Type keyword(s) to search


The History of Stand-Up Comedians Doing Sitcoms, Part 1

Seinfeld was a pivot point in the long history of a particular sitcom subgenre: the ones where stand-up comedians take the lead.
  • Clockwise: Freddie Prinze, Jerry Seinfeld, Bob Newhart, and Roseanne Barr (Photos: Everett Collection; Primetimer graphic)
    Clockwise: Freddie Prinze, Jerry Seinfeld, Bob Newhart, and Roseanne Barr (Photos: Everett Collection; Primetimer graphic)

    Unless Larry David changes his mind, the currently airing 12th season of his acerbic sitcom Curb Your Enthusiasm will be its last, bringing an end to an HBO institution that debuted way back in 2000. The show initially served as a kind of self-aware sequel to Seinfeld, the smash hit NBC sitcom David co-created with its star, Jerry Seinfeld. (In Curb, David plays “Larry David,” the rich and cranky co-creator of Seinfeld.) But over the past 24 years, Curb Your Enthusiasm has also reflected how much TV comedy has changed, often as a direct result of Seinfeld’s huge popularity in the 1990s.

    So, with Curb ending, now’s a good time to look back at how Seinfeld ended up becoming a pivot-point in the long history of a particular sitcom subgenre: the ones where stand-up comedians take the lead.

    When Seinfeld debuted, the ’80s comedy club boom was starting to fade, and so some of the biggest names in stand-up were scrambling into movies and television. With Seinfeld, David and Seinfeld tried to capitalize on the success that some of the other colleagues had been enjoying on TV while also capturing their own wry, observational senses of humor — and all without making some corny, conventional show about life in an office or life as a husband and father. They’d cheekily describe Seinfeld as “a show about nothing,” though by casting Seinfeld himself as a stand-up comic named “Jerry Seinfeld,” their sitcom really became a show about comedy, and about how stand-ups like David and Seinfeld turn minutiae into jokes.

    Seinfeld was innovative, but it didn’t come from nowhere. Below, working backwards, is a short history of some of the significant stand-up-led sitcoms that came before it, and how they each reflected both the times in which they were made and the trends in comedy at the time. (In Part 2 of this history, we’ll move forward from Seinfeld, tracing how it led to Curb Your Enthusiasm and other shows.)

    Roseanne (1988-1997) / The Cosby Show (1984-1992)

    It’s not hard to draw a direct line between Roseanne and Seinfeld, given that both Roseanne Barr and Jerry Seinfeld were among the top draws on the stand-up circuit in the late 1980s, thanks in large part to the success both had as guests on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show. A big reason why Seinfeld was green-lit was because Barr’s ABC sitcom had become a surprise smash hit, by turning the raw material of her stand-up act — a set of smart, sarcastic, unapologetically crude jokes about life as a working class housewife — into funny and oddly heartwarming stories about post-Reagan middle America.

    And why was Roseanne green-lit? A lot of credit for that is due to The Cosby Show, which was a ratings champ from the moment it debuted on NBC in 1984. Bill Cosby came from a much earlier generation of comics than Barr (her reputation’s taken a hit in recent years, while Cosby’s been accused by multiple women of sexual abuse); but just like Roseanne, The Cosby Show was essentially an adaptation of a stand-up act. Not long before The Cosby Show debuted, Cosby had a hit with the concert film and album Himself, which was filled with long, wryly amusing stories about being the disrespected dad in a house full of precocious kids. The sitcom was built around the version of Cosby in that concert; and like Roseanne it reinvented the classic TV family comedy by adding the pointed observations of a professional comedian.

    Welcome Back, Kotter (1975-1979) / Chico and the Man (1974-1978)

    The 1970s saw a creative and commercial boom in stand-up, as a whole wave of talented comics — inspired by the likes of Richard Pryor and George Carlin — turned comedy clubs and comedy albums into cultural touchstones and big business. Television producers weren’t always sure how to make use of these new stars, so one-of-a-kind performers like Andy Kaufman, Steve Landesberg, and Jimmie Walker frequently ended up as part of an ensemble, in sitcoms like Taxi, Barney Miller, and Good Times. In the case of the uncontainable, improvisatory Robin Williams, producers dreamed up a bizarre space alien character for him to play, in Mork & Mindy.

    Welcome Back, Kotter and Chico and the Man were two of most successful stand-up-led sitcoms in the ‘70s, perhaps because their stars had a comic style and point-of-view that was easy to parcel out into TV episodes — similar to what happened with Roseanne and The Cosby Show. Chico and the Man starred Freddie Prinze, who was young, hip, and half Puerto Rican. On-stage and on his show, Prinze leaned on his background and his charisma, disarming audiences with his chill vibes and his vivid stories about growing up in a multiethnic New York neighborhood.

    Welcome Back, Kotter, meanwhile, turned Gabe Kaplan’s funny anecdotes about growing up in a Brooklyn neighborhood into a high school comedy with a diverse cast of funny young actors (including a bound-for-stardom John Travolta). Unlike Prinze, Kaplan was essentially the straight man in his own show, playing a teacher whose rowdy students provided most of the schtick. But it was Kaplan’s schtick they were doing, borrowed liberally from his standup act and his cult favorite album Holes and Mello-Rolls.

    The Bob Newhart Show (1972-1978) / Sanford and Son (1972-1977)

    Bob Newhart became a comedy star in the early 1960s thanks to his best-selling album The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart, which featured him performing brilliantly written and delivered sketches, mostly with him playing characters on one side of a conversation (with the other side unheard). It took over a decade before TV figured out what to do with Newhart’s act. After some false starts in variety shows, he finally had a long-running hit with The Bob Newhart Show, playing a Chicago psychologist who spends his days giving stammering responses to his weird patients.

    The show gradually shaded in Dr. Bob Hartley’s personality and personal life over the course of six seasons, finding ways to turn Newhart’s core comic strength — deadpan reactions to utter chaos — into a real, complex, hilarious character. Newhart would later work variations on that theme as the lead in three other sitcoms: the short-lived Bob and George and Leo in the ’90s; and, in the ’80s, another TV classic, Newhart, which ran for eight seasons.

    Redd Foxx was another veteran nightclub comic who took a while to find a home on television — though in Foxx’s case, his X-rated routines were the real obstacle to network TV fame. Norman Lear’s longtime creative partner Bud Yorkin took a chance on the comedian anyway for Sanford and Son, an adaptation of a British sitcom about an irascible junk dealer. (Lear’s All in the Family had also been adapted from a British sitcom about a working class grump.) Right away, Foxx was able to harness the “anything goes” energy of his act and work it into the character of Fred Sanford, a colossally self-centered man who speaks his mind – not unlike “Larry David” would on Curb Your Enthusiasm over two decades later.

    The Joey Bishop Show (1961-1965) / The Danny Thomas Show (1953-1964)

    Jerry Seinfeld wasn’t the first stand-up comic to star in a sitcom about a stand-up comic. In the early 1950s, Danny Thomas worked with producer Sheldon Leonard on Make Room for Daddy (later renamed The Danny Thomas Show), playing a successful entertainer whose family griped at him for not spending enough time with them. Much like the contemporaneous I Love Lucy, the showbiz milieu allowed for guest appearances from famous musicians and funny folks (including Bob Hope, Jack Benny, and Milton Berle, who all played themselves at various times during the run of the series); but also like I Love Lucy, The Danny Thomas Show was more about humanizing celebrities, by following them home.

    Thomas and Leonard later gave a boost to the late ’50s nightclub favorite Andy Griffith, in a Danny Thomas Show episode that was a backdoor pilot for The Andy Griffith Show, with Griffith playing a broader, more wide-eyed and hickish version of the small town southern sheriff he’d go on to play on CBS throughout the ’60s. Thomas then did the same favor for Joey Bishop, who in the early ’60s was best-known as the court jester in Frank Sinatra’s “Rat Pack” of Hollywood/Vegas royalty.

    Thomas had Bishop on his show to play a harried PR agent, in a backdoor pilot for The Joey Bishop Show, which when it debuted in 1961 was about a high-powered Hollywood PR guy who still lived with his parents. When that premise didn’t catch on with audiences, the producers kept retooling it, until by the start of Season 2, The Joey Bishop Show had evolved into a sitcom about a comedian and talk show host, living in a nice New York apartment with his wife (played by Abby Dalton) and dealing with the constant interruptions of the building’s eccentric, loudmouthed superintendent (played by The Three Stooges’ Joe Besser). Talk show and wife aside, The Joey Bishop Show feels a lot like Seinfeld arriving 25 years early, with stories about a fussy, frustrated New Yorker, surrounded by kooky neighbors and witty friends — and trying his best just to lead an ordinary life, whenever he’s not on the job, making people laugh.

    Noel Murray is a freelance pop culture critic and reporter living in central Arkansas.