Stand-Up Movie Stars?

Being a successful stand-up comic may get you the lead in a situation comedy, but as Ray Romano is only the latest to find out, it doesn’t necessarily translate to big screen success.

In the early days, there were a few vaudevillians like W.C. Fields who made a few successful movies. Recently, Robin Williams has probably been the most successful. Billy Crystal has had a pretty good run, but he can’t “open” a movie like Tom Hanks, or even Meg Ryan, could.

Off the top of my head, only Williams, Bob Hope and Jerry Lewis come to mind as being well known for their comedy routines who were “big stars” when it came to movies. Even George Burns had to wait until he was in his 70s to find movie success. Jackie Gleason had some decent dramatic roles, but he was more of a sketch comic. Ditto (in my opinion) for the Marx Brothers and Eddie Murphy.

It seems that more often, even an extremely successful standup (Milton Berle, Buddy Hackett, Bill Cosby, George Carlin) can’t make that success translate to movies.


Steve Martin has been pretty successful, I’d say.

Jim Carrey and Adam Sandler both did standup once upon a time and are now both huge movie stars, like it or not.

Thing is, standup is only the first step in becoming a modern comedy star. First you do standup, then you do TV–either sketch comedy or a sitcom–and then you try for the movies. Since you get far more exposure appearing on a regular TV series than doing standup, by the time you hit the big nobody remembers about your standup roots (unless, like Jerry Seinfeld, it was part of your TV persona.)

Eddie Murphy?

(Well he USED to be a big movie star.)

Not so. Burns and Allen were a top movie draw in the 30s. B&A’s career waned in the 40s, until they went into TV, and later George made a comeback in films.

The most obvious example from the older films were Abbott and Costello. They were monster film draws in the 40s

Even bigger overall are Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. Both had long careers as film actors.

**Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy ** started in standup and radio and were a film success in the 30s, though radio was their forte.

Whoopi Goldberg had a few notable top-billing film successess (e.g., Sister Act) after a successful standup career, although she’s done many more supporting roles lately.

Although he hasn’t achieved Hollywood success (so if that’s the standard, ignore the rest of this paragraph), I’ve heard that Billy Connelly, the quintissential Scottish stand-up, has achieved quite a bit of success as a dramatic actor in the UK.

Also, I feel strangely compelled to mention Kevin Pollack even though he doesn’t fit the “big star” characterization from the OP. I loved his stand up routine – he had one of the best stunted-speech William Shatner/Captain Kirk bits around – and has done great work in a range of movie roles, includingA Few Good Men, The Usual Suspects, and The Whole Nine Yards.

Richard Pryor, Chris Rock, Bill Cosby, Cheech and Chong and Woody Allen all started out as stand-ups. It’s not a great way to break into movies, but quite a few have managed.

Tim Allen’s another one who’s done the standup-to-sitcom-to-movies route pretty successfully.

[David Letterman] “I was in Cabin Boy!” [/Letterman]

Though he wasn’t well-known as a stand-up comic, that’s how Kevin Spacey started out.

Standup comedy is a hard term to define, as Comedy Central just proved with their 100 Greatest Standups.

But I can’t make the term stretch far enough to include Jerry Lewis. He did all kinds of funny schtick with Dean Martin, but he was never a standup.

Whoopie Goldberg became famous by doing a one-woman show of a variety of characters, which is similar to what Lily Tomlin did, but neither of them are really standup comics.

George Burns and Gracie Allen were never stars. I think they headlined all of three pictures, and played comic sidekicks or comic relief in several others.

The same even more so for Edgar Bergen. And Jack Benny.

Will Rogers had a better movie career than any of these did; he just died too young for us to remember that today.

Does Danny Kaye count as a stand-up? He was a huge star for a while, though he’s mostly forgotten now.

Phil Silvers and Red Skelton both had solid careers in movies. Skelton headlined a number of films in the 1940s while Silvers was the comic lead in many.

Back on Comedy Central. Looking at their top 20, I see the following who starred in movies: Richard Pryor, Woody Allen*, Chris Rock, Steve Martin, Rodney Dangerfield,Bill COsby, Eddie Murphy, Robin Williams.

Who else from farther down that hasn’t been mentioned? Albert Brooks, Martin Lawrence, Dana Carvey.

Oops, now we’re back to having to define “star,” aren’t we? :slight_smile:
*Mel Brooks has to be mentioned here someplace. He did do the 2000-year old man routines with Carl Reiner that were closer to stand-up than a lot of other names here before he hit it big with his movies.

Gotta disagree with you on this. He may have dabbled in stand-up at some point, but he was on an “actor” track all the way through high school and college, according to IMDB and a friend of mine who went to college with him (in LA, pre-Julliard).

While we can come up with a lot of older standups who have made successful movies, it appears that there have been quite few jumps of late. No doubt related to the Death of Standup in the early 90s. Discuss…

How and when did stand-up die in the early '90s?

I was actually going to mention an early '90s stand-up comic who went on to a very decent and prolific (if not A-list) movie career: Denis Leary. He actually works best in serious roles, but his stand-up routine was always recycled Bill Hicks-style rants anyway, and never terribly funny.

Again, while she isn’t a movie “star,” I think Janeane Garofalo became a household name after moving from a stand-up career to being on The Ben Stiller Show and a forgettable season of SNL, to several movie roles. Unfortunately, she almost always plays a supporting part, and never a lead.

I’d say Jim Carrey, Adam Sandler, and Chris Rock are the best recent examples of breakthrough stand-up comics, but they are all known for their sketch comedy beginnings as well.

I LOVE Janeane Garofalo! She sits atop the entire hierarchy in my “book of goddesses”. If I comment on a potential candidate for the book, and someone asks me who’s in it, Ms. Garofalo’s name is automatically uttered - but never in vain. :wink:

The Truth About Cats & Dogs is one of my favorite films, as is Copland with Sylvester Stallone. She should have had a much bigger part in the latter. (Though the role may have fallen victim to editing.) Unfortunately, I don’t think she’s making much effort these days to find film work.

I was surprised the OP missed Jim Carrey. He had a very successful career as a stand-up and is now one of the biggest movie stars around. (I haven’t looked at the other thread discussing the “biggest” male movie stars of today, but I’d put Carrey on the list, and very close to the top.)

Chris Rock was and still is a successful stand-up, and although his film success isn’t huge, he consistently gets roles, and is a decent actor, IMO.

(But Rock has only headlined a few films so far, and none have impressed me in any way. I just keep thinking of that terrible Heaven Can Wait remake Down to Earth (2001). Although Rock was the main man behind the making of the film, he mis-cast himself in the lead role. The character should have been played by a white actor acting “black”. It totally ruined the comedic potential of the film just seeing Chris Rock be Chris Rock. Where’s the comedy in that?)

I never knew Adam Sandler had done stand-up, though it’s not surprising. Did he work stand-up for very long before joining Saturday Night Live?


Although he hasn’t been around long, Aussie Eric Bana The Hulk, Troy, Black Hawk Down and Chopper started out as a standup comic for a short time.

Billy Connolly routinely shows up in all sorts of character-actor type places. Latest is that Tom Cruise samurai thing.

Does Jack Black count? I don’t know that he ever did pure stand-up comedy, but Tenacious D was a combined stand-up/music act.