In the later half of the 20th century, a generation of standup comics laughed their way into millions of American living rooms. From early appearances on Johnny Carson’s The Tonight Show to Emmy-award winning onscreen performances, these comedians used humor and determination to redefine the television sitcom.
It takes more than a network contract to bring a comic’s stage act to life on the small screen. The life of a standup comic revolves around a nightly set, a rehearsed routine of jokes told to an unpredictable audience within a network of venues. Each stop on the tour provides a new experience for the comic, new possibilities to interact with a fresh audience, scope out a different comedy scene and hone their craft. Though getting laughs remains the ultimate goal, developing and starring in a hit television sitcom is worlds away from a career as a standup comedian.
Legendary performers like Bob Newhart, Jerry Seinfeld and Roseanne Barr took a risk by adapting their well-honed standup personas for mainstream television audiences. As their careers took off, they left the comedy club for the studio lot, learning to transform 20 minute sets into half hour scripts, share the floor with a cast of supporting characters and perform take after take in front of a crew of opinionated writers, producers and directors. Through hard work and endless creativity, these funny folks lead their sitcom families to the forefront of television entertainment and forever impacted the sitcom genre.
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When Jerry Seinfeld sat down with friend and fellow comedian Larry David in 1989 to discuss plans for a sitcom, they knew they wanted to create a scenario that wasn’t too far from Jerry’s real life experience: a New York standup comedian who hung out with his friends doing a whole lot of nothing. And just like that, Seinfeld was born.
For nine hilarious seasons, America watched as Jerry, George, Elaine, Kramer and the rest of the cast of clueless characters struggled to navigate life, love and everything in between, set against a familiar New York City backdrop. The series, littered with signature one-liners and catchphrases, firmly lodged itself into the American psyche, and was named the greatest television program of all time by TV Guide in 2002.
By the late 1980s, Detroit native Tim Allen was enjoying a successful career as a touring standup comedian. When Disney Studios chief Jeffrey Katzenberg first approached Allen about doing a sitcom, Allen outright refused, only relenting when Katzenberg guaranteed him complete editorial freedom – the ability to create a show from scratch based on his standup persona.
Home Improvement premiered in 1991 and quickly became one of America’s most watched family sitcoms. The show revolved around the fictional This Old House-style TV show Tool Time and its star, Tim Taylor, an accident prone goofball known for a never ending series of handyman mishaps and an over-the-top grunting masculinity. Tim Taylor’s lovable sitcom family warmed the hearts of viewers for eight successful seasons and launched the careers of prominent personalities like Pamela Anderson.
When Roseanne Barr first appeared on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, she was an unlikely standup comic. A waitress and mother of three from Denver, Barr began by performing at local open mic nights and soon after moved to Los Angeles to make comedy her career. Her act was brash yet relatable, her presence both down to earth and in your face. The audience loved her, and Carson took her aside to express his enthusiasm, guaranteeing that she was destined to become the biggest woman ever in standup comedy.
ABC soon came knocking, and Roseanne Barr transitioned from standup to sitcom with Roseanne, a working class family comedy set in suburban Illinois. An extension of Barr’s unapologetically feminist standup persona, Roseanne made waves by fearlessly tackling difficult social, political and economic issues with humor and homespun grace. With nine successful seasons on the air, Roseanne redefined the concept of the American family and deeply influenced a generation of viewers.
“Everybody Loves Raymond”
Ray Romano grew up in the 1970s, staging Saturday Night Live-inspired sketch comedy shows in a local church basement to a handful of fans. In his 20s, he graduated to standup, but it wasn’t until he landed a spot on David Letterman’s Late Show in 1996 that things started looking up for the struggling comic. CBS called a week later, offering Romano a deal that would result in one of the most popular shows on network television.
Everybody Loves Raymond ran for nine seasons. Set in suburban New York, the show portrayed the familiar, everyday trials of a close-knit, multigenerational Italian-American family. Like so many sitcom stars before him, Romano played the lovable idiot, supported by a family of similarly oblivious and well-intentioned characters. At its core, Everybody Loves Raymond was old fashioned, relatable television comedy.
“The Bob Newhart Show” & “Newhart”
The Bob Newhart Show starred the stammering, slow talking comedian Bob Newhart as Chicago psychologist Robert Hartley. Newhart, who began his career as an accountant, stumbled into standup in the early 1960s and was offered a sitcom deal in 1972. A master in the art of reactionary comedy, the sitcom was developed to showcase Newhart’s ability to “listen funny,” pitting him against a rotating carousel of outlandish and neurotic characters. A true pioneer, Newhart set the stage for the standup turned sitcom trajectory.
“The Cosby Show”
More than any other sitcom of its time, NBC’s The Cosby Show broke through color and class barriers and into the living rooms of the American people. Millions tuned in each week of the show’s eight seasons to watch comedian Bill Cosby as Cliff Huxtable, the patriarch of a large, upper-middle class Brooklyn family.
Not only was Bill Cosby the era’s most prominent man in standup, he was also the country’s most lovable dad, raising a generation of viewers on a mix of stern looks and silly one liners. From its inception until the show’s finale in 1992, Bill Cosby and The Cosby Show cast revived network television ratings, drastically changed the face of American comedy and left a lasting mark on the sitcom genre.