Stand-up comedians have been hugely influential in entertainment. In fact, it seems safe to say they’ve influenced how many people think, and often in some very positive ways.
Just as importantly, they have done their primary job: Making us laugh. While the stage is great, they have a way of also making it onto TV, often giving us iconic characters and huge laughs. Here are 10 of the best landmark TV shows from stand-up comedians between 1972 and 1995.
Sanford and Son (1972–1977)
One of the greatest sitcoms of all time, Sanford and Son was about Fred (Redd Foxx) and Lamont Sanford (Demond Wilson), who own an antique (or “junk”) shop in Los Angeles. If you’ve ever watched the show, you’ll recognize the classic comedy dynamic of Fred as the lovable (though cantankerous) goofball and Lamont as the straight man.
Fred’s classic lines include “How’d you like five of these across your lips?,” which he’d say while brandishing his fist, and his simulated heart attacks, where he’d declare, “This is the big one, Elizabeth! I’m coming to join ya, honey!” Of course, like many legendary stand up comedians, Red Foxx was being sarcastic.
Being a comedy, one would expect some madcap situations, and these often involved Fred trying to get rich to avoid going deeper into debt. Also, even though Fred is usually less polite than his son, the character follows the Archie Bunker dynamic of ultimately having a “good heart” during key moments, despite being harsh in others.
Though Sanford and Lamont have fallen out over various issues, they always overcome their differences. Of course, one can’t talk Sanford and Son without Aunt Esther (LaWanda Page). Like Red Foxx, Page had already been established for her raunchy comedic skills on stage. Not once did it rank in the number one rating slot. However, it still got huge ratings, until its 6th and final season. In fact, it’s often considered the show that “killed” The Brady Bunch!
One of television’s most popular programs, ABC’s Roseanne did a commendable job of showcasing life for an ordinary, working-class family. Wife, mother, and often hard worker, Roseanne Conner (Roseanne Barr) is a historical and memorable character. The character’s sarcasm and brash nature made her seem real, and the Conner family regularly had to deal with regular issues, such as paying bills, as well as occasional bits of family drama. So, while Roseanne had plenty of laughs, it was almost always grounded in reality (well, until season 9, anyway).
After a long hiatus, Roseanne returned briefly for a successful 10th season. However, the new series was canceled after Roseanne Barr made a Tweet against former Obama advisor Valerie Jarrett which many considered racist.
However, this doesn’t mean the old Roseanne episodes aren’t worth checking out, assuming you don’t find the entire brand irreparably damaged. After all, a TV series (like any media venture) can always have a mixed legacy, and art needn’t always be associated with an artist’s flaws. Roseanne also starred John Goodman, Laurie Metcalf, Sara Gilbert, Michael Fishman, Lecy Goranson, Johnny Galecki, Martin Mull. and many others.
The Kids in the Hall (1988–2021)
The Kids in the Hall owe plenty to Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michaels, who put the troupe through a “comedy boot camp” and helped establish their show on HBO and CBC. Of course, some people came to also know the show from its appearances on Comedy Central. It was a bit of a different venture for Michaels. Unlike SNL, which moved from host to host and had special musical guests, The Kids in the Hall focused entirely on the strange and wonderful comedic talents of Dave Foley, Kevin McDonald, Bruce McCulloch, Mark McKinney, and Scott Thompson.
There are so many memorable characters and moments, it’s honestly hard to choose the absolute best ones. Maybe you like McCulloch’s Bobby Terrance, who seems to think life is like a music video (and if you were alive in MTV’s heyday, you’d better appreciate the character). Maybe you want to be regaled with a story from Thompson’s illustrious, exceedingly macho gay character, Buddy Cole? Do you like a good freakshow? Well, step right up to meet Mark McKinney’s The Chicken Lady!
