5 Stand-Up Comics Who Made Terrible Sitcoms
Many moons ago, in a dark and mysterious time known as the mid ’80s, television developed a certain trend in its programming that has stuck with us to this day. The trend started as a successful fluke; then, a few years later, the fluke repeated itself. By the mid ’90s, this “trend” had repeated itself so many times that it became a sort of go-to business model for television executives across the industry, leading to some of the greatest (and worst) shows ever made. I’m talking, of course, about the firmly-entrenched tradition of building an entire sitcom around a stand-up comic, with the expectation that their comedy chops and built-in audience will lead to ratings gold and Emmys galore.
In truth, it all started with the Bob Newhart-led sitcoms The Bob Newhart Show and Newhart in the ’70s. However, it wasn’t until the success of 1984’s The Cosby Show — followed later by ’90s ratings behemoths Roseanne and Seinfeld — that networks started to put a hell of a lot of eggs in stand-up-turned-sitcom-star basket. Though most of these shows weren’t nearly as successful as their predecessors, some fared relatively well (i.e. Grace Under Fire, The Drew Carey Show, or Martin). By the late ’90s, however, most of the entries in this genre were remarkable embarrassments for everyone involved (i.e. Bless This House or anything starring Tom Arnold).
Earlier this year, the tradition continued when the incredibly talented and hilarious comic John Mulaney created the short-lived and universally reviled Mulaney. With five years of writing for SNL under his belt and a thriving stand-up career, he seemed like the perfect candidate to helm exactly this type of show: a charmingly self-deprecating lead whose observational comedy chops are some of the best in the game.
Alas, the show was terrible.
Mr. Mulaney is in good company, however. You don’t have to be a miserably untalented wretch like Tom Arnold to make a bad sitcom; in fact, some of the most amazing comedians of the past few decades found themselves starring in complete disasters. As a reminder that even the mightiest of talents can fail big, let’s look back at some of the other epically talented stand-up comics who made ill-fated, poorly received series. You’re not alone, John Mulaney!
1. Ellen DeGeneres, The Ellen Show (2001-2002)
At this point, you may be thinking something like, “Wait, I thought Ellen’s sitcom was kind of successful? At least up until her character came out of the closet in the last season and America freaked out.” You, sir or madam, are correct! Her FIRST sitcom Ellen was quite successful until its controversial final season in 1998. Unfortunately, her completely forgotten sophomore attempt at primetime comedy, The Ellen Show, had terrible ratings from day one. Her character was an out lesbian who moves in with her crazy family after her tech start-up goes under; hijinks ensue. It’s a fairly stereotypical premise, but when you look at who was involved with this show (on and off camera), it’s a pity that The Ellen Show didn’t fare better with audiences. It starred fellow stand-up comedian Jim Gaffigan, comedy legends Cloris Leachman and Martin Mull, and was even written by Arrested Development creator Mitchell Hurwitz. Incidentally, Hurwitz even re-used the joke in the clip above about “finishing each others sandwiches” in Arrested Development‘s fourth season.
2. Wanda Sykes, Wanda At Large (2003)
Wanda Sykes had been slaying audiences with her acerbic stand-up act for years before Fox gave her her own show. It started as a mid-season replacement (rarely a good sign that a show will succeed), but initially the ratings weren’t actually that bad, thanks in large part to its post-American Idol time slot at a time when that show was still a big deal. The series may not have been an “embarrassment,” per se, but only because it was far too milquetoast to be either truly amazing or offensively terrible. That was actually sort of the problem, especially considering Sykes had made her name in stand-up with fresh takes on controversial topics like abortion, race, and marriage. It’s no surprise that the uber-conservative constraints of network television weren’t able to capture her brilliance; after the show was moved to a Friday night time slot the audience dwindled, and the show was canceled abruptly during its second season.
3. George Carlin, The George Carlin Show (1994-1995)
Especially since his passing, Carlin has been canonized as one of the great saints of stand-up comedy, paving the way for the likes of Janeane Garafalo, Mark Maron, and Louis C.K. A brilliant thinker and expert wordsmith, his act broke new ground decade after decade, so obviously Fox executives thought they had a shoe-in success in a Carlin-centric sitcom: put him in a bar, surround him with gruff working class friends, throw in a fancy lady as a comedic foil, WHO WON’T LOVE IT?
George Carlin, for starters. The show lasted two short seasons, and once it was canceled due to poor ratings, Carlin opened up about his distaste for the show and tensions with his co-creator, Sam Simon. As Carlin posted on his website after the cancellation, “Lesson learned: always check mental health of creative partner beforehand. Loved the actors, loved the crew. Had a great time. Couldn’t wait to get the fuck out of there.”
4. Whoopi Goldberg, Whoopi (2003-2004)
Whoopi Goldberg has had an incredibly successful run as a comic, actor, and daytime television host. Lest anyone forget, the woman is one of the impressive few to EGOT (a term used for anyone who has won an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony) and she’s been a household name for three decades. Unfortunately, none of that did anything to disguise the stench emanating from the gigantic dog turd that was Whoopi.
In the show, Goldberg played Mavis Rae, a hard-drinking, chain-smoking, menopausal former musician who owns and operates a hotel in Manhattan. Sitcoms based on characters who own hotels have been around for decades (Petticoat Junction ring any bells?), but the premise was actually just a flimsy platform for Goldberg to do what she usually does best: rail against conservative America and make fun of white people. In hindsight, it actually had the elements of a hilarious hit show; it’s a pity how lazy writing and strangely contrived production values can warp a premise. It lasted one season before quietly getting the ax.
5. Louis C.K., Lucky Louie (2006-2007)
It’s hard to remember the time before Louis C.K. became the celebrated auteur that we know him as today. At this point, we kind of take take his genius as a granted fact of the universe, but in fact he spent decades honing his craft in near obscurity, fighting constantly for artistic control of his television endeavors.
Lucky Louie was one such endeavor, and while it wasn’t exactly a bad show, its quality pales in comparison to the deliriously brilliant heights reached by his current series Louie. The biggest reason it didn’t work is that it forced Louis C.K. — one of the bluest comedians of our generation — into a four-camera sitcom (laugh track and all), and tried to sell him as a King of Queens-style working class father (which is even weirder when you consider that it was on HBO, of all places). Though he and his costar Pamela Adlon are fantastic in it — and many of the jokes have that existential wit that the comic is known for — C.K.’s more nuanced sensibilities didn’t translate to the dying format of the four-camera sitcom. The show aired only 12 episodes before its cancellation.
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