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Arts & Culture

'Did You Hear the One About ... ?': The History of Television's Stand-Up Comedians


Maybe it’s an obvious point, but stand-up comedians are generally pretty funny people to be around.  But does a solid stand-up act necessarily translate to a funny sitcom?  Not necessarily.

Some of the most successful stand-ups to make the leap are featured tomorrow night in the first episode of the fourth season of the public TV series, Pioneers of Television.

In the 1970s-1990s, stand-up comedians got their start when they were guests on variety shows, like The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Four of those stand-up comedians went on to make notable sitcoms:

  • Bob Newhart: Native of Chicago, Newhart almost gave up on stand-up comedy to be an accountant. What really put Newhart in the spotlight was when he released his comedy album, which knocked Elvis out of the #1 sold record.
  • Jerry Seinfeld: Seinfeld had a “gee whiz” mentality about his show. It was Larry David who did most of the planning for the show while Seinfeld treated the sitcom as a pleasant diversion from the stand-up routine.
  • Tim Allen: Allen felt he “bombed” on The Tonight Show, but it is not apparent to the audience. Television executives hired an acting coach for him to see if he could memorize material, which is something he obviously could do.
  • Ray Romano: Although he had a successful show with Everybody Loves Raymond, he was the least interested out of the four comedians to have his own sitcom.

The series is produced by two local film producers, Steve Boettcher and Mike Trinklein. Trinklein says that in order for the stand-up comedians to have a successful sitcom, the sitcom must reflect the stand-up comedian's persona. There were some comedians who had their own show that was not as successful, such as Phyllis Diller.
Today, stand-up comedians really do not have a presence as late night show guests. One of the reasons is because there is more than one late night show. Americans are also preferring to see celebrities on the late night shows as opposed to comedians, who television executives feel that they cannot keep the audience’s interest.