At the peak of the standup boom in the late 80’s, network TV executives started figuring out that the comedy clubs were a great minor league system for sitcoms. During the next decade there was a signing wave for comedians. It was kind of like record execs running to Seattle to sign every band hoping they would become the next Nirvana, Pearl Jam, or Soundgarden. With Roseanne Barr, Tim Allen, Brett Butler, Garry Shandling, Jerry Seinfeld, Paul Reiser, Richard Lewis, Anthony Clark, Christopher Titus, Drew Carey, Martin Lawrence, Steve Harvey, Mark Curry, etc. having so much success on TV loads of other comics got development deals. Many of them got shows on the air, even though they didn’t have ratings success. (see Richard Jeni, John Camponera, Margaret Cho, Thea Vidale, Jim Gaffigan, Jay Mohr, Jeff Foxworthy, Tom Rhodes, Greg Giraldo, etc.) I’m simplifying my theory, but I always felt Friends ruined this formula as networks discovered they could create successful sitcoms with people who were pretty enough to get in People or US magazine, plus would be shown on ET or Access Hollywood. Everybody Loves Raymond was the last great sitcom with this formula and Romano was able to get standups like Brad Garrett, Patton Oswalt, Andy Kindler, and Kevin James (great spinoff from it) on his show, but Raymond seems to be the last hurrah of this standup comedian driven formula.
I’m biased, but I think all these pretty people Friends rip-offs damaged sitcoms. When everyone is pretty, it takes away comedy believability. Why would a screen-full of Jennifer Aniston knockoffs be so neurotic? You understand why a guy like Larry David would be filled with angst and disgust for the human race, but Ashton Kutcher? Once again, I’m biased, but I believe after touring the country doing clubs you get a real radar for what most of America finds funny. TV execs still try to create sitcoms made up mainly of beautiful people, but they have moved away somewhat from that model over the past decade to include improv actors. Shows like the Office are filled with these types (following SNL’s lead?) and these people have much better comedy instincts than the Beautiful Ones, but they are still ACTORS first. My problem with improv actors is that that they are willing to throw reality out the window to explore wacky characters, where if you watch Roseanne or Raymond the characters never did anything that didn’t seem true to life.
Most younger comics I know discuss how they love the Simpsons or Family Guy above all shows. I agree that they are hilarious and pretty brilliant, but they don’t have the same degree of difficulty as a traditional sitcom, because animation allows their characters to do anything. Now a show like King of the Hill followed the same reality rules as an All in the Family, which is why I always thought the show was underrated. Look, I grew up loving Monty Python and I think FX’s Winfred is hilarious, so I’m not telling anyone that there is only one way to do comedy, I’m just offering up that it’s a harder degree of difficulty to keep characters based in complete reality. That is why I have a little more respect for Modern Family than I do for Arrested Development. I think Arrested Development was the most brilliant sitcom ever of this style, but almost every character on the show was unhinged, where Modern Family is filled with characters who behave like people I know. When you write a show like that, it makes it’s harder, but it gives you a chance to reach a wider audience if you can pull it off.
I post this theory getting me to the point of my piece. Don’t go into standup with a the idea that it’s your conduit to becoming a TV star. Those days are in the rear view mirror. Hopefully a new Roseanne or Seinfeld will come along that inspires network execs to change their mind on this front, but I don’t think it’s going to happen anytime soon. Probably your best chance of transitioning your act to TV is following Louis CK’s lead, but that was a long road of making his own films (before any other standup was doing this) and writing for TV and movies before building up enough credence to get a basic cable show. Louie is the best show on TV right now, but it’s an amazing situation where CK has nearly complete control over it, which keeps the artistic levels so high. (insert too many chefs making soup cliche)
When I hear young standups tell me they are getting into the biz because they want to be TV stars, I tell them they should move to Chicago and take some improv classes there. I guess your other option would be to move to LA, be as pretty as people on Friends, and hire Barry Katz to be your manager. (See Whitney Cummings) The odds were always difficult to make a sitcom happen, but now it’s nearly impossible for standups. Become a comic for the right reasons. Do it because you have so much angst that you need to share it with the world. Do it because you are passionate about getting up onstage and making people laugh. Do it because you respect standup comedy over every other art form. Don’t do it because it is a stepping stone to some other type of entertainment you dream of. Who knows if you become great at standup, it might lead to something more lucrative. Even if you do become a big TV star you will still remember the biggest rush you will ever have is writing a joke that day and it killing that night onstage.