comedy week

The Great Roseanne Rush: Remembering the Great Stand-up Sitcom Boom (and Bust) of the Nineties

Home Improvement, Ellen, Seinfeld, Roseanne and Martin Photo: Corbis and Evertt Collection

This is a boom time for comedians on the small screen. YouTube and Funny or Die have replaced Johnny Carson as more democratic kingmakers; Louis C.K. has become a pop-culture icon and, for other comics, a symbol of creative integrity; and Comedy Central has nearly quadrupled the amount of stand-up programming it offers, with four different stand-up series in the works and more planned for new media platforms. In other words, it’s beginning to feel a lot like the nineties. This was the era of the great stand-up sitcom boom when, fueled by the success of Seinfeld, Roseanne, and Home Improvement, network executives raided comedy clubs and threw high-priced TV offers at any comic within heckling distance. By the 1993-94 season, every big network but CBS was regularly adding at least one or two stand-up sitcoms to its schedule every year, burning through comics at an astounding rate. We all remember The Drew Carey Show and Ellen, but there was also Harland Williams’s Simon, Lisa Ann Walters’s Life’s Work, Richard Jeni’s Platypus Man, John DiResta’s cleverly named DiResta, and dozens of others. As part of Vulture’s Comedy Week, we revisited the stories behind the crazed bidding wars and irrational exuberance of this period and how it all ended (can we blame Andrew “Dice” Clay?), and look for clues as to what it might all mean for today’s comedy resurgence.

The Bill Cosby Lightbulb Moment
Jerry Seinfeld, Tim Allen, and Roseanne Barr are usually thought of as the Adam(s) and Eve of the stand-up sitcom trend, but they were all plucked from the ribs of Bill Cosby. Comedians had starred in sitcoms before The Cosby Show The Bob Newhart Show, Redd Foxx’s Sanford and Son, Robin Williams’s Mork & Mindy, to name a few — but those shows involved adding a comic’s timing to a concept that had little to do with his act. (The rare exception: 1975’s Welcome Back, Kotter, based on Gabe Kaplan’s routines about his high-school memories.) The Cosby Show came about when two former ABC executives Marcy Carsey and Tom Werner — convinced Cosby to directly adapt the onstage rants about parenting from his 1983 concert film, Bill Cosby: Himself, to the small screen. They didn’t put him on a space station or make him the manager of a roller-derby team: They had him playing a family man with the same grievances about his kids that he voiced in his act. The show was a smash when it debuted in 1984 and is universally credited with reviving the sitcom genre. And it convinced network executives that there was a model here.

Building a show around a comedian had two advantages. First, comedy was booming in the eighties, with clubs proliferating and everything from restaurants to laundromats offering a comedy night. And the established comics were building up huge followings, selling out theaters. “They came with an audience,” says ABC casting chief Keli Lee, who was just beginning her career scouting talent in New York during the early nineties. “Thousands and thousands of followers paid so much money to see them for one night. We thought, Imagine if they could see them every week.”

The TV development process is all about risk management. Executives want to minimize the potential for failure and blame, so if a show tanks they want to be able to say, “It’s not my fault; it worked before!” (That’s why you still see movie stars pursued for shows and why hit-makers like Dick Wolf or Chuck Lorre get so many new shows.) Comedians felt like safer bets because they not only came with an audience, they also came with a concept (Tim Allen, goofy tinkerer! Roseanne Barr, sarcastic housewife!) that had already proved onstage that it could get laughs. “If you’re a network exec, [you’re] sitting there scared to death [during development season]” because you don’t know how a pitch is going to turn out after you order a script or pilot, says Matt Williams, a former writer on The Cosby Show who created Roseanne and co-created Home Improvement. “A fully realized stand-up routine is like a home run. You’re getting an entire world and a constellation of characters.”

Veteran manager Michael Rotenberg, a partner at 3 Arts Entertainment and executive producer of shows such as It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and King of the Hill, likens the frenzy to networks’ current obsession with Americanizing hit international drama and comedy series, so-called “formats”: Not only are these shows proven hits, but they come with a fully formed picture of what the network would be getting. “Stand-up acts were formats,” he says. “This was the best way to pitch an idea, because they could see it.” Rotenberg recalls what happened when one of his clients in the nineties, Andrew “Dice” Clay, began performing a cleaner, more family-friendly version of his once-raunchy routine. “As soon as Les Moonves, who was running Warner Bros. TV then, saw Dice’s act onstage, he got it,” 3 Arts’ Rotenberg recalls. And within a few months, the new routine had become a Warner Bros.–produced sitcom on CBS called Bless This House. (It went on the air in 1995 and died after sixteen episodes.)

