It’s a sitcom staple that’s as old as the genre itself. Television executives, eager to bring in hordes of viewers to the networks signing their paycheck, pull out whatever stops possible to try and bring in lofty TV ratings. One way of doing this, based on conventional wisdom, is creating a sitcom around a familiar personality. Through the years, many successful stand-up comedians have received their own series. There have been plenty of duds, but some of these laughers actually turned out to be smash hits and have endured the test of time through the TV afterlife known as reruns — not to mention lucrative sales of DVD box sets.
10. Sanford and Son (NBC, 1972-1977)
After collecting laughs at nightclubs across the country, comedian Redd Foxx slipped into the role of 65-year-old junk dealer Fred G. Sanford in this California-based sitcom. Throughout the series’ six-season run, Foxx’s character seemingly exchanged barbs with everyone in sight, be it his son, Lamont, or the various customers who passed through the shop. In the late 1960s and early ’70s, Foxx was making the rounds at a number of venues. The Sanford character was a toned-down version of some of Foxx’s stand-up material, which was considered risqué and raunchy for the time period.
9. The Bob Newhart Show (CBS, 1972-1978)
Comedian Bob Newhart was a master at playing the straight man, as evidenced by his interactions with the many rich characters he came across at the office where he practiced psychology. Whether it was a patient or co-worker, Newhart’s character, Bob Hartley, always seemed to brilliantly portray a deer-in-the-headlights look. Bob Hartley was similar to Newhart’s stand-up work prior to headlining the smash CBS comedy. Throughout the 1960s, audiences were enamored with Newhart’s work, as evidenced by the success of his best-selling collection of monologues, The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart.
8. Home Improvement (ABC, 1991-1999)
Throughout the 1990s, ABC was notorious for dotting its line-up with family comedies that starred stand-up comedians. Based on ratings, Home Improvement was the most successful of the pack. Leading up to the filming of the pilot, series star and stand-up comic Tim Allen had a role in crafting the premise of the series, which revolved around Tim Taylor’s attempts — many ill-fated — at improving homes and the lives of the many people in his midst. Story lines mirrored Allen’s stand-up routine. Home Improvement marked Allen’s acting debut.
7. Ellen (ABC, 1994-1998)
Originally titled These Friends of Mine, this Ellen DeGeneres vehicle was dubbed, “Seinfeld in a skirt” when it first hit the air. DeGeneres played Ellen Morgan, a single woman who traded quips about everyday life with her group of Los Angeles pals. As the series evolved, plotlines thickened, as evidenced by a 1997 episode that revealed Ellen Morgan was a lesbian. (DeGeneres herself had come out around the same time.) Prior to Ellen, DeGeneres had been cast in a series of failed TV comedies. In the early 1980s, she was a regular in the comedy circuit, performing mostly at small clubs and coffee houses.
6. Welcome Back, Kotter (ABC, 1975-1979)
Gabe Kaplan created and starred in this sitcom that perhaps is best known for launching the career of John Travolta. Kaplan played Gabe Kotter, an unorthodox teacher known for his wisecracking ways and ability to reach out to a group of under-performing students on the fringes of society. Gabe Kotter himself was an alum of the school he now taught at and, like his student brethren, was a so-called “Sweathog.” Welcome Back, Kotter, was not only based on Kaplan’s stand-up routines, it was based on his life. Kaplan was an admitted remedial high school student while growing up in Brooklyn. Prior to assuming an acting gig, he did stand-up; one act, Holes and Mellow Rolls, was based some of his classmates.
5. Everybody Loves Raymond (CBS, 1996-2005)
Family life was never portrayed with as much vigor, humor and realism as it was on the smash hit Everybody Loves Raymond. Perhaps that’s because the various madcap storylines throughout the show’s 9-season run were based on real-life experiences from star Ray Romano and creator-producer Phil Rosenthal. Romano played newspaper columnist Ray Barone and followed his many interactions with wife, Debra, and meddlesome extended family. While he was an established comic — appearing on such shows as the Late Show with David Letterman — Romano was a novice to acting when he landed a starring role in his own series.
4. Roseanne (ABC, 1988-1997)
Throughout most of its nine-season run, audiences identified with the Conner family and their plight to make ends meet in middle America. Series star Roseanne Barr infused humor and wit into her character, Roseanne Conner, as she attempted to juggle life at home and work. While Barr gained mainstream recognition for starring in this hit sitcom, she was a popular comedienne beforehand. Throughout the early to mid-1980s, she held a steady stream of stand-up gigs and eventually landed a special on HBO.
3. The Jack Benny Program (CBS/NBC, 1950-1965)
Considered one of the most successful entertainers of the 20th century, Jack Benny showcased his signature humor through a variety of venues: vaudeville, film, radio and TV. Benny’s comic wit was often showcased alongside his talent as a violin virtuoso. The image of him holding one hand up to his face and a violin in another is as funny as the comic bits he infused in all of his entertainment shows. In his later years on his long-running television series, Benny’s character — a continuation of his successful radio show of the same name — depicted the types of routines Benny had been doing for years as a comedian. Storylines on the TV version of the Jack Benny Program frequently depicted him as being vain, cheap and self-congratulatory. Benny himself was said to be the polar opposite of his entertainment persona.
2. The Cosby Show (NBC, 1984-1992)
By the time he headlined this mid-1980s smash hit, series star Bill Cosby was an established actor who had appeared in myriad comedies and dramas with varying success. The Cosby Show received mixed reaction, particularly from the black community, but mainstream audiences warmed to Cliff Huxtable and his role as a successful doctor and family man. With his traditional delivery that at times made him appear angry, Cosby’s take on Cliff Huxtable was that of a man doing his best to be an effective husband, father and professional. After the success of I Spy and starring in a pair of failed sitcoms, Cosby had turned his attention toward stand-up comedy. In the 1970s, he honed his stand-up skills and produced a number of successful comedy albums — a professional maneuver that eventually would revive his role in TV.
1. Seinfeld (NBC, 1989-1998)
It’s the show about nothing. But it was something — a colossal hit that spawned a litany of catch-phrases and helped shape pop culture throughout the 1990s. Jerry Seinfeld broke comedy conventions by playing himself — sort of — in this sitcom that struggled out of the gate but eventually caught on like wildfire, thanks to patient NBC executives. Seinfeld’s straight-man persona brought abundant guffaws as he interacted with his troop of neurotic 30-something pals and quipped about everyday life events. Seinfeld began dabbling in stand-up comedy in the mid-1970s, while still in college, and eventually made appearances in the club circuit. In the early 1980s, he performed regularly on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson and Late Night with David Letterman.