Have you ever been to a local comedy show and thought to yourself, “Wow, this person’s hilarious, they should have their own TV special or something”? Or have you simply thought, “This person’s definitely going places”? Well, you’re on to something. Many comedic actors in Hollywood had their start in stand-up comedy and eventually made the move to the big screen. The path to success was no doubt a hard one (many toiled in the stand-up comedy world for years before their big break) but their perseverance paid off and now they’re household names. They’ve been able to reach extreme levels of success and have remained at the top of their game. Many have numerous acting credits (from movies and TV shows) to their names and they don’t show any signs of slowing down. The majority of their movies to date have been hits (to be fair, some have missed the mark). Some comedians have even been able to branch off from acting and add writing, directing and producing to their list of accomplishments. Not bad based on their humble beginnings, right?
Check out the list below and you’ll be surprised to see where some of your favorite actors started out and how they made it to where they are now. For many, comedy has always been the only career they’ve wanted to pursue while others dabbled in other careers very briefly before catching the stand-up comedy bug. Lucky for us, they stuck with it despite a few early setbacks.
15. Amy Schumer
Amy Schumer began her stand-up career in 2004 when she performed at the Gotham Comedy Club in New York City. She moved on to Comedy Central and appeared on Last Comic Standing in 2007 which catapulted her to stardom. She hadn’t expected to make it far in the competition so she was obviously surprised to finish fourth that season. She’s appeared in a slew of comedy TV shows over the years, most notably hosting her TV show called Inside Amy Schumer which premiered in 2013. It’s fourth season just finished airing and its been nominated for and won several awards.
She’s appeared in seven movies since 2006 but it was 2015’s Trainwreck that really put her on the map. The film cost $35 million to make but made an astonishing $110 million in North America alone. Looks like it was a successful leap from stage to big screen for Schumer, critics loved the movie. With two more movies in the works it’s safe to say her star is rising.
14. Kevin Hart
He’s everyone’s favorite funny guy. It might be surprising to know that Kevin Hart’s foray into stand-up comedy wasn’t smooth sailing in the beginning. It’s hard to believe but he’s been booed off stage and even had food thrown at him. Fortunately, that didn’t stop him and his perseverance eventually paid off. In 2009 he took his act on the road and began touring. His “Laugh at my Pain” tour grossed $15 million in 2011.
He appeared in his first film, Paper Soldiers, in 2002 and the caliber of the films he’s appeared in has continued to improve. He most recently starred in Central Intelligence alongside Dwayne Johnson. The film cost $50 million to make but has made $212 million to date. He’s also recently won a Teen Choice Award for his portrayal in the film. With more movies in the works and a successful TV show, Real Husbands of Hollywood, Hart clearly isn’t slowing down now that he’s kicked down Hollywood’s front door.
13. Keegan-Michael Key
Unlike some of the other comedians of this list, Keegan-Michael Key started his career in comedy in film and TV versus stand-up. His breakout role was on MADTv, on which he appeared from 2004 to 2009. Not only did he perform on the show, you may remember his memorable role as “Coach Hines”, but he was also a writer.
Since his MADTv days, he’s gone on to appear in multiple comedic TV shows. You may recall the super funny show Key & Peele which ran from 2012 to 2015. He met Jordan Peele while they were on MadTv. Their chemistry on the screen is undeniable. They’ve even starred in a movie together. While the 2016 film, Keanu, performed fairly by box office standards, it was hands down a hilarious movie that highlighted Key’s comedic ability. He’s extremely busy and that’s evident in his constant output of movies. He appeared in five movies in 2015 and four in 2016 and countless TV shows in those years alone. This guy’s on fire and hopefully not going away anytime soon!
12. Leslie Jones
Way back in 1987, Leslie Jones got her start in stand-up comedy while in college. Friends entered her in an on campus comedy competition which she went on to win. With this success under her belt she left college and moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in comedy. However, it wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows. She didn’t receive favorable reviews and was booed off stage at one point. She took a break from performing and returned to the stage in 2010. 2013 was a big year for her, she appeared on Saturday Night Live and went on to become a regular cast member in 2014. She followed up this success with 2016’s Ghostbusters movie remake where she played Patty Tolan. The film managed to rake in $217 million worldwide. To further solidify her place as an up and coming force, her live tweets of the recent Rio Olympics landed her a gig as an NBC commentator for swimming, track and field, gymnastics and beach volleyball. Not bad, right?
