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12 Best Sitcoms Starring Stand-Ups

From ‘Seinfeld’ to ‘Louie,’ these are the shows that proved comics could make it on the small screen

Roseanne Barr, Louis CK and Jerry Seinfeld

Roseanna Barr, Louis CK and Jerry Seinfeld

Alan Singer/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank/Getty; Stephen Lovekin/Getty; Wayne Williams/NBCU Photo Bank/Getty

Stand-up comics and TV sitcoms aren't necessarily a perfect match by default; the television graveyard is thick with tombstones dedicated to stand-up/sitcom pairings that suffered from lousy material, repellent leads, or an inability or unwillingness to let the comedian really display his or her talents. But occasionally, just the right combination of a comedian's material or comfort zone and a TV show character (a beleaguered dad, a working-class mom, a New York everyschlub, a Watts-based junkman) find each other, and you get what call a classic "standcom" — a series that melds a persona and a premise to perfection.

So in honor of FX's peerless comedy Louie beginning its fifth season this evening, we're counting down the 12 best sitcoms starring stand-ups. From Redd Foxx to Roseanne, Mork to Seinfeld, these are the ones that still leave us in stitches.

Bernie Mac
12

‘The Bernie Mac Show’ (2001-2006)

Though heavily influenced by Richard Pryor and Redd Foxx, the late Bernie Mac (born Bernard Jeffrey McCullough) utilized a much more serious comedic persona, honing his "take no shit" attitude while performing at Chicago dives that were filled with local street-gang members. That gruffness was utilized to excellent effect on this Fox show, in which he played a slightly fictionalized version of himself as a man who reluctantly takes in his sister's kids while she goes to rehab. While Mac took a "tough love" approach with the children, his emotional guard would drop during fourth wall-breaking interludes where he informed the audience (or "America," as he liked to address them) in no uncertain terms about what was really on his mind.

Ray Romano, Patricia Heaton, Brad Garrett, Doris Roberts, Peter Boyle
11

‘Everybody Loves Raymond’ (1996-2005)

Debuting on CBS in September 1996, Ray Romano's sitcom was a throwback to the traditional Honeymooners-style family comedy, wherein the male head of the household finds even less peace at home than he does at work. Granted, Tim Allen's Home Improvement, which had debuted five years earlier, mined a similar vein — but Everybody Loves Raymond was nastier, zingier and funnier, with Romano taking his everyschlub stage persona similar to even schlubbier depths. The Queens-bred stand-up had often used his family life as a subject for his routines; in fact, many of show's characters and scenarios were based on his own family, something which didn't sit too well with some of his relatives. Still, just about everybody else loved Raymond, from fellow sitcom makers (hello, creators of The King of Queens!) and to viewers who kept the series in the Nielsen Top 10 for years.

Robin Williams
10

‘Mork & Mindy’ (1978-1982)

A true force of nature — actor Christopher Reeve, who met him in the early 1970s at Julliard, once described him as "like an untied balloon that had been inflated and immediately released" — the late Robin Williams brought such a quirky intensity to his free-associative stand-up routines that casting him as an errant extraterrestrial in made perfect sense. (Producer Garry Marshall once cracked that Williams was the only real alien who auditioned for the role.)

A spin-off featuring the comedian's one-off character from Happy Days, this show sent Williams' native of the Planet Ork native back to Earth in an egg-shaped spaceship and dropped him in modern-day Denver. Though the scripts generally centered around Mork's struggles to understand the ways of Earthlings, they were largely written to allow ample room for Williams' wacky improvisations. The sitcom rocketed Williams to stardom; the catchphrases "Shazbot!" and "Na-Nu Na-Nu" became so ubiquitous in 1979, even AC/DC frontman Bon Scott could be heard muttering them at the very end of the Highway to Hell LP. It may have cleaned up his stand-up act, but the show also paved the way for his stream-of-conscious patter to hit a much bigger mainstream audience.   

Freddie prinze
9

‘Chico and the Man’ (1974-1978)

A New York City kid who dropped out of high school during his senior year to pursue a career in comedy, Freddie Prinze rose through the stand-up ranks with shocking speed. He made his Tonight Show debut at the age of 19, an appearance which led directly to his gig as one half of this NBC sitcom's titular duo: Chico Rodriguez, a charming Chicano hustler who forms an unlikely bond with Jack Albertson's racist repair shop owner. Prinze, who was half-German and half-Puerto Rican, became the first Latino to star in an American TV sitcom since Desi Arnaz, though his cheeky humor and barrio-hipster image were far closer to Cheech & Chong than I Love Lucy. The role both fed off his streetwise stage persona and fit him like a glove. 

