Brian Lowry's column last week in Variety ("Why standups are sitting out primetime") certainly got my fellow comedy bloggers boiling their blood. Read what Shecky Magazine had to say here, while Punchline Magazine weighed in more recently here. Lowry lays down a couple of whoppers...mostly in the middle of valid points, though. Are comedians with failed sitcoms "scurrying back to the clubs"? Well, probably not scurrying so much as using the TV credit to get more money from the clubs. Are comedians "relegated to hosting game shows"? Again, I wouldn't say relegated so much as relishing the easy paychecks and the opportunity to leverage the TV gig with, read it with me now, more money from future club and theater dates. And I think what Lowry means by "second-tier comedians" isn't so much that they're of lesser quality but of lesser-known status than, say, Jerry Seinfeld or Chris Rock. Likewise, when he talks of comedians getting sitcoms "with slim resumes," he's most likely talking about the lack of TV credits, since he is, after all, a TV critic. There's a reference to Dane Cook just to make a dig at him.
But Lowry is correct in pointing out that most sitcoms on the air in 2008 focus on writer/producers instead of stand-up comedians. Anyone in the industry can tell you that comedy festivals such as Aspen and Montreal used to be treated as a shopping spree by the networks, doling out development deals here and there and sometimes everywhere to promising stand-up comedians with a distinct point of view that could translate to TV. That's not happening anymore.
Want evidence? Just turn on your TV. Or take a trip with me back over the past two decades, where we can see how standup-based sitcoms have ebbed and flowed over recent years, by their debut years.
AKA Pablo (Paul Rodriguez), ABC; The Cosby Show (Bill Cosby), NBC; Night Court (Harry Anderson), NBC
It's Garry Shandling's Show (Garry Shandling), Showtime (later on FOX); Robert Klein Time (Robert Klein), USA; What A Country (Yakoff Smirnoff), syndicated
Full House (Bob Saget), ABC; Pursuit of Happiness (Paul Provenza), ABC; Tracey Ullman Show* (Tracey Ullman), FOX
Roseanne (Roseanne Barr), ABC; Trial & Error (Paul Rodriguez), CBS
Anything But Love (Richard Lewis), ABC
Good Grief! (Howie Mandel), FOX; Lenny (Lenny Clarke), CBS; Seinfeld (Jerry Seinfeld), NBC
Home Improvement (Tim Allen), ABC
Billy (Billy Connolly), ABC; Hanging with Mr. Cooper (Mark Curry), ABC; Howie (Howie Mandel), CBS; The Jackie Thomas Show (Tom Arnold), ABC; Mad About You (Paul Reiser), NBC; Martin (Martin Lawrence), FOX
Grace Under Fire (Brett Butler), ABC; The Paula Poundstone Show* (Paula Poundstone), ABC; Second Half (John Mendoza), NBC; The Sinbad Show (Sinbad), FOX; Thea (Thea Vidale), ABC; Where I Live (Doug E. Doug), ABC
All-American Girl (Margaret Cho), ABC; Ellen (Ellen DeGeneres), ABC; The Good Life (John Caponera), NBC; The George Carlin Show (George Carlin), FOX; Tom (Tom Arnold), CBS
Bringing Up Jack (Jack Gallagher), ABC; Cleghorne! (Ellen Cleghorne), WB; The Drew Carey Show (Drew Carey), ABC; Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist (Jonathan Katz), Comedy Central; House of Buggin'* (John Leguizamo), FOX; The Jeff Foxworthy Show (Jeff Foxworthy), ABC; Platypus Man (Richard Jeni), UPN; The Preston Episodes (David Alan Grier), FOX; Simon (Harland Williams), WB; The Wayans Bros (Shawn and Marlon Wayans), WB
Boston Common (Anthony Clark), NBC; Common Law (Greg Giraldo), ABC; Mr. Rhodes (Tom Rhodes), NBC; The Dana Carvey Show* (Dana Carvey), ABC; Everybody Loves Raymond (Ray Romano), CBS; The Jamie Foxx Show (Jamie Foxx), WB; The Louie Show (Louie Anderson), CBS; Malcolm and Eddie (Eddie Griffin), UPN; The Show (Sam Seder), FOX; The Steve Harvey Show (Steve Harvey), WB
Alright Already (Carol Leifer), WB; Apt. 2F (Sklar Brothers), MTV; Arsenio (Arsenio Hall), ABC; Austin Stories (Howard Kremer), MTV; Built to Last (Royale Watkins), NBC; Claude's Crib (Claude Brooks), USA; Life...and Stuff (Rick Reynolds), CBS; The Pauly Shore Show (Pauly Shore), FOX; The Tom Show (Tom Arnold), WB
Costello (Sue Costello), FOX; Damon (Damon Wayans), FOX; The Hughleys (D.L. Hughley), ABC; The King of Queens (Kevin James), CBS; That's Life (Gerry Red Wilson), ABC; DiResta (John DiResta), UPN
Home Movies (Brendon Small), UPN; Norm (Norm MacDonald), ABC
Curb Your Enthusiasm (Larry David), HBO; DAG (David Alan Grier), NBC; Welcome to New York (Jim Gaffigan), CBS; Titus (Christopher Titus), FOX
The Bernie Mac Show (Bernie Mac), FOX; The Ellen Show (Ellen DeGeneres), CBS; The Job (Denis Leary), ABC; My Wife and Kids (Damon Wayans), ABC; One on One (Flex Alexander), UPN
Cedric The Entertainer Presents* (Cedric the Entertainer), FOX; George Lopez (George Lopez), ABC
Chappelle's Show* (Dave Chappelle), Comedy Central; Wanda At Large (Wanda Sykes), FOX
Blue Collar TV* (Jeff Foxworthy, Larry the Cable Guy, Bill Engvall), WB; Come to Papa (Tom Papa), NBC; Rodney (Rodney Carrington), ABC; Wanda Does It (Wanda Sykes), Comedy Central
Everybody Hates Chris (Chris Rock, as a child), CW; Mind of Mencia* (Carlos Mencia), Comedy Central
Lucky Louie (Louis CK), HBO; Minor Accomplishments of Jackie Woodman (Laura Kightlinger), IFC
The Bill Engvall Show (Bill Engvall), TBS; Flight of the Conchords (Flight of the Conchords), HBO; Frank TV* (Frank Caliendo), TBS; King of Miami (Dave Hill), MOJO-HD; Sarah Silverman Program (Sarah Silverman), Comedy Central
*More sketch-based than stand-up.
A few things jump out looking at the list. The mid-to-late 1990s really did see a sharp increase in the number of pilot greenlights for stand-up comedians to get on TV, helped in part, no doubt, to the addition of two new networks in the WB and UPN. That in the past couple of years, not only have the broadcast networks passed on stand-up sitcoms, they didn't even look at one pilot in 2007 featuring a stand-up comedian. The closest, perhaps, was ABC in picking up Carpoolers (where TJ Miller gets to steal scenes) and Cavemen (in which Nick Kroll provided most of the funny lines). So stand-ups have gone to cable to stand out.
All of which makes Mike Birbiglia's CBS pilot for Mike Birbiglia's Secret Public Journal, in production for April for possible greenlighting this fall, all the more remarkable.
Note: If I missed a show in the above list, please let me know via email or the comments. Thanks.