Building a show around a stand-up took care of three time-consuming and stressful challenges at once: You got a concept, you got jokes, and you got a star. “[The networks’] feeling was, ‘We’re usually hoping actors can be funny. Why not go with people who we already know are funny and then show them how to act?’” says Bruce Helford, who co-created sitcoms with stand-ups Drew Carey, George Lopez, Norm MacDonald, and Wanda Sykes. “You could argue it was a better road to success than developing a show with a bunch of strangers.” Sure, turning nonactors into even just-okay thespians wasn’t always an easy process. During the early episodes of Roseanne, Williams says he was so worried about Barr’s abilities that “I always had a camera covering John [Goodman], because I knew that if I needed to, I could cut around her to him.” And at the start of The Drew Carey Show, “Drew would tell a joke and then look out at the audience,” Helford remembers. “I had to tell him to look at the other person. But he ended up having a natural acting ability.” And ultimately, they had the innate skill necessary for any sitcom, one not possessed by all trained actors. “You can’t teach someone how to be funny,” says Williams. “You can usually teach them how to act.”

Irrational Exuberance, Comedy-Club Edition
By 1991, with Roseanne, Seinfeld, and Home Improvement all huge hits, network executives went rushing to the agents, managers, and lawyers who represented comics — and these representatives went dashing to the clubs to build up their supply. “There was such a desperation to find that next voice,” says ICM Partners agent Ruthanne Secunda, referring to both the suits and reps such as herself. “You could identify someone you thought was really fantastic, get them into New Faces [a showcase at Montreal’s high-profile Just for Laughs festival], and before you knew it, they had a show being developed around them.” That’s what happened with comedian Sue Costello, who after years working the Boston circuit had moved to New York. One night in 1996, Costello landed a so-called “bringer show” at Caroline’s. “You had to bring, like, fifteen customers,” Costello says. “I was working as an aerobics instructor for senior citizens, so I brought them.” That night, an industry showcase at downtown New York’s Luna Lounge (the hot spot for hip alternative comedy at the time) was canceled because, according to Costello, “Marc Maron had missed his flight”; not wanting to lose an opportunity to find talent, the agents and managers moved uptown en masse to check out the newcomers’ show at Caroline’s. “There was a tape from that set that got around,” Costello says. “And the next thing I knew, I had a manager, I had an agent [Secunda], and I was on a plane to Los Angeles.” She was soon smoking cigars on the patio of then Touchstone Television chief Dean Valentine and being courted by Leslie Moonves (who’d moved from Warner Bros. to CBS in 1995).

There was no YouTube on which to sample a stand-up’s act, so TV executives spent several nights each week hanging out at comedy clubs to scout new talent, often at showcases set up by managers or agents. Deals could close quickly, because the network’s key deciders were all there; everyone from heads of casting to network presidents would come. “You didn’t have to run [a deal] up the flagpole,” Secunda says. “The flagpole was sitting in the audience.” Rival networks would all attend, which would spark bidding wars. “The goal was to get your client up onstage and then create a feeding frenzy between the networks and studios,” says Secunda, and CBS head of comedy Wendi Trilling concedes the representatives’ strategy worked. “All the networks and studios were sitting in the club, so if someone does well, everyone’s going to compete for that person,” she says. “It does create this frenzy.”

Sometimes, representatives would create demand for a comic even if there really wasn’t any. Veteran manager Barry Katz — who, at various times, has guided the careers of Dave Chappelle, Tracy Morgan, and Jay Mohr, among others — recalls setting up an industry showcase for Jeff Ross, who’d written a one-man show called Take a Banana for a Ride. “I went crazy and invited everyone in town,” he says. “After the show, I only got one call, and it was from Disney … They asked me if other studios were interested. I told them that I didn’t want to say how many people were calling … [But] after casually touching base with the other companies, it was clear to me that none of them were interested in Jeff. [But because Disney] didn’t want to take the risk of losing him and were led to believe that there was the possibility of other companies taking him away, they stepped up and offered the largest deal Jeff had ever received, by [a factor of] two.”

