Being funny isn’t easy. There are very few people with the talent to become successful stand up comedians, but those who do manage to achieve critical acclaim have the potential to garner legions of fans willing to pay big bucks to see them do their bits.
Stand up comedy has proven to be a stepping-stone for many of the biggest stars in comedy. Some comedians became worldwide icons and super rich solely thanks to touring as a stand-up comedian.
For others there are so many other mediums of comedy to consider. Many successful stand-up comedians parlay their success into a Hollywood movie career. Other stand ups become sitcom stars or writers. And of course there are many stand-ups that have gone on to appear in sketch comedy shows like Saturday Night Live. A select few stand-up comedians even manage to become late night talk show hosts.
Indeed, many huge Hollywood comic stars started off as stand-up comedians. Some A-listers, like Jim Carrey and Steve Martin, mostly left stand-up behind after becoming Hollywood icons. Other stand-ups, like Jay Leno, kept touring even after making it big in another comedy format. Most of the Hollywood stars who started out in the world of stand-up are well known as comedians. However, there are some Hollywood stars you may not have even known began their careers in booze and smoke-filled comedy clubs – stars whose preferred movie genre isn’t even comedy.
These are ten Hollywood stars you didn’t know started out as stand-up comedians.
10. Seth Rogen
Seth Rogen is one of the biggest and most successful names in comedy today. He is one of only a handful comedy stars that can still draw huge box office numbers. Even before he made it big – by turning the script he wrote with his friend Evan Goldberg in high school into the popular film Superbad – Rogen was heavily involved in the world of comedy.
He’s best known as a comedy writer and actor, but he first caught the comedy bug when he was doing stand-up comedy in Vancouver when he was just a teenager. At 16, he won the Vancouver Amateur Comedy Contest thanks to his stand-up comedy routine.
Soon after, he was cast in Judd Apatow’s Freaks and Geeks, and the two have worked on numerous projects together since then including Funny People. In preparation for his role in the film Funny People, Rogen returned to stand up briefly.
9. Steve Buscemi
He is known for his critically acclaimed acting roles in films like Fargo and Reservoir Dogs, and Steve Buscemi is a regular or has had a cameo role in just about every Adam Sandler movie you can think of. Although he is no stranger to comedy, his short time doing stand-up comedy was certainly not a major contributing factor in his rise to stardom.
In fact, Buscemi didn’t make much of an impression doing stand-up comedy, as he himself has admitted. He discussed his early, less successful days doing stand up in the New York club scene when he recently featured on Gilbert Gottfried’s podcast. Buscemi said he once did stand up shows alongside Gottfried and even the legendary Robin Williams.
8. Michael Keaton
Michael Keaton is known for his long, successful career in acting across both serious and comedy roles.
Before Tim Burton‘s Batman movies, people knew Michael Keaton as the star of comedy films like Mr. Mom and Beetlejuice. Even before that, he was a rising star in the word of stand-up comedy. Keaton never went back to stand-up comedy after hitting it big, and after the Batman movies he largely stayed away from comedy roles of any kind.
Other than guest spots on comedy TV shows like the Simpsons and 30 Rock, Keaton was mostly absent from the world of comedy for a long time; opting instead to take dramatic roles or simply relax with his millions.
His role in the dark comedy film Birdman earned him an Oscar nomination, and he was praised for hosting Saturday Night Live recently – the first time he has hosted in over 20 years. Now, with a new Beetlejuice movie rumored to be coming soon, it looks like Keaton may be on the way back to his comfortable comedy niche.
7. Ron Perlman
Ron Perlman is certainly not a name you would associate with stand-up comedy. Instead he is best known for his dramatic work on the TV series Sons of Anarchy and the two times he played Hellboy on the big screen.
Ron Perlman managed to become a Hollywood star not because of but rather despite his time in stand-up comedy. When he was just in high school, he formed a comedy duo with his high school friend called Stuart and Perry. Unfortunately, the pair soon found out they were not very good at writing material.
In an interview on Queen Latifah’s talk show, he said that instead of writing original material the two committed the biggest sin in comedy; they stole jokes. Stuart and Perry were telling jokes written by legends George Carlin and Henny Youngman. The pair got away with it for a while, but they soon realized comedy certainly wasn’t the right path when they were heckled and almost beaten up at a comedy club in the Bronx.