11. Jordan Peele
Jordan Peele is an actor you’ve likely seen in a variety of TV shows and movies over the years. Since he began his comedic career in sketch comedy at The Second City comedy club, he’s popped up in many different movies and TV shows over the years. He eventually joined the cast of MADTv in 2003 and became well known for his celebrity impressions. Do you remember his Montel Williams and 50 Cent sketches? Hilarious! After his time at MADTv, he appeared in a variety of comedy TV shows such as The Mindy Project and Modern Family. He’s proven his talent time and time again.
When it comes to movies, he co-starred in Keanu this year with his frequent collaborator Keegan-Michael Key. He’ll also be starring in the upcoming animated movie Storks. It seems he’s got our collective attention and has us waiting to see what comes next, I’m sure we won’t be disappointed.
10. Sarah Silverman
Like many comedians on this list, Sarah Silverman got her start in stand-up comedy. And like a few others on this list, she also spent some time on Saturday Night Live. She appeared on the show from 1994 – 1995 and was also a writer for the show during that time. Although her time there was short lived, she used the experience to fuel the rest of her career, working extra hard. In 2007 she debuted her own TV show, The Sarah Silverman Program, which was a fictional representation of her life and the lives of her friends and family. It was on air until 2010.
There’s Something About Mary, was one of her early movies. Since then she’s appeared in School of Rock alongside Jack Black, Bad Santa alongside Billy Bob Thornton and even voiced a character in Wreck-It Ralph!. She doesn’t show any signs of slowing down and has more than a few acting projects on the go.
9. Zach Galifianakis
Zach Galifianakis is another Saturday Night Live alum. However, he was a writer (for only two weeks) and not a performer. Since then, he’s appeared on a few different shows for Comedy Central. For example, he was part of The Sarah Silverman Program and Dog Bites Man (which only lasted one season). After paying his dues as a stand-up comedian, Galifianakas made his mark in the 2009 film, The Hangover. He’d appeared in other movies before this but it wasn’t until he played the somewhat hapless Alan Garner that he caught the attention of mainstream audiences. He followed up this success with Due Date which also starred Robert Downey Jr. He’s also gone on to make two more Hangover movies. Since these movies we released he’s seen continued success on the big screen. His current TV show, Baskets is also poised to be a success. Its received rave reviews so far due largely in part to his acting skills.
8. Kristen Wiig
Kristen Wiig dropped out of school to pursue acting but soon discovered that her talents and passion lay in improv. After a few years she switched her career focus and eventually joined the cast of Saturday Night Live (no surprise there) in 2005 (she was on the show until 2012). It’s a good thing she made the switch, the proof is her four Emmy award nominations. During this time, she appeared a slew of high profile movies (such as Knocked Up and Forgetting Sarah Marshall) but it wasn’t until 2011 when she appeared in Bridesmaids that the collective audience began to take notice. She even received a Golden Globe nomination for her performance. Wiig has been on a roll since then (did anyone else laugh out loud during her scenes in Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues?) and most recently appeared alongside Leslie Jones in the 2016 Ghostbusters remake. Whatever she does next is bound to be a success…and keep you laughing.
7. Kevin James
Before his days as Doug Heffernan on The King of Queens (1998 – 2007), you might be surprised to know that Kevin James started as a stand-up comedian. During these early days he appeared on a string of late night talk shows where he made a name for himself. After moving to Los Angeles to kick his career up a notch, he met and become friends with Ray Romano. This connection proved beneficial because James went on to guest star in a few episodes of Romano’s hit TV show Everybody Loves Raymond. He eventually made the leap to the big screen in 2005 when he appeared in Hitch alongside Will Smith.
He’s proven his ability and has gone on to appear in hilarious movies such as I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, You Don’t Mess with the Zohan, Grownups and Paul Blart: Mall Cop. He’s clearly on his way up.
6. Jason Sudeikis
Here’s another entry on the list of someone who began their career in improv comedy, then joined Saturday Night Live as a writer and cast member and eventually made the leap from TV to the big screen. Notice the trend yet? Some of his early movies include The Bounty Hunter alongside Jennifer Aniston and Gerard Butler followed by Horrible Bosses which included a cast of heavy hitters (Jamie Foxx, Kevin Spacey, Jennifer Aniston, Colin Farrell, Charlie Day and Jason Bateman). Both films did fairly well at the box office and Horrible Bosses was even nominated for a variety of awards in 2011 and 2012.