Chico and the Man debuted in the top 10 in the fall of 1974, and Prinze was soon booking Vegas gigs and signing film contracts worth millions of dollars. Sadly, drugs, depression and a penchant for playing Russian Roulette brought Prinze's life and promising career to a premature end; just over a week after he'd entertained newly-elected President Jimmy Carter at his inaugural ball, the stand-up put a pistol to his head and pulled the trigger. He was only 22 when he died.

Ellen deGeneres
8

‘Ellen’ (1994-1998)

Named Showtime's Funniest Person in America in 1982, Ellen DeGeneres scored another big break when her stand-up routine on the Tonight Show earned her a post-set conversation with Johnny Carson  — making her the first comedienne in the show's history to receive such on honor. A sitcom deal seemed inevitable after that, and eventually led to These Friends of Mine, which revolved around DeGeneres playing a L.A. bookstore employee (and later owner). After its first season, ABC just changed the name to Ellen, letting her amiable persona take center stage.

The show gained a loyal audience and was a great showcase for DeGeneres' natural charm. Then, 11 years later after the Carson landmark, she achieved an even more momentous television first; two months after outing herself as a lesbian while on The Oprah Winfrey Show, DeGeneres's character on Ellen came out of the closet to her therapist (played by Oprah), thus becoming the first gay lead character in TV history. Though the revelation changed the direction of the show, Ellen's (and Ellen's) dry observational wit remained delightfully intact.

Bob Newhart
7

‘The Bob Newhart Show’ (1972-1978)

Newhart was already a legend by the time he bagged his own sitcom in 1972 — his debut album, The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart, had knocked Elvis Presley off the top of the charts 12 years earlier. And oddly enough, the comedian's low-key, stammering, "solo straight man" style was a surprisingly perfect fit for Seventies TV. While so many other sitcoms of the day attempted to push the envelope with edgy humor and outrageous protagonists, the show's Robert Hartley was a stoic Midwestern psychologist who served as a bemused foil to a cast of characters that were all significantly groovier, louder and/or crazier than he was. You can imagine how a white middle class befuddled by the massive changes happening in Watergate-era America might certainly relate.

The Bob Newhart Show ran for six seasons on CBS, and the comic went on to essay a similarly buttoned-down shtick in Newhart, which ran on the same network from October 1982 to May 1990. Though both were undeniably great, the surprise appearance of Suzanne Pleshette (his wife on the original series) in the later program's finale served as a subtle acknowledgement that the original was still the best.

Louis CK
6

‘Louie’ (2010-Present)

Now entering its fifth season on FX, Louis C.K.'s extraordinary, surreal day-in-the-life is just the latest example of a stand-up comedian pushing the sitcom into uncharted territory. Though the show utilizes stand-up performance set pieces a la Seinfeld, C.K. consistently takes things into darker, more hilariously self-loathing places than even Larry David would dare visit, gleefully zig-zagging from tasteless to touching whenever the mood takes him. And the show has a knack for bringing the Louis of the stage — socially awkward, enraged, both enervated and exasperated by parenthood — into the title character that, tellingly, sort of but not quite shares his name. It's deeply personal, yet somehow not self-indulgent (or at least not in an off-putting way), and we'll be fascinated to see how Louie will influence other sitcoms in the coming years. As for now, it's simply one of the most original and unpredictable series currently on TV.

Roseanne Barr and John Goodman
5

‘Roseanne’ (1988-1997)

When the producers of The Cosby Show decided to build a series around a working class white family, Roseanne Barr was the ideal choice for the show's focal point. The result was the best blue-collar sitcom since All in the Family, taking Barr's abrasive "domestic goddess" act and running with it; she seemed like she was born to play the strong-willed, outspoken head of a Midwestern family struggling to make ends meet. Like the producer-star herself, Roseanne was unafraid to tackle typically sitcom-averse issues — domestic violence, mental illness, gay family members — and the show's portrayal of two working parents eking out a paycheck-to-paycheck existence struck as much of a chord with viewers as Barr's sarcastic humor did. It paved the way for other similar, and similarly successful, shows like Grace Under Fire, which featured stand-up comic Brett Butler as a working class single mom. But nobody did it better than Barr.

