There’s an old showbiz saying: comedy looks easy, but it’s actually much harder than drama. Whether or not the saying is true is besides the point. Stand-up comics, unlike actors on the big screen, have to perform without the aid of other actors or movie illusions. A comic relies solely on his own energy and stage presence to command and capture an audience.
It should come as little surprise, then, that a number of comedians who begin on the bare stand-up stage go on to become successful actors, and sometimes, even major stars. We’ve listed 15 of the most successful here for your reading pleasure. Note, however, that for the purposes of this article, we’ve included only stand-up comedians, not comics who started in improv or sketch comedy shows. Unfortunately, that rules out comic legends like Bill Murray, Emma Thompson, Peter Sellars, Carol Burnett, Mike Myers and Julila Louis-Dreyfuss. Still, the actors that rose from the ranks of stand-up comedy clubs have their own distinction. Learn more about it here, with 15 Great Actors Who Started As Stand-Up Comics!
Brooklyn-born Murphy grew up in poverty and began performing his own comedy routines at the tender age of 15. His work and New York roots attracted the attention of the producers of Saturday Night Live, who cast him in the show for the 1980 season. Murphy quickly excelled, becoming a break-out member of the cast. By 1982 his explosively controversial brand of comedy had earned him quite a following, and he began releasing comedy albums. He also starred in his first movie, 48 Hrs., the same year. The film became an immediate hit, and helped Murphy earn a reputation as a comic leading man.
Murphy followed up his box office success with hits like Beverly Hills Cop, The Golden Child and Coming to America. The latter saw Murphy earn a new level of respect as an actor, playing multiple roles in the film through the use of make-up and prosthetics. In 1996, however, Murphy raised the bar on his level of performances in The Nutty Professor, a film which saw him play six (arguably seven) characters! Murphy again topped himself in 2007, scoring an Oscar nomination for his work in the musical Dreamgirls. Though his film output has since declined, he continues to act today.
Richard Pryor grew up in an Illinois brothel, the son of a prostitute. After his mother abandoned him at age 10, Pryor fell into the custody of his violent grandmother, who continued to abuse him throughout his childhood. After a brief stint in the army, Pryor began playing nightclubs as both a musician and comedian at age 23. His comedy work earned him significant notice, netting him appearances on popular late-night shows like The Tonight Show and spots at Las Vegas comedy clubs. As his comedy work grew more and more controversial, Pryor also began acting in films. He first worked with Diana Ross in Lady Sings the Blues, which earned him strong critical notice for his performance as a jazz musician. Subsequent film outings made poor use of his talents, however; Superman III, Moving and The Toy all earned critical lambasting. But critics never attacked Pryor for his abilities as a performer, merely for his choices of material.
Pryor long struggled with drug and alcohol abuse, and in 1980, suffered a near-fatal burn incident after setting fire to himself while freebasing cocaine. Several years after, doctors diagnosed Pryor with multiple sclerosis, a disease which forced his retirement by the late 1990s. He died of MS complications in 2005.
Lily Tomlin grew up in Michigan, and had little interest in showbusiness through most of her early life. While studying biology at Wayne State University, Tomlin decided to audition for a play which had a radical effect on her life. She changed her major to theatre, and began performing stand-up comedy in local nightclubs. Her stand-up attracted the attention of the producers of Laugh-In, the notorious 1960s sketch comedy show. Her performances as signature characters like Edith Ann and Ernestine the telephone operator brought her instant notoriety, and Tomlin continued to perform on various television shows throughout the decade.
Tomlin struck cinematic gold in 1975 working with acclaimed director Robert Altman on the musical Nashville. She earned rave reviews for her dramatic turn as a gospel singer embroiled in an extramarital affair, and even scored an Oscar nomination for her work. She continued to work in films consistently thereafter, including hits like Big Business, All of Me and 9 to 5. She also gravitated back to stage, performing a series of acclaimed one-woman shows, including The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, which earned her a Tony Award. She has continued to work in film and television in the years since.
Izzard became one of the most unlikely stand-up comedians to earn a strong following as a transvestite. Born in the UK, he first worked as a street performer before landing gigs in stand-up comedy clubs and cabarets. His acclaimed work brought him the attention of a number of London theatrical producers, and in 1994, he made his West End (the London equivalent of Broadway) debut in the play The Cryptogram, written by acclaimed playwright David Mamet. After earning strong reviews for his work, he embarked on a successful stage career, appearing in a number of subsequent West End productions.
Izzard, however, continued to elevate his profile through stand-up work, and in 2000, won an Emmy for his comedy special Dress to Kill. The success of the special helped Izzard further expand his filmography and television resume. He’s since made acclaimed turns in films like Prince Caspian, Across the Universe and The Cat’s Meow.
Few comics hit the highs that Robin Williams touched, beginning with his successful stand-up comedy career in the 1970s. Prior to his work in comedy, Williams had studied acting at the prestigious Julliard School, where he developed a friendship with his only classmate, Christopher Reeve. Williams departed Julliard despite a full scholarship to pursue a stand-up career, and landed the attention of TV producer Gary Marshall in 1978. Marshall cast Williams in the role of Mork the Alien on the hit series Happy Days, before transferring Williams and the character to their own show: Mork & Mindy. The series became a huge hit, and made Williams into a household name.