Feel like singing the blues? McKinney’s Mississippi Gary may be ultra-politically incorrect today, but back then he was one of the hippest bluesmen the sketch comedy world could muster up! Then there’s Mr. Tyzik (McKinney), head crusher extraordinaire, the “Nobody Likes Us” guys (Dave Foley and Kevin McDonald), the sleazy cabbage headed “Don Juan” named Cabbage Head (McCulloch). 30 Helens Agree that you should commemorate your Daves, hug your favorite terrier, and revisit The Kids in the Hall!
Whose Line Is It Anyway? (UK and American versions, 1988–)
Whether you prefer the original UK version or its American spinoffs, there are plenty of laughs to be had in these incredible improv comedy series. Hosted by the acerbic Clive Anderson, the UK series often featured brilliant improv from stand up comedians like Paul Merton, Josie Lawrence, Sandi Toksvig, Tony Slattery, Mike McShane, and Stephen Frost. Many performers from the UK version ultimately participated in the Drew Carey-hosted US version as well. These include the iconic duo of Ryan Stiles and Colin Mochrie, and the quick-witted and talented likes of Wayne Brady, Greg Proops, Brad Sherwood, g Denny Siegel, Kathy Greenwood, Jeff Davis, Patrick Bristow.
Although both versions seemed finished for a time, the CW has a new version hosted by Aisha Tyler, which is still going strong. All episodes seem to be available online, with all of the US episodes appearing for free on the CW’s website. In other words, you can see them play games like World’s Worst, Scenes from a Hat, Greatest Hits, Props, Hoedown, Helping Hands, Questions Only, and Party Quirks, as well as when the cast riffs off each other.
Long story short, the comedians of Whose Line Is It Anyway? are arguably the champs of improv comedy, representing some of the best, most creative, and spontaneous comic minds, each with their own specialty. Also, if you happen to be in the audience, there’s always a chance you could become a guest. Audience participants have created some of the funniest moments, as well as celebrity guests (Seriously, the Richard Simmons episode is perhaps the absolute highlight of the entire series’ run).
One Night Stand (1989–1992)
HBO’s One Night Stand was obviously just stand-up routines and meeting comedy icons, but isn’t that enough sometimes? If you tuned in, you might have heard some unspeakable material from comedians like Bill Hicks, Bill Maher, Gilbert Gottfried, Norm Macdonald, Eddie Griffin, Martin Lawrence, D.L. Hughley, Damon Wayans, and Ellen DeGeneres, and Louis C.K. The series was highly successful and ran for four seasons, with a short-lived revival in 2005. In some cases, individual episodes could be regarded as a future-of-television talent. Not only did these stand-up comedians have star power, but influential material and styles.
Practically everyone has heard of “Seinfeld.” “Seinfeld” happened to become mainstream yet somehow retained the “raw” feel of a show at cult-favorite status. In addition to Jerry Seinfeld, the show drew people in with its iconic main characters: George Costanza (Jason Alexander), Elaine Benes (Julia Louis-Dreyfus). With its scattershot retellings of everyday life, people could relate to “Seinfeld’s unique moments and, occasionally, we’d get unexpected insight into how his world actually works.
Of course, it is a crime to forget other great characters from the show, like Newman (Wayne Knight), Frank (Jerry Stiller) and Estelle Costanza (Estelle Harris), Peterman (John O’Hurley), The Soup Nazi (Larry Thomas), and a steady stream of other guest stars. In addition to Kramer’s eccentricities, you have George’s insecurity, and Elaine and Jerry’s neuroses (especially Jerry, he seems hellbent on having the cleanest, best bathroom in the world.
It’s unclear why the series ended as awkwardly as it did, but it had an amazing run. Also, the “no hugging, no learning” rule was undoubtedly influential on It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, which has often been called “Seinfeld on crack.”
In Living Color (1990–1994)
In addition to introducing millions to Damon, Kim, Shawn, Marlon, and Keenen Ivory Wayans, In Living Color also gave us Jamie Foxx, Jim Carrey, Tommy Davidson, David Alan Grier, Kelly Coffield, and T’Keyah Crystal Keymáh. And yes, Jennifer Lopez was one of The Fly Girls. The series addressed certain topics, of course, but almost never dropped the humor, and really didn’t hold back against any group (arguably an important trait in honest comedy).