6. Kevin Spacey
Kevin Spacey is, perhaps surprisingly, one of the greatest mimics out there. His impressions of Johnny Carson and Jimmy Stewart are impeccable. His Carson imitation is so good that many believe he is the only choice to ever play the king of late night if a big screen biopic is ever made.
But fans might not know that the great actor Spacey honed his skills of impersonation doing stand-up comedy – when he was right out of high school, Spacey tried his hand at stand-up. The House of Cards and the Usual Suspects actor honed his dramatic acting skills at Juilliard, but before that he was doing his impressions and some jokes at open mics and talent contests in bowling alleys.
5. Eric Bana
Unless you’re Australian, you probably didn’t know Eric Bana had any sort of background in comedy at all, let alone stand-up comedy. Even though he was often known to imitate his family and teachers when he was young, it wasn’t until 1991 that Bana started to seriously consider a career in show business.
He performed stand-up comedy at inner-city pubs while he was working as a barman at Melbourne’s Castle Hotel. This did not provide him with enough income to support himself, so he continued his work as a barman and waiting tables.
After appearing on a late night talk show, he caught the eye of producers of the Australian sketch comedy show Full Frontal. After appearing on that sketch show he created his own sketch program called the Eric Bana Show Live. This was one of his last comedy gigs and he soon started to take on dramatic work in films like Chopper and Munich.
4. Tom Hanks
Before becoming perhaps the most versatile actor of his generation, Tom Hanks cut his teeth early in his career doing cheesy and raunchy teen comedies like Bachelor Party and the Man with One Red Shoe. Even before that, he was doing sitcom work on shows like Family Ties.
His most famous, but still often forgotten, sitcom work was his starring role on Bosom Buddies. Tom Hanks has become such a massive star and amazing talent that many people forget his fairly humble beginnings in showbiz. Even fewer people remember that he once did stand-up comedy.
However, he wasn’t regularly performing at comedy clubs. Instead he took to the stage only briefly to prepare for his role as a down-and-out stand up in the criminally underrated 1989 film Punchline. His research for the role paid off and he gave a stellar performance alongside his Forrest Gump co-star Sally Field.
3. Emma Thompson
Emma Thompson honed her acting skills when she was in University at Cambridge. She was in the sketch comedy troupe known as the Footlights, and it was here that she met and worked alongside future British comedy legends Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry.
Not only did she get her start doing sketch comedy, but you may be surprised to learn that she also did stand-up comedy earlier on in her career. During an interview with Newsweek, Thompson described her act standup comedy act as being very blue.
“[It was] all rude . . . basically, herpes and things like that, which doesn’t necessarily go down well with everyone,” she said. The success and acclaim she has found doing dramas like Sense and Sensibility and Howard’s End has largely overshadowed her time doing comedy, so it may be surprising for fans to learn of her sketch comedy background.
2. Simon Pegg
Simon Pegg is a familiar face in the world of comedy, but you probably didn’t know his star was born in stand-up comedy. After graduating from the University of Bristol, Pegg moved to London and began doing stand up around the city at various clubs.
He wasn’t on the comedy club circuit for very long, though, because he soon impressed many executives who wanted to see him on television. After numerous appearances in sitcoms and sketch comedy shows, Pegg co-wrote and starred in the cult classic sitcom Spaced. The sitcom was directed by Edgar Wright, and Wright would help launch Simon Pegg’s movie career with hits like Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and the Word’s End.
These films came to be known as the Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy and were all directed by Wright. All three films starred Simon Pegg, and Pegg also co-wrote the films with Wright. Pegg has now gone even further in Hollywood; he has appeared in the most recent Star Trek and Mission Impossible films.
1. Woody Allen
Comedy Central ranked Woody Allen as the fourth best stand-up comedian of all time on its list of 100 greatest stand-up comedians, but there are many people today that might have completely forgotten that the prolific director and playwright was once a leading stand-up comedian.
After working as TV comedy writer in the 50s, Allen started to perform stand up in New York in the early 1960s. By the late 1960 he had moved on from stand-up comedy.
His directorial skills, and even the many controversies surrounding his private life, have largely overshadowed the fact that he was a stand-up comedy pioneer and one of the best of all time. His movies became so successful and critically acclaimed that he gave up stand-up entirely to focus on directing.
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