Williams made his first high-profile film in 1980. Popeye earned Williams strong notice, but flopped commercially. Two years later, Williams played the lead in The World According to Garp, which earned him rave reviews for his dramatic work. After performing in a series of lackluster films, Williams rose again with Good Morning Vietnam, which earned him his first Oscar nomination. He would receive a nominations again in 1989 for Dead Poets Society and 1991 for The Fisher King, before taking home the golden statue for Good Will Hunting in 1998. Despite all the success, Williams struggled with alcohol, drugs and depression throughout his life. Though he continued to work in films and television throughout most of the 2000s, he began to suffer from dementia. He tragically took his own life in 2014.
It takes a special kind of performer to climb the showbiz ladder the way Bette Midler has! She began performing in theatre as a teenager, and had her first Broadway role in Fiddler on the Roof in 1966. Subsequent roles proved scarce, however, and to make ends meet, Midler began performing stand-up comedy in a gay bathhouse in 1970. In her act, Midler performed a variety of characters and vocal selections, which earned her a die-hard fanbase. In 1972, Midler released her first album, The Divine Miss M, which scored her a Grammy Award, and she began to make frequent appearances on late-night television shows.
Hollywood came calling for Midler in 1979, tapping her to make her film debut in The Rose, a rock musical based on the life of Janis Joplin. Midler earned an Oscar nomination for her performance. Despite her success, Midler struggled to find acting work following The Rose, though she continued to release hit albums. She made a major film comeback with the hit Down and Out in Beverly Hills in 1986, and embarked on a series of hits that included Outrageous Fortune, Ruthless People and Beaches. She snagged another Oscar nod for her war film For the Boys, which she also produced. Most recently, she broke box office records for ticket sales after announcing a return to Broadway, starring in the musical Hello, Dolly!
Boston native Dennis Leary began writing and performing comedy in the city’s nightclub scene throughout the 1980s and '90s. He also supplemented his income by teaching comedy at Emerson College, his alma mater. Leary’s comic persona as the typical American male jerk earned him a following, and he began performing in sketch comedy bits on the fledgling network MTV in the early '90s. His performances on shows like Remote Control endeared him to a Generation X audience, and Leary transitioned to film work shortly thereafter. Acclaimed performances in The Ref, Ice Age and Wag the Dog earned him the reputation of a fine character actor.
Leary parlayed his film success into a dramatic television career as well. He headlined the firefighter drama Rescue Me from 2004-2011, which earned him several Emmy nominations. He continues to work in television and film, as an actor, writer and producer. In 2004, he also took on another unlikely duty: providing sports commentary for his favorite baseball team, the Boston Red Sox.
Best known to modern audiences as the geezer with the cigar that always made jokes about age, George Burns first began working as a child singer at a local candy shop…in 1903! As an adult, Burns began performing in vaudeville—the precursor to modern stand-up comedy—often telling jokes, performing songs or dance routines. He met his future comedy partner and wife, Gracie Allen in 1923, and the two began to tour as a husband-and-wife duo for several years.
Burns and Allen’s comedy styling made them an instant hit on radio, beginning in 1932. The success of their radio program made them into household names, alongside other radio greats like Jack Benny and Guy Lombardo. After more than a decade in radio, Burns and Allen transitioned to the fledgling medium of television in 1949. The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show became an immediate hit in 1950, and introduced an even wider audience to their comedy work. After Gracie’s death in 1964, Burns began a solo comedy career, often performing in Las Vegas nightclubs. He also acquiesced to film work, and in 1974, shocked the world with a dramatic turn in The Sunshine Boys. At age 80, Burns scored an Oscar win for his work. He appeared in subsequent hit movies like Oh, God and 18 Again, and continued to perform stand-up for the rest of his life. At the time of his death at age 100, Burns still had a series of comedy club engagements already booked in Las Vegas.
Jim Carrey began his stand-up routine as the protégée of famed stand-up comic Rodney Dangerfield. Originally from Canada, Carrey first performed in Toronto night clubs, where he caught the attention of Dangerfield. The elder comic signed Carrey as his opening act, and the two began touring together. A later residency in Las Vegas made Carrey yearn for nearby Hollywood, and in 1982, he became a fixture of Los Angeles comedy clubs like The Comedy Store. He also began a series of late night talk show appearances which helped raise his profile, and in 1990, he landed a spot on the Fox comedy show In Living Color.
1994 saw Carrey transition to films, and the actor had a pair of hits with Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and The Mask. A series of comedy hits followed, though Carrey received more attention than ever before for a dramatic turn in The Truman Show. He would work in drama again in films like The Majestic, Man in the Moon and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Now known as one of the biggest stars in history, Carrey remains a sought-after name in the industry today.
