In “Master of None,” a new Netflix series created by Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang, Ansari plays Dev, a character who resembles Ansari in all major ways (Ansari’s real parents even play his parents on the show) but one. While Ansari is an incredibly successful stand-up comedian, Dev works as a local New York actor. Although it may seem far from novel for a character and an actor to have different professions, the distinction is more singular in the niche genre to which “Master of None” belongs: Shows by stand-up comedians that star the stand-ups as paper-thinly veiled versions of themselves. Exemplified by perennial zeitgeist shows like “Seinfeld” and “Louie,” it can seem natural to just slide the storytelling persona of a stand-up comic into a show, intact.
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Here are eight series that, like “Master of None,” leave the ba-da-bum behind.
“It’s Garry Shandling’s Show” stars Garry Shandling, an L.A.-based stand-up, as Garry Shandling, an L.A.-based stand-up. Despite his fictional profession, the show doesn’t feature stand-up comedy, at least not in the straightforward vein of “Seinfeld.” Yet one could argue that entire sections of the show are stand-up sets, as Shandling talks directly to a live studio audience, telling monologue-like stories that elicit laughs. It’s not that “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show” breaks the fourth wall — because, with a theme song called “This is the Theme to Garry’s Show,” that wall never seems to exist.
For as innovative as Shandling’s first show is, however, its relentless self-consciousness could veer on hapless, and it’s easy to see why “The Larry Sanders Show” is Shandling’s more celebrated creation. Still, with an orbit centered around his randomly collected friends and neighbors, “It’s Garry Shandling Show” feels shockingly prescient, like a preemptive response to the sitcoms that dominated network television in the two decades following its run.
The entire pitch behind “Roseanne” was to bring Roseanne Barr’s “Domestic Goddess” routine to television, but the show quickly became famous for creative fights over how exactly to blend the brazen voice of Barr’s stand-up with Matt William’s (the show’s sole credited creator, although 1988 Roseanne will spit in your face for saying so) vision for an ensemble sitcom about a working class family. But, chaos aside, it is the exact bulldog spirit responsible for the show’s creative turmoil that made Barr’s stand-up memorable, and it was this same spirit that made her fictional Conner self so indelible to viewers.
Long after Williams left the show, the Domestic Goddess reigned on high, matching all of her continued behind-the-scenes veracity (ahem, the Tom Arnold years) with onscreen singularity. While the show’s form might have been familiar to any casual viewer of the ’80s/’90s sitcom, the subject matter was anything but, tackling issues like birth control and teen sex long before it was kosher for network television to do so. Off-screen, “Roseanne” was an underground cage match. Onscreen, Roseanne’s fights were our fights too.
“All-American Girl” is a notable entry on this list for the fact that it does not technically belong. The first TV series ever to center around an Asian American family, “All-American Girl” stars Margaret Cho, gives Cho’s character the name “Margaret,” and marketed itself as being based on Cho’s popular stand-up routines. But, unlike the rest of the stand-ups on this list, Cho had no formal creative role in her show, and she has since revealed that her voice went unheard behind-the-scenes. Retrospectively, it is thus no surprise that “All-American Girl” garnered none of the affection of Cho’s stand-up, instead getting assailed for its racial stereotypes and meeting swift cancelation.
As “Master of None” debuts, ready to take Hollywood’s diversity problem head on, the failure of “All-American Girl” is an important lesson for how the industry’s response to diversity is as important as its willingness to engage. Instead of writing “All-American Girl” off as an anomalous creative misfire, Hollywood burdened Cho with the failure of Asian representation, confining Asians to TV’s peripheries. Initially the first, “All-American Girl” was the last show to feature a predominantly Asian cast on TV for almost two full decades (a streak broken by ABC’s “Fresh Off the Boat”). “Master of None” also, both directly and indirectly, responds.
Before becoming a big-time stand-up, Ray Romano worked in a bank, a piece of trivia that feels absolutely essential to Romano’s vibe as your funniest coworker. With stand-up material that traded in the peculiar profundities of parenthood, Romano played like a 9-5 precursor to Louis C.K.’s blunt family truths. “Everybody Loves Raymond,” which placed Ray in the crossfires between the family he made (his wife and kids) and the one he was born into (his parents and brother), carried out the themes of Romano’s stand-up faithfully.