But nothing compared to the madness that took place every summer at Montreal’s Just for Laughs festival. While winter’s HBO-sponsored Aspen Comedy Festival buzzed with activity, Just for Laughs’ July date came right as TV’s annual development season was gearing up, making the fest ground zero for deal-making. All of the networks and studios “had a full budget to spend, and [they] could get half [their] shopping done in a fun week,” says 3 Arts’ Rotenberg. “It was like Sundance would be now: You’d show your wares, then wait for the offers.” The combination of so many suits in one place and the compressed schedule resulted in a cutthroat competition for talent. “It got out of control one year in Montreal,” says one longtime network executive. “I remember joking with one exec from a competing network that we were going to make an offer to this one comic. Clearly, I was joking. But then the other exec went crazy and said [to his staff], ‘I want to make a deal with him, too.’ Nobody wanted to miss out … because what if that person was the next Tim Allen or Roseanne or Seinfeld? It was preemptive bidding.”

The Paydays
In the early nineties, before the Internet and major cable competition eroded the broadcast networks’ supremacy, they were flush with cash and eager to spend it. And what better way to spend it than out of fear, specifically the fear of losing out on the Next Big Thing to another network? Agents, managers, and lawyers were easily able to extract huge paydays for any client with five decent minutes of material. Take Sue Costello: After doing an episode of NYPD Blue and shooting a pair of pilots for CBS (neither of which went to series), Fox executives decided they had to have her. She says she turned down the network’s first offer, but the Fox folks didn’t relent. “My reps … came back to me after I had said no and said, ‘Sue, you’re not going to believe how much money they offered’,” Costello says. “It was $750,000.” The deal resulted in Costello, which premiered in September 1998 but only lasted a month.

Insanely high preemptive bids were the common currency at Just for Laughs. “The first couple nights someone was appearing, there would be a buzz, and people would be talking to each other: ‘Did you see so and so last night?’” remembers Jon Moonves, the veteran Hollywood lawyer whose clients include Ray Romano (and yup, he’s the brother of Leslie Moonves). “You’d definitely pit one [buyer] against the other. And the dollars would get pushed back and forth to the point that, toward the end of the festival, if you had a client with a distinct point of view and you got some buzz, there was definitely a high six-figure deal waiting for you to develop a sitcom. Depending on the talent, it could reach into the seven figures.”

“It was mind-blowing,” seconds ICM Partners’ Secunda. “These bidding wars would ensue, and sometimes nobody had even met the comedian. Before you knew it you were in the $500,000 to $700,000 range to develop a TV show for someone who had literally done nothing but been on the road. They hadn’t even done a television appearance.”

The Bubble Bursts
Stand-ups were all over the dial by the mid-nineties. In 1995, all six broadcast networks (including the WB and UPN) had at least one show with a comic front and center. Seven of ABC’s fifteen sitcom slots were filled by stand-up shows (Roseanne, Home Improvement, Grace Under Fire, All-American Girl, Ellen, Hangin’ With Mr. Cooper, and On Our Own), while Fox had a George Carlin sitcom and Martin, NBC had Mad About You and The Mommies along with Seinfeld, and CBS had the aforementioned Diceman dud Bless This House. As always happens when TV executives try to repeat past successes over and over, “The market became saturated,” says ABC’s Lee. Rotenberg is more blunt: “There was overfishing.” By 1998, Tom Arnold and Andrew Dice Clay were each on their second short-lived sitcoms, and the WB developed Unhappily Ever After around the unknown comic Stephanie Hodge (after a few episodes, the series shifted its focus to Nikki Cox and ended up running five years). As comics were used up, the bar was lowered, and the networks started making deals with comics who maybe only had five minutes of material; as a result, the shows had no core and were canceled quickly. “They were buying some people before they were fully formed, before they were cooked long enough,” says Rotenberg, who adds that it was difficult to advise stand-ups he discovered to resist the financial temptation of premature big-money deals. “How do you say to a client, ‘You should turn this down. You’re not ready’?” Adds Secunda, “People were plucked from the road before they even had a chance to understand their own voice. There were many cases where they should have been given more time to figure out what their act was or what the show was.” Even Costello admits she might have gone too far, too fast. “I knew I had talent,” she says. “But I also knew I wasn’t ready.”