The show also wasn’t particularly agenda-driven. So, even though there weren’t many sketches about, let’s say, white actors who had played African-American roles, you had plenty of parodies of white rappers (Vanilla Ice/Snow, both depicted by Jim Carrey).
Racial dynamics often were not an afterthought, but there was equal emphasis on zany characters. Examples: Homey D. Clown (Damon Wayans), Benita Buttrel (Kim Wayans), Bluesman Calhoun Tubbs (Grier), and “Fire Marshal Bill” (Carrey). The series ran for 5 seasons on FOX, ending in 1994 with episode 127.
Home Improvement (1991–1999)
Some will argue against this being a “landmark” series, but it actually sort of is. With 8 seasons and a total of 204 episodes, Home Improvement helped put Tim Allen on the map, and (much like Beavis and Butthead) the show is probably smarter than many give it credit for. Now, some people will hate that fact, but others loved it. The point is, this show was built to last, as it was a simple enough concept that most people could get it. Also, even though many forget this: Before this sitcom, Tim Allen was considered an edgy stand-up comedian.
In any case, Tim “The Tool Man” Taylor resonated with people, with Wikipedia brilliantly summing up part of his character’s schtick: “He often voices apelike grunts in a range of tones and inflections to convey emotions for comic effects, such as confusion, irritation, or pride.” Tim’s family also includes wife Jill (Patricia Richardson), and his three sons, Brad (Zachery Ty Bryan), Randy (Jonathan Taylor Thomas), and Mark (Taran Noah Smith).
Though part of its appeal involved hokey “family values,” Home Improvement didn’t just say, “What a modern world, eh?” It was, in many ways, a celebration of modernity, with Tim always wanting the latest, high-powered technology. It was, in many ways, a weekly ode to industrial progress. Though it had dramatic moments, it was usually just silly, with plenty of sitcom tropes blended with Allen’ feelgood, slapstick hijinks.
Tim would get advice from his wise neighbor, Wilson (Earl Hindman), and his show-within-a-show, “Tool Time,” relied heavily on Tim’s co-host, Al Borland (Richard Karn), to show you how to safely improve your home. Still, when asked if the show has aged particularly well, many would echo Al’s catchphrase, “I don’t think so, Tim.”
George Carlin: Jammin’ in New York (1992 TV Special)
It’s not controversial to say it: George Carlin is one of the greatest stand-up comedians of all time. Part of Carlin’s legendary persona was that, for some time after watching one of his specials, he would continue to make you think. His ideas and jokes could linger in your mind long after it was over.
This is the advantage of the philosophical comedian. Yes, we might recognize Jay Leno as a celebrity, but how many of his jokes might have kept viewers up in bed, probably lost in thought? For George Carlin, a standup special seemed to be more than a show, and he is every bit as great for his ideas as he is for the laughs.
Yes, comedy was still show business, but his business ended up giving people the business. For his HBO special Jammin’ in New York,” he spoke in plain English on issues like the Persian Gulf War and exposed the demented thinking that goes on. He refers to us as “warlike people,” and little has changed since 1992. Frankly, current events might have been enough to push someone like Carlin (or Bill Hicks) over the edge. Still, one can’t help but wonder what he would have thought about 2020.
Mr. Show with Bob and David (1995–1998)
In addition to further establishing stand up comedians Bob Odenkirk and David Cross, “Mr. Show with Bob and David” had plenty of celebrity guest stars such as Sarah Silverman, Paul F. Tompkins, Jack Black, Brian Posehn, and Mary Lynn Rajskub (among others). Although the series ran for 4 seasons, there are a scant 30 episodes. Luckily, the creative team crammed a lot of comedy within those time constraints.
Though Odenkirk and Cross weren’t the first ultra-bizarre sketch comedy series, their style was still somewhat unique, possibly even more manic in some ways than even Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Much of Mr. Show was shot on videotape in front of a live audience, capturing raw energy.
Did we overlook any great shows that featured stand-up comedians? Let us know in the comments!