Sudeikis even made a foray into commercials (he has appeared in ads for Applebee’s) and a music video (he appeared in the “Hopeless Wanderer” video for Mumford and Sons). Next up is an exciting live-action/animation TV show coming out later this year called Son of Zorn. Sudeikis will voice the character Zorn, an animated warrior hoping to re-establish a relationship with his live-action son. It’ll likely be as hilarious as it sounds. It’s safe to say he’s doing very well for himself.
5. Seth Rogen
Hands up if you knew Seth Rogen was Canadian. In the past he’s said that comedy was the only career he’s ever wanted to pursue. He began making the rounds at stand-up clubs in Vancouver before winning an amateur comedy competition at 16. His big break came soon afterwards when he landed a role on the TV show Freaks and Geeks. He dropped out of high school and along with his family, moved to Los Angeles to start his career. He’s never looked back.
His break into main stream movies came in 2007 when he was cast as the lead in Knocked Up which was a huge success. He’s also written and served as executive producer on some of the movies he’s appeared in. Notably, The Green Hornet. He made his directorial debut in 2013 with the film This is the End which included bucket loads of talented, high profile comedic actors. The vast majority of his films have been successful and Rogen has proven himself as a gifted actor.
4. Jonah Hill
Before he discovered his true passion, acting, Jonah Hill wrote and performed his own plays while in high school. He made his acting debut in 2004’s I Heart Huckabees. Much like Rogan, Knocked Up was his first critically successful movie. He’s been very busy and has appeared in not only comedic movies (ex. 21 Jump Street with Channing Tatum), but also a western (ex. Django Unchained with Leonardo DiCaprio) and dramatic roles (ex. Moneyball with Brad Pitt).
He’s obviously highly versatile as an actor and this has served him well during his career. In addition to his acting work, he’s also tried his hand at producing, directing and script-writing (21 Jump Street and 22 Jump Street are just two on his list). He’s even spent some time on TV and has hosted Saturday Night Live four times. He’s accomplished a lot and no doubt has more exciting projects to come.
3. Donald Glover
You may remember him as Troy Barnes from the NBC TV show Community. He starred on the show from 2009 to 2014 as a somewhat quirky but loveable character. What you might not know is that before this he started out as a writer for 30 Rock for which he won the Writers Guild of America Award.
In addition to writing, he’s also an accomplished musician (he raps under the name “Childish Gambino”), has proven sketch comedy skills and has performed stand-up comedy. Up next is a music themed TV show called Atlanta which he’ll not only star in but will write and executive produce. When it comes to movies, he will appear in Spider-Man: Homecoming. There’s no word yet on what his role will be but it seems the social media campaign he launched back in 2010 to play Spiderman in The Amazing Spider-Man (the roll ultimately went to Andrew Garfield) is finally paying off.
2. Craig Robinson
Some of you might be surprised to know that Craig Robinson started out as a music teacher in Chicago. However, he turned his attention to stand-up comedy and improv. This career change paid off because in 2005 he landed the role of Darryl Philbin on The Office (the American version). Since then he’s appeared in popular TV shows such as Arrested Development and Friends.
The list of movies he’s appeared in is extensive. You’ve likely seen him in many of these movies (some where he had a smaller part) and didn’t notice it was him. He’s worked with Seth Rogen and Jonah Hill, they all appeared together in Knocked Up in 2007 and This is the End in 2013. You may even remember him from Hot Tub Time Machine in 2010.
1. Mindy Kaling
Early on in her career, Kaling performed stand-up comedy in New York (she’s even toured with Craig Robinson) but it wasn’t until 2002 when she starred in an off Broadway play that critics and audiences began to take note of her talent. Two years later she joined the cast of The Office as Kelly Kapoor. Who didn’t love her character? She was great. While on the show she also worked as part of the writing staff and also directed a few episodes. In 2011 she was promoted to executive producer. Wow!
She’s also known for the work she’s done on her own show, The Mindy Project. It debuted in 2012 and has been nothing but a success. As for movies, you’ll probably recall seeing her in License to Wed and No Strings Attached. In addition to acting she’s also an accomplished writer. With two books behind her, she’s already working on her third. As one of the most predominant Indian-American actors currently on TV, she’s blazing a trail of success. She’s super talented and can accomplish a lot as a writer, director or producer. Keep it up Mindy!