The King of Queens, which launched in 1998 (after Kevin James got attention guesting on Ray Romano’s stand-up-based series), would end up being the last megahit from the stand-up boom. Big-money development deals stopped resulting in ordered pilots, and executives were too impatient to let the contracted comic develop his or her voice for a while. “The networks and studios were saying, ‘We just gave this guy a half-million dollars. He needs to deliver for us,’” Moonves explains. “They didn’t want to spend a year working on making them better.”

At the same time, while multi-camera sitcoms filmed “live in front of a studio audience” still dominated (Friends was hitting its stride at the dawn of the new millennium), the single-camera comedy revolution was beginning to stir. Aaron Sorkin’s Sports Night showed up in 1998, and two years later came Fox’s laugh-track-free Malcolm in the Middle. “Things were becoming more writer-driven,” says Secunda. By 2001, the only stand-ups who remained on sitcoms were longtime holdovers from the previous decade: Carey, Romano, James, Ellen DeGeneres (on her short-lived comeback, The Ellen Show), D.L. Hughley, and Mo’nique. Attendance dwindled at the showcases, and high-level executives didn’t bother going out to Montreal anymore. And most painful to the stand-up economy: “The people who were up in the [$700,000 range] were down in the [$200,000 range] now,” says Secunda.

Is This Thing (Still) On?
Recently, network executives seem to be drawn back to the clubs. “Sketch comedy and improv are big now, too, but stand-ups are still a viable source for us,” says CBS’s Trilling. Indeed, NBC’s Whitney was as old-school a stand-up sitcom as you could get (complete with four cameras and a studio audience). Last year, Fox announced plans for The Short-Com Comedy Hour, a collection of fifteen-minute mini-sitcoms starring various stand-ups and other performers. (It was supposed to debut this summer, but a 2014 air date now seems more likely, insiders say.) And comics Jim Gaffigan and John Mulaney both have pilots in consideration for slots on the 2013–14 schedule (for CBS and NBC, respectively).

But cable, with its creative freedom, is proving the bigger draw for comics. Back in the nineties, when a comedian got his own network show, he or she often had to cede creative control to the showrunner. Ray Romano found a simpatico partner in head writer Phil Rosenthal, and Helford earned a rep around Hollywood as a sort of “stand-up whisperer,” but many comedians had bad experiences; they were left feeling powers to their comic persona being watered down or altered. (Margaret Cho had a famously miserable experience making ABC’s All-American Girl.) Now, with comedians finding so many outlets with which they have full creative control, like podcasts and web series, they are less hypnotized by the appeal of network dollars. Louis C.K. has shown them that if you make a purer show for less money, it still pays off. What C.K. gets for Louie is a fraction of what top stand-ups got for sitcoms two decades ago, but it helped build up such a loyal fan base that he can now not only fill theaters, but also earn millions selling his concert films directly to followers over the Internet. So not only is he making exactly the show he wants to, but it helps him make serious money doing his first love: stand-up.

And take Daniel Tosh: Tosh.0 isn’t a traditional scripted series, but it reflects his voice, is one of Comedy Central’s most popular shows, and has turned him into a major touring comic who fills theaters across the country (including multiple dates annually at Las Vegas’s the Mirage, home to Jay Leno and Ray Romano). And just this week, Amy Schumer debuted her new Comedy Central sketch series, Inside Amy Schumer, with raunchy humor that she carefully tailored to her own sensibilities. IFC has allowed Scott Aukerman to preserve the surrealism of his “Comedy Bang! Bang!” podcast in his TV version, and gave Marc Maron a show (debuting this Friday) based on his podcast. Overall, Katz believes that TV today actually offers far more opportunities for comics than it did during the nineties. “It was a boom in development-deal money for comedians, but most of those deals didn’t go anywhere,” he says. Today, he says the combination of cable and reality show hosting gigs offers steadier, if smaller, paychecks. And, arguably, bigger laughs.

Nineties’ Great Stand-up Sitcom Boom and Bust