Bill Cosby
4

‘The Cosby Show’ (1984-1992)

In 1969, Bill Cosby became the first African-American to star in his own eponymously titled sitcom — The Bill Cosby Show, which ran on NBC for two seasons — and he enjoyed enormous success in the 1970s with the Saturday morning cartoon Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, whose characters were based on the childhood memories he humorously mined for his popular stand-up routines. But not even Fat Albert could touch the overwhelming pop cultural influence and Must-See TV bona fides of The Cosby Show.

As with Cosby's stand-up act and his best-selling comedy albums, this NBC hit was strictly family-oriented fare that never played race for laughs, despite its predominately African-American cast; in fact, many of its episodes would have been just as humorous if they'd been shot with an all-white cast. But Cosby's decision to make the show revolve around an upwardly mobile black family (as opposed to the working class family of his routines) was also key to the show's success; at a time when the crack epidemic was ravaging so many of America's African-American communities, the Huxtables were seen as a paragon of aspirational blackness. Recent events have undeniably cast the show and Cosby's friendly paterfamilias character in a different light, to say the least. But you can't ignore the fact that the show remains a primetime gamechanger and a great example of translating and expanding a comic's voice for the small screen.

Garry Shandling
3

‘It’s Garry Shandling’s Show’ (1986-1990)

It's no exaggeration to say that It's Garry Shandling's Show was far and away the most meta sitcom of its time; even the theme song broke the "fourth wall" by asking the listener what they thought of it. The stand-up played a slightly exaggerated himself on the show, i.e., a neurotic and immature stand-up comedian with his own television show, who lived in the San Fernando Valley — so far, a somewhat typical premise. The difference was that Shandling regularly broke away from the shenanigans at hand to address both the viewers at home and the audience in the studio — the latter of whom might be anyone from old-school comedian Red Buttons to Soul Train host Don Cornelius (popping in to analyze the 1988 presidential election) to Garry's garden tools-borrowing neighbor Tom Petty.

With its abstract in-jokes and unusual time shifts, IGSS — which debuted on Showtime and was also broadcast for a time by Fox — may have been a little too surreal for its time. But its influence is hugely apparent in everything from Seinfeld to Shandling's subsequent TV project The Larry Sanders Show, as well as any other Nineties comedy where the characters make self-aware comments to the camera.

Desmond Wilson and Red Foxx
2

‘Sanford & Son’ (1972-1977)

The casting of Redd Foxx — a stand-up comedian notorious in the Fifties and Sixties known for his "party records" — as Fred Sanford was a risky move on the part of producers Norman Lear and Bud Yorkin; this was a guy known to work as "blue" as possible and get down and dirty in his monologues. It turned out to be a stroke of genius: Foxx toned his raunchy ways down just enough for television, yet still retained enough of his rawness to make you believe that he really was an irascible junkman from Watts. It was arguably the least likely stand-up-stage-to-small-screen success story you could possibly imagine at the time.

Even more importantly, the enormously popular show made no apologies for the blackness of its characters or the funkiness of its urban setting, and thus influenced nearly every black sitcom that came after it. Sanford & Son also exposed mainstream America to such brilliant "chitlin' circuit" comedians as LaWanda Page, Don Bexley and Slappy White, none of whom would have likely ever made it to prime time without Foxx's intercession on their behalf. But the show was, and still is, a tribute to the charisma of its star — a comic who could move you without getting sentimental, then turn around and knock you over with a salty zinger.

ph
1

‘Seinfeld’ (1989-1998)

Though often characterized as "a show about nothing," Jerry Seinfeld's groundbreaking, side-splitting, "double-dipping" masterpiece on modern life was really a show about everything. Observational humor had long been the meat and potatoes of the star's stand-up routines, and he and co-creator Larry David made a veritable banquet out of it on the show, wherein practically any topic — parking garages, punching Mickey Mantle, lecherous dentists, the shaky-limb syndrome known as "Jimmy legs" — was fair game for hilarity. Seinfeld's intellectual stand-up persona set the tone for the show (quite literally, in the case of the early episodes book-ended by actual performances), and so many of its riffs and jokes entered the parlance of everyday American life that it's become hard to keep track of them all.

But what was really radical about Seinfeld was its attitude: There were no "very special" episodes, no tear-jerking interludes or teachable moments regarding social issues of the day — just four characters who were amoral, self-absorbed and constantly making a mess of their own lives. And if you weren't down with that, well, no soup for you! Of all the "standcoms" out there, this one remains the one that towers above them all — the master of its domain.