The 9 Most Innovative Moments of TV Comedy

July 2, 2008


George Carlin passed away on the 22nd of June, and although the comedic community mourned, the funeral wails have all but faded. So it's time to start joking around. With little chance of a crowd crying "too soon," we examine where Carlin fits in the pantheon of televised comedians.  Anyway, something tells me the Carlin would be the first to make light of the situation. Bill Maher and Garry Shandling already did while honoring him at his funeral.  Instead of wallowing in what could've been, let's revel in what we've got so far. Here's a look at some of the other innovators that either preceded or followed in Carlin's televised footprints.

9. Eddie Murphy Raw
On Dec. 18, 1987, Eddie Murphy played a 90 minutes set at New York City's Felt Forum (now called WaMu Theater in MSG).  This was less revolutionary for the material of the comedy as for the material of the wardrobe. One was good.  One was revolutionary. He was basically a precursor to Chris Rock; Rock just knew to wear less (and less colorful) leather.  Hence, his success.

8. Dane Cook on Comedy Central
On June 28th of 2000, the world was introduced to Dane Cook. Love him or hate him, Dane Cook is easily the most popular (if polarizing) comic out there today.  And it all started with his appearance on Comedy Central Presents in an annoying black tank top.  Other comics say he steals material. Maybe.  Prove it and I'll give you a cookie. They say he doesn't "tell real jokes" or that he only "makes funny faces." Who cares? I laugh when he pretends to be the Kool Aid man, and I will never apologize for that.

7. Chris Rock's First HBO Special
Chris Rock’s first HBO special wasn’t the first time a black guy made it big in comedy, but his was certainly the biggest, most popular, and arguably most incendiary time.  Filmed in the Tacoma Theater in Washington, D.C., Rock's first HBO Special, Bring the Pain, aired in June of 1996 and catapulted him from a talented circuit comedian to a national comedic icon.  His bits were largely political and race-based, but Rock's sharp criticisms were accurate in content and light in delivery making him a very palatable yet cerebral comic.  For his special, Rock received two Emmy Awards: Outstanding Variety, Music or Comedy Special and Outstanding Writing for a Variety or Music Program. Chris Rock, before this film, had only minor parts that largely entrenched Black stereotypes.  After this film, he was able to break into other, more serious roles leaving the doors at least partially open behind him.    

6. Seinfeld Premiere
Seinfeld, a self-described show about nothing, has a heretofore undiscovered formula for stand-up comedy successfully morphing into a sitcom.  A show about nothing based in the most abrasive city in the Nation that ran for 9 seasons seems ridiculous. Since its genesis in July of 1989, the mystery has remained, but at least the DVDs are available for your study.  Witness the first dialogue, which is inane as you and your friends at the coffee shop.  And just like in real life, you can't help but listen in.

5. Introduction of Statler and Waldorf Muppets
The Muppets were (and are) underrated by popular culture.  These particular puppets are more commonly referred to as "the old guys in the balcony."  With their introduction to the Muppets (and pop culture) we got a fun little nugget of self-aware entertainment.  They heckle the show in a very self-referential, meta way that tickles my post modern funny bone.  *snooty giggle.  Especially important is that they've been around since the beginning - they starred in the very first Muppet pilot: The Muppet Show: Sex and Violence. They've been around since 1975.  It's now 2008, so that would make them ageless.

4. Robin Williams as Mork
The character of Mork the alien is best known from the series Mork and Mindy, but Mork was actually first introduced in Happy Days in 1977. This was the season that Jumped the Shark, and signaled the end of the Fonz.  But, in the eternal balance of network television, it was also the Genesis of Robin Williams as Mork.  Take your pick from any of the early episodes.  They're all frenetic examples of almost otherworldly (get it?) improvisation.  This was the Earth's first taste of Robin Williams and we liked it.  It wasn't until a few years later that he confessed from rehab most of that was the drugs.  Whatever. It was funny then, and it's funny now.


3. Will Ferrell's Cowbell
On April 8th, of 2000, a dulcet, comedic tone rang out through this land.  It was the tone of the cowbell, and Will Ferrell owed it to himself (and his band) to play the hell out of it. This sketch spawned and entire army of Will Ferrell devotees and thousands upon thousands of dollars in t-shirts with quotes from his sketches.  Also worth noting:  as flawless as Ferrell is, that's how bad Jimmy Fallon is at comedy.  Insert straight man joke in bad taste.

2. George Carlin's 7 Dirty Words
George Carlin was an unapologetic comedic innovator.  He paved the way for modern comics in an era that was mostly one-liners and slapstick.  Clever repartee was not the order of the day, until George Carlin delivered 7 particularly beaux mots. In 1972, on his album Class Clown, he had a bit about the 7 dirty words that you can't say on television. Additionally, this bit catalyzed a Supreme Court case, though it ultimately was decided Carlin's act be censored.


1. Andy Kaufman on Fridays
Andy Kaufman erred on the side of madness when it came to bordering on genius.  He fought women, he antagonized his own fans, and generally goofed on Elvis.  Looking back on the (now tragicomic) spectacle of it all, it's easy to laugh, but Kaufman largely confounded his contemporaries. When Andy Kaufman goes off-script to shake things up, check out how