At breakfast today, Robin brought up an interesting question: who was the first stand-up comic to do a TV sitcom. She thought we could start with Roseanne and work backwards, and I quickly came up with Redd Foxx. I told her I loved the question because it made me think, no matter what the answer was. What is a sitcom? When did they begin? What actually makes a performer a stand-up comic? And what is the history of stand-up comedy and situation comedies? Off the top of my head, I assume stand-up evolved out of vaudeville, and sitcoms began with radio. I also felt we were asking something more specific than was stated: did the comic have to star in the series? Did the sitcom have to begin as a TV series and not as a continuation of a radio show?
When we got home, I started searching. I know I’ve missed a lot … this list is tentative … and I know I am stretching the definitions of both stand-up comic and TV sitcom. But here are some early examples of sitcoms with stand-up comics, in reverse chronology.
Bill Cosby, The Bill Cosby Show. This debuted in the fall of 1969. Cos played a high-school P.E. teacher. It wasn’t his first series, of course … that would be I Spy, which ran from 1965-8. But that show wasn’t a comedy.
Phyllis Diller, The Pruitts of Southampton (later The Phyllis Diller Show). This one debuted in the fall of 1966, and featured Diller as the head of a rich family that had gone broke. It only lasted one season. The most remarkable thing to me was that none of the various lists I checked out mentioned this series. Diller was one of the people Robin and I thought of over breakfast; she seemed like an obvious choice. But, as usual, Diller has to fight for recognition.
Joey Bishop, The Joey Bishop Show. This was a spin-off from another series I’ll get to shortly. It had a checkered existence, at least at first. Bishop played a press agent, but after the first season, the show was revamped with a new cast, and Bishop became a talk-show host. It ran for four seasons, beginning in the fall of 1961.
Andy Griffith, The Andy Griffith Show. This is tricky, because I’m not sure Griffith was ever what we think of as a stand-up comedian. He was a monologist, and his story about a football game sold almost a million copies in 1953. He had other recordings … I can recall his Hamlet … but I understand he might not qualify for this discussion. Anyway, his series began in the fall of 1960.
Joe E. Ross, You’ll Never Get Rich (later The Phil Silvers Show). This show, which began in the fall of 1955, is often remembered as “Sgt. Bilko”. Ross was not the star, but just one of many supporting characters, so you might not want to allow this one. He was the co-star of Car 54 Where Are You?, which debuted in 1961, and even later, It’s About Time.
Danny Thomas, Make Room for Daddy (later The Danny Thomas Show). This show, which debuted in the fall of 1953, was eventually the parent of Joey Bishop’s spin-off. It ran for eleven seasons. I don’t know if Thomas ever did stand-up … he was a radio performer from the beginning of his career, so he may not qualify.
Jack Benny, The Jack Benny Program. Began its TV run in the fall of 1950, but the radio version (one of the greatest radio comedies of all time) goes back all the way to 1932.
George Burns and Gracie Allen, The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show. The TV version began a couple of weeks before Benny, so they get the “oldest” prize so far. They came out of vaudeville, so I suppose your opinion about whether they qualify depends on how you define stand-up comedy. To be honest, I’m having a bit of trouble pinning down the debut of the radio show … call it 1934.
I remember every one of these TV shows, which can’t be said for the last entry. I thought of Morey Amsterdam for his work on The Dick Van Dyke Show, but he’d been on TV long before that:
Morey Amsterdam, The Morey Amsterdam Show. The first episode aired on December 12, 1948, and ran for 71 episodes. Amsterdam played himself, and it seemed to have a variety show format, but Wikipedia calls it a sitcom.
Here is Andy Griffith’s classic “What It Was, Was Football”: