20 Famous Stars Who Started Their Acting Careers in Stand-Up Comedy

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Stand-up comedy can be a brutal industry. Definitely not for the faint of heart, it’s an unpredictable on-stage job that’s subject to how much your audience likes—and laughs at—your material. Some comedians hit it big telling jokes, while others leave the mic behind to make a name for themselves in acting. 

While it’s a risky move, quite a few celebrities parlayed their early stand-up experience into trying their hand at acting. That leap of faith paid off, as they built swoon-worthy careers in acting in well-loved sitcoms and iconic movies. We’ve rounded up a list of some of the best stand-up comedians-turned-actors, some of whom will surprise you and others you’ll recognize instantly.

1. Jim Carrey

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Jim Carrey is a master of the laugh. The famed comedic actor has amazingly spanned all movie genres and won five awards for his acting abilities. 

Long before anyone believed that Carrey would become a once-in-a-generation actor, he did stand-up comedy in Toronto nightclubs. Legendary funnyman Rodney Dangerfield took Carrey under his wing, but it wasn’t long before Carrey broke out on his own and became one of the best stand-up acts in the 1980s.

2. Whoopi Goldberg

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Whoopi Goldberg spends her days as one of The View’s daytime talk show hosts. But in the ’80s, she was known for her stand-up routine, The Spook Show

This act garnered Goldberg such fast fame that the act soon moved to Broadway, cementing her future career in the world of comedic acting and beyond.  

3. Steve Martin

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Steve Martin is a central cast member in the comedy movie explosion during the 1980s. Martin’s obsession with comedy started two decades earlier when he started performing stand-up comedy acts in the 1960s. Eventually, his laugh-inducing work paid off when he won an Emmy for his work on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Show. He also worked as a magician at Disneyland before starting his acting career, which shouldn’t surprise his fans one bit.

Since then, Martin has continued starring in various big-hit comedy films and made frequent appearances on shows like Saturday Night Live.

4. Jamie Foxx

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Eric Bishop wanted to do stand-up comedy so badly that he changed his name to Jamie Foxx to compete with female comedians during open mic nights. Foxx noticed that women were often called up first to perform during shows, so he changed his first name to “Jamie,” which could be a man’s or woman’s first name. For a new surname, he chose Foxx as a tribute to comedian Red Foxx.   

Foxx’s level of dedication to his craft is evident in his acting ability. Starring roles in films like Ray and Django Unchained have cemented Foxx’s status as an iconic actor.

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5. Robin Williams

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Robin Williams brightened the lives of everyone he met for more than 60 years. The late actor is remembered for his dramatic roles in cult classic films like  Dead Poets Society and Good Will Hunting.

Before he became an Academy Award-winning actor, Williams spent his time in San Francisco’s stand-up clubs. His routine earned the reputation for being volatile and lightning-fast. It wasn’t long before Williams’ unique talent got noticed, and the star was cast in comedy gold TV shows like Mork & Mindy.

6. Bette Midler

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Fans were ecstatic to hear that Bette Midler would be making a comeback appearance in the Hocus Pocus sequel, and those same fans probably wouldn’t be surprised to know that Midler was a stand-up comedy star in the ’70s.

While Midler is commonly referred to as a ‘queer icon,’ not many people know that she began her career performing comedy in New York City’s gay bathhouses. Her performances here would later inspire the album that granted her first Grammy award, The Divine Miss M.

7. Chris Rock

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Chris Rock’s role as Pookie in the 1991 film New Jack City earned the star national recognition as a dramatic actor. He went on to have a well-received semi-autobiographical sitcom based on his life, Everybody Hates Chris.

None of that would have been possible if comedy and acting legend Eddie Murphy hadn’t discovered Rock performing stand-up at the Catch a Rising Star comedy club in New York. Murphy took the fledgling comedian under his wing, and before long, Rock catapulted to stardom and the rest is history.

8. Michael Keaton

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Michael Keaton will always be remembered for his roles in classic films like Beetlejuice and Batman. Before deciding to become an actor, Keaton tried his hand at stand-up comedy. He performed and perfected his routines in Pennsylvania before eventually moving to Hollywood to begin his acting career.

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9. Simon Pegg

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With his performance in Shaun of the Dead, Simon Pegg gave audiences one of the best zombie movies ever made. Before becoming popular in the series Spaced, Pegg spent time between roles performing stand-up to pay the bills before becoming a full-fledged star.  