Indeed, with its acrid slant, the intergenerational family sitcom often operated like a heavily laugh-tracked Trojan horse for the uneasy ambivalence of familial relationships. Ordered in the same ’90s stand-up boom that wrought “All-American Girl,” “Everybody Loves Raymond” thrived by making the involvement of Romano and his material more than a gesture, mining its worldview without mechanical fidelity.
Created by Larry Wilmore, “The Bernie Mac Show” culled its conceit directly from Mac’s stand-up material in “The Original Kings of Comedy.” The show followed Bernie and his wife as they take in the three children of his rehab-bound sister, leaving Bernie to adapt to parenthood with characteristic bluster. In some ways the show was the 21st century’s answer to the blended family sitcom formula, but it never forgot its troubled premise. In addition to the pervasive tension of Bernie’s sister’s absence, Mac’s persona was all about being an authoritarian hardass, and if Bernie’s bark was worse than his bite, then his bark was still a whopper.
While “The Bernie Mac Show” underwent endless creative shifts and scheduling changes that have undermined its legacy, the series was also low-key revolutionary. Taking a page from the in-your-face dynamic of stand-up, the sitcom sat at the dawn of a TV landscape soaked in mockumentaries, as it featured Bernie frequently busting through the fourth wall to directly address “America.”
Long before “Louie” gave Louis C.K. auteur cred, he had already put his schlubby stand-up persona to use in the single-season HBO show “Lucky Louie,” playing the fatigued patriarch of a nuclear — in every sense — family. In some ways “Lucky Louie” plays like a fun-house “Louie” dream sequence. There are plenty of recognizable elements, with C.K. as the sad-sack center and Pamela Adlon ever-present as his foil, this time playing his fictional wife Kim.
But gone is the fantastical faux-realism and imaginative scope of “Louie.” Whereas his FX show makes it hard to separate actor and character, stand-up routines included, here C.K. plays a middle-class mechanic, his overall sensibilities somewhat flattened to fit a multi-camera comedy. Yet despite its more conventional form and conceit, “Lucky Louie” still had the expletive-laden and sex-happy content that’s at home on HBO. The juxtaposition foreshadowed the melancholic irony at the heart of C.K.’s more acclaimed effort.
Translating the spirit of Sarah Silverman’s stand-up to television must have felt natural, as Silverman had already curated an onstage persona as an anarchic, ghoul-eyed maniac. And it is precisely this energy of a “Simpsons” character hopped up on Halloween candy that Silverman brings to her Comedy Central show. The series always grounds itself in Silverman’s relentless giddiness, using this as a point from which to spin off its dark, risky, and downright offensive material.
Yet for all of the ways that “The Sarah Silverman Program” bears the Silverman brand, it is also clearly the product of working comics. With a writing staff that included the likes of Dan Harmon, Tig Notaro and the late Harris Wittels, “The Sarah Silverman Program” used every episode to throw dozens of half-baked, absurd ideas at a wall that they then ran straight into. While this experimental chaos barred Silverman’s series from ever achieving consistent greatness, the result was compelling TV.
Reading an early synopsis of Josh Thomas’ acclaimed series (a coproduction between Pivot and the Australian Broadcast Corporation), it’s hard to believe that the spirit of stand-up comedy has anything to do with it, as the first episode sees Josh’s mom make a suicide attempt on the same night that Josh has his first gay experience. But it is precisely the happy jabs of stand-up comedy that most characterize Thomas’ largely autobiographical show, as he confronts dark material with blunt clarity but never bitterness.
Thomas, who made a name for himself as a stand-up in Australia when he was just 17, has since claimed to have no further interest in the stage, but no matter. In Josh’s friendship with human shrug Tom (Tom Ward, a writer on the show and Thomas’ real life BFF), “Please Like Me” depicts a relationship whose scalding hot burns never truly sting thanks to a foundation of simpatico loyalty. “Please Like” thus distils stand-up to its purest essence: a way of looking at life more truthfully, while still striving for the laugh.
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