The son of an actor, Steve Martin began working in showbusiness as a teenager; first in community theatre, and later as a magician at Disneyland. After studying philosophy and poetry at California State University, Martin began writing his own comedy routines, as well as music and plays. He began working in stand-up comedy in the 1960s, and even won his first Emmy Award for comedy writing on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour at age 23!
Martin became a household name thanks to his absurdist comedy work in the 1970s. Frequent television appearances on shows like Saturday Night Live, The Muppet Show and The Tonight Show cemented his stardom. He began working in movies in the mid-1970s with a series of small comic roles. He transitioned to more dramatic work with the 1981 musical Pennies from Heaven, and would continue to perform on stage as well in movies like Parenthood, The Three Amigos and Grand Canyon. The 71 year old continues to act in TV and film, as well as perform his zany stand-up routines, today.
There’s a cruel irony in modern audiences best knowing Whoopi Goldberg as the morning talk show host of The View—the reputation doesn’t come close to doing her talent justice. Goldberg began her career studying acting in New York City under legendary teacher Uta Hagen. After a series of appearances in unremarkable plays, she transitioned to stand-up comedy. Goldberg’s routine, known as The Spook Show, caught the eye of Oscar winning director Mike Nichols, who helped her move the show to Broadway. It became a major hit, and helped Goldberg earn the lead in Steven Spielberg’s highly-anticipated film of The Color Purple. Goldberg received an Oscar nomination for her performance.
Whoopi followed up with a series of comedy films including Jumpin Jack Flash, Fatal Beauty and The Telephone to a mixed response. She won an Oscar for her work in Ghost, and continued to work in stand-up as well, including the Comic Relief specials for HBO. Despite her job hosting The View, she continues to act when time allows.
Diller began an unlikely career as a comic at age 37. A life-long funny woman, she’d done limited advertising work on television prior to landing her first stand-up gig in 1952. She quickly developed a reputation as one of the few women in the business, and won accolades for her work parodying American housewives. Her stand-up work led to a number of comedy albums and television appearances throughout the 1960s. She had an early film role in the drama Splendor in the Grass in 1961, working with acclaimed director Elia Kazan.
Diller became a fixture of television and films throughout the '60s and '70s, acting in both dramatic and comedic roles. Performances in The Sunshine Boys, Night Gallery and A Bug’s Life earned Diller notoriety in a career that spanned over five decades. She continued to work in stand-up comedy well into her 90s before retiring. Known for her outlandish dress and wigs, she also donated a number of costumes to the Smithsonian Institution.
Rickles helped popularize the sub-genre comedy style of “insult comics,” that is, comedians who find humor in making fun of people in a brutal way. He began his career in 1948 as a dramatic actor, though he had difficulty getting parts. He transitioned to stand-up comedy as a means to earn a living, and became notorious for insulting hecklers during his routines. By chance, Rickles spotted Frank Sinatra in the audience during a show in the late 1950s, and after exchanging a few insults with the singer, the two became close friends.
Sinatra’s influence helped Rickles become one of Las Vegas' most famous and acclaimed stand-up comedians. He also began appearing in movies, taking dramatic roles in Run Silent, Run Deep and the sci-fi cult classic, X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes. He also enjoyed success in comedic roles on television. Interestingly enough, Rickles had the biggest hit of his career with Toy Story, in which he voiced an animated Mr. Potato Head. He repeated the role in the film’s sequels, and continues to act and perform stand-up today at age 90.
Before he became a giant of cinema, Woody Allen started his career as a joke writer for newspapers in his native New York. By his teens, Allen had begun shopping out jokes to Broadway shows, working as a something of a script doctor. His work attracted the attention of several late night hosts, who also employed him as a joke writer on TV shows like The Ed Sullivan Show.
Allen began to earn a living as a stand-up comic in the early 1960s. His style of honest and neurotic observations about life puzzled audiences of the day, though caught the attention of other comedians like Dick Cavett and Lenny Bruce, who connected with his innovative comedy. Frustrated by the limitations of stand-up, Allen transitioned to playwriting and acting, authoring a series of hit plays, including Play it Again, Sam and Don’t Drink the Water. His Broadway success led Allen to writing Hollywood films, and later, to directing. To date, he remains one of the most successful filmmakers in history, having won four Oscars for films like Annie Hall, Midnight in Paris and Hannah and her Sisters.
Virginia native Patton Oswalt began his comedy work in the late 1980s. He struggled into the '90s before landing a job writing for the sketch comedy show MADtv and earning his own comedy special on HBO. His increased profile helped him transition to acting, taking a supporting role on the show King of Queens and film roles in movies like Magnolia.
After providing the voice of the lead character Remy the Rat in the Pixar film Ratatouille, Oswalt revealed a thereto unknown talent for drama with the film Big Fan. As an obsessed football fan, Oswalt earned rave reviews. He returned to comedy with a role on the HBO series The United States of Tara, and won rave reviews again for a dramatic role in Young Adult. He continues to work in stand-up comedy, and takes acting roles as well. In recent years, Oswalt has also become known for his political activism, providing political commentaries and championing the animal rights group, PETA.
Know other great actors who started in stand-up? Tell us in the comments!