10. Steve Buscemi

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Steve Buscemi does it all! He’s a volunteer firefighter, dramatic actor and a great stand-up comedian. Before he became a noteworthy actor, he was half of the Steve & Mark act. This comedy duo performed for eight years together before Buscemi decided to focus solely on acting.

11. Donald Glover

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Donald Glover, aka Childish Gambino, has proven that he can handle any challenge thrown at him. Whether it’s acting, writing or producing music, Glover can’t seem to fail. He started his early career by performing sketch comedy and doing stand-up acts before moving on to more serious performances like comedy-drama series Atlanta.

12. Ron Perlman

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Ever heard anyone say that Ron Perlman looks like someone shoved rage and violence into a bottle and shook it up? That’s why it might surprise his fans that the actor got his start in stand-up comedy. Perlman and a high school friend even stole jokes and attempted to pass them off as their own at different shows until they got caught and heckled. 

Perlman has also excelled at being a well-known voice actor, in roles like Clayface in DC Animated Universe, Slade in Teen Titans and Mr. Lancer in Danny Phantom.

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13. Bob Odenkirk

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Bob Odenkirk has been regarded as a recent breakout star for his roles in Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul, but he’s actually been in the entertainment industry since the 1980s. He began his career performing stand-up comedy in Chicago before eventually becoming a writer for SNL.

When asked why he abandoned stand-up, Odenkirk said, “I couldn’t tell a joke more than twice without hating it.” He continued to work behind the scenes before Breaking Bad put him on the national stage.

14. Adam Sandler

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Adam Sandler began his career as a stand-up comedian in New York City’s cutthroat and competitive nightclubs. While his off-beat musical comedy didn’t resonate with the patrons of the nightclubs, luckily the star would soon earn a coveted spot on SNL, where his comedic talents would be better recognized. Today, Sandler is one of the best-known and loved comedic actors.

15. Ken Jeong

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Before Ken Jeong was splitting sides in the hit show Community, he was a practicing doctor in Hollywood. Jeong decided that being a licensed doctor wasn’t really his life’s dream, so he began performing stand-up acts in local comedy clubs.

It wasn’t long before people noticed Jeong’s talent, and he got his first acting role in Knocked Up. His success skyrocketed after his hysterically unforgettable performance in The Hangover. Jeong went full circle by creating Dr. Ken, a television series about his time as a doctor.

16. Tim Allen

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Tim Allen is most known for playing a family man in the hit TV series Home Improvement and as Santa Claus in The Santa Clause movies. Yet, in the 1980s, he was known better for his raunchy-at-times stand-up comedy routine. Allen performed comedy at the famous Comedy Store in California before cleaning up his image and being cast in Home Improvement.

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17. Suzy Eddie Izzard

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Today, Suzy Eddie Izzard is primarily known for championing social justice causes and outstanding dramatic performances in films like Doctor Jekyll. But long before becoming a household name in the U.K. for acting, Izzard toured the world as a stand-up comedian.

Izzard’s stand-up act was marked with witty historical jokes and anecdotal stories about being a male-presenting person who could pull off a dress and heels with the best of them. Izzard still performs comedy tours occasionally, but at this point, is primarily sought after for an amazing acting prowess.

18. Dennis Leary

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Many people know Dennis Leary for his roles in shows like Rescue Me and The Ref. Before he became a serious character actor, he was a loud-mouth stand-up comedian. Leary’s stand-up act became famous for his chain-smoking, screaming and generally angry demeanor.

19. Billy Crystal

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Billy Crystal caught his big break when he was cast in the progressive TV show Soap. Playing an openly gay character made Crystal a household name almost overnight.

Before this, Crystal made a name for himself as a stand-up comedian in prolific New York clubs. While he performed well as a stand-up performer, he’s most well-known for films such as When Harry Met Sally.

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20. Larry David

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Larry David is famous for creating shows like Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm. His abrasive personality has made him an easily recognizable star. However, some fans may not know that David used this to his advantage on the comedic circuit in his younger days.

David performed stand-up routines at the Catch a Rising Star club in the ’70s and ’80s, but his volatile temper didn’t go over well with the club’s audience. But other comedians loved the act and would stick around to see David yell at audience members. This led to David meeting comedic luminaries like Jerry Seinfeld and Gilbert Gottfried. These friendships helped David ascend to the star he is today.

 

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