kevin Reilly as “Seinfeld for a new generation.” will finally debut this fall on Fox. But it wasn’t an easy road. Mulaney, about a stand-up comedian in Los Angeles and the humorous events of his every day life, was supposed to be on NBC after its pilot was the talk of the town. The Peacock network surprisingly passed on it. Fox swooped in last fall and picked it up for a series order. The network enjoyed the pilot so much that it put some weight behind the show and ordered an additional 10 episodes for the first season! In addition to Mulaney, comedian Seaton Smith plays Motif, also a comic, who Mulaney’s character hangs around with.
Garfunkel & Oates
IFC has repositioned itself as a leading force in the comedy world. After the success of shows like Maron and Portlandia, the network has committed to letting alternative comedy acts do their own thing. One of their newest shows, Garfunkel & Oates, will debut later this year. The show stars the musical comedy duo of Garfunkel & Oates (Riki Lindhome and Kate Micucci) as themselves, two ladies who sing satirical and sometimes dirty songs. They have little in common with their peers and have no one but each other to turn to for support. The pair have enjoyed their own Comedy Central half-hour special, many albums, videos and even released their own iPhone app! Having their own awesome tv show was a logical next step for them.
Billy Crystal will play a veteran stand-up comedian on a new FX comedy series. The Comedians, based on a similar Swedish show, pairs Crystal’s character with an edgier rising comic, played by Book of Mormon alum Josh Gad, for a late-night sketch show. The Comedians will have a behind-the-scenes feel, showing audiences the differences between the lives of an older and younger comedian in today’s entertainment world. This is Crystal’s return to leading a scripted sitcom since the 1977-81 series Soap.
We recently reported that Showtime is developing a half-hour comedy series called Yank about a young Hasidic Jew in Williamsburg, Brooklyn who wants to break out from his sheltered community and pursue a career as a stand-up comedian. The show comes from Sex and the City writers Elisa Zuritsky and Julie Rottenberg. There has been no speculation as to who would play the role, but there’s certainly potential for producers to cast an actual comedian for the role! How about this guy?