Stand-Up Comedians Who Became Great Actors
BY MICAELA PÉREZ VITALE
January 17, 2022
Bette Midler and that Icky Football Player
Being a stand-up comedian is far from easy. In fact, it is probably one of the hardest fields to work in, since the smallest detail can ruin the entire presentation. If the joke isn’t funny or doesn’t hit home with the audience, then it’s game over. Not everyone has what it takes to make people laugh and to connect with the audience, but those who do often manage to gather hundreds of fans and make millions, like renowned actor and comedian Eddie Murphy.
Many times, performers who started out in stand-up comedy end up discovering other careers related to film and television and land great opportunities outside of comedy clubs. And, most often, the stepping stone used by great performers is precisely stand-up comedy. Some comedians took advantage of their success as stand-up comedians to become comedy writers, while others used it to become the stars of popular comedy shows. A few performers made such a smooth transition from comedians to Hollywood stars that it is surprising to hear about their early days in comedy clubs. That was the case with Lily Tomlin, the American actress, comedian, and screenwriter who launched her acting career by performing stand-up comedy in nightclubs and then went on to become a television and, later film, star. Here’s a list of 7 actors who went from the nightclub stage to the silver screen, and did it successfully.
7 Jim Carrey
Jim Carrey began performing in Toronto nightclubs, where he caught the attention of renowned comedian Rodney Dangerfield, who took him under his wing. The comedian hired Carrey as an opening act, and the two began touring together. Carrey later became a fixture at Los Angeles comedy clubs, where he wowed audiences with his numerous celebrity impersonations. However, his career as a stand-up comedian took an unexpected turn when he decided to try new routines that resulted in booing from the audience. At the same time, the comedian began to raise his profile by appearing on some late-night talk shows, and his flamboyant personality landed him a regular spot on Fox’s comedy show In Living Color.
6 Whoopi Goldberg
The well-known actress and co-host of The View morning show has an utterly enviable acting career. Whoopi Goldberg began studying drama in New York and, after a series of unremarkable stage play appearances, decided to try her hand at stand-up comedy. Her comedy routine, known as The Spook Show, caught the attention of Oscar-winning director Mike Nichols, who offered to transfer her to Broadway. Already established on the billboards, her show became a huge hit and helped her land the main role in Steven Spielberg’s film The Color Purple, a part for which she earned an Oscar nomination.
Thereafter, Goldberg continued to take roles in comedy films, such as Jumpin’ Jack Flash, Fatal Beauty, and The Telephone. She won an Oscar for her work in Ghost and continued to work in stand-up. And, although she fills her days working as a host of The View, she still continues to take on some acting roles. In fact, she recently voiced her desire to take part in Doctor Who.
5 Steve Martin
Steve Martin started working in show business as a teenager, first in community theater and then at Disneyland. After studying philosophy and poetry, the young actor began writing his own comedy routines, music, and plays. He quickly began venturing into stand-up comedy and even won his first Emmy Award for comedy writing on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour at the young age of 23.
Ten years later, Steve Martin was already a well-known comedian who had cemented his stardom with frequent appearances on television shows such as Saturday Night Live, The Muppet Show, and The Tonight Show. Shortly thereafter, he jumped into film acting, taking small comedy roles, after which his strong performance landed him a dramatic role in the musical Pennies from Heaven. Steve continued his acting journey with films such as Father of the Bride, Parenthood, Three Amigos, and Grand Canyon. He is currently the star of the series Only Murders in the Building, alongside Martin Short and Selena Gomez. With Short, he also starred in the Netflix special Steve Martin And Martin Short: An Evening You Will Forget For the Rest of Your Life.
4 Emma Thompson
The incredibly talented actress is one of the industry’s biggest stars. Winner of two Academy Awards, two Golden Globe Awards, two British Academy Film Awards, a British Academy Television Award and a Primetime Emmy Award, Emma Thompson has managed to surprise the audience with amazing and versatile roles, from dramas to comedies such as Stranger Than Fiction and Nanny McPhee. But before any of this, she also had her stint in stand-up comedy. While at Cambridge, Thompson was a member of the Footlights Dramatic Club.
After graduating she performed solo shows and later joined Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie in their comedy shows, The Crystal Cube and Alfresco. In 1988, she launched her own show called Thompson, whose reviews meant a hiatus for her comedy career. She was trashed by critics who considered the show hateful to men. From then on, Emma decided to formalize her career as a professional actress and became the star we know today, starring in hits such as Dead Again, Howards End, and Sense and Sensibility, a film she wrote as well as starred in. In 2021 she co-starred in the remake of Cruella with Emma Stone.
3 Robin Williams
As a comedian, Robin Williams was known for his improvisational skills and quick timing, qualities that continued to benefit him in his acting journey. This successful actor began his career as a comedian in the 1970s. Before turning to comedy, Robin had studied acting at the Julliard School, which he later dropped out of to devote himself entirely to stand-up comedy. Shortly thereafter, he caught the attention of television producer Gary Marshall, who cast him as Mork in the hit series Happy Days, a character that would later move to a show of his own: Mork & Mindy. The series became a huge success, and the actor became a familiar face to the audience.
By 1980 came his first movie role playing Popeye, a role that brought him great recognition, but whose production failed commercially. Finally, Robin Williams established himself as a renowned actor with Good Morning Vietnam, which earned him his first Oscar nomination, and later with Dead Poets Society and The Fisher King. His first Oscar came in 1998 for his leading role in Good Will Hunting. He also established himself as an actor for the children’s audience with his roles in Hook, Mrs. Doubtfire, Jumanji, and Aladdin. The actor passed away in 2014 after a long struggle with depression, and in 2018 saw the release of the documentary Come Inside My Mind, which tells a bit of his life’s background.
2 Bette Midler
Bette Midler began acting in theater as a teenager and had her first Broadway role in Fiddler on the Roof by 1966. However, subsequent roles were few and far between, so Midler began performing stand-up comedy by 1970. In her show, she portrayed a variety of characters and also sang, which earned her a devoted fan base. Two years later, she released her first album, The Divine Miss M, which earned her a Grammy Award, and she started making frequent appearances on late-night television shows.
A few years later, Bette went one step further and made her film debut with The Rose, a rock musical based on Janis Joplin’s life for which she was nominated for an Oscar. She also worked on hits such as Down and Out in Beverly Hills, Outrageous Fortune, Ruthless People, and Beaches. She earned another Oscar nomination for her war film For the Boys, which she also produced, and starred in the Disney children’s hit Hocus Pocus alongside Sarah Jessica Parker and Kathy Najimy, a film for which a sequel was recently announced.
1 Michael Keaton
As a young school student, Michael Keaton already stood out from the crowd with his parodies and jokes. That’s why, when the time came to study at college, he decided to take the plunge and pursue his lifelong dream of becoming an actor. In the beginning, Michael tried to make a name for himself as a comedian, presenting some stand up shows in his hometown. To support himself, he worked as a cab and ice cream truck driver, and it wasn’t until 1975 that he officially debuted on television.
After triumphing in Ron Howard’s Night Shift and then Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice, Michael Keaton was considered exclusively a comedy actor. At least, he was until he suited up as a superhero in Burton’s Batman. From that role on, his career did nothing but rise, positioning him as one of the best actors in the industry. He has starred in outstanding movies such as Birdman, The Trial of the Chicago 7, Spider-Man: Homecoming and even directed some of them, like The Merry Gentleman.