The first season of Louie, the FX sitcom written and directed by star Louis C.K., hits DVD and Blu-ray today; this innovative, somewhat subversive, and reliably uproarious series takes the notion of the tightly-constructed stand-up sit-com and turns it on its head, with a stream-of-consciousness narrative style and surrealist streak that brands it a true original. Of course, the stages of comedy clubs (and, before that, coffee houses and vaudeville stages) have been television’s most reliable source of comedy stars; Louie is the latest in a very long line of television series created for (and sometimes by) stand-up comedians.
In assembling this list of our favorites, we concentrated only on those who starred in their own series, rather than in a supporting role in someone else’s (so no Andy Kaufman, Patton Oswalt, David Cross, Billy Crystal, or Kathy Griffin); only those whose sitcoms were hits (sorry, Margaret Cho); and only those who were successful stand-ups first (hence, no Larry David — by his own admission). The rest is opinion, and sorry, there’s no convincing us that either Tim Allen’s stand-up act or Home Improvement were funny. With those parameters in mind, our list of the best stand-ups-turned-sitcom stars is after the jump.
We don’t tend to think of Benny as a “stand-up comic,” because he was mostly doing it before the term existed. But on the vaudeville stages of 1910s and 1920s, Benny was a comic monologist, doing a “patter-and-fiddle” act and slowly developing the comic character that he would take to radio in the 1930s and 1940s on his durable and popular Jack Benny Program. That show made the transition to television in 1950; both radio show and the early seasons of the television version would begin with Benny doing a monologue for the audience, before continuing into the show proper, and these monologues helped further establish the Benny character (perpetually 39-year-old skinflint, egotist, and untalented violinist). In the second half of is run, The Jack Benny Program developed into a more traditional sitcom (with a crew of broad but relatable characters), and became the one of the format’s template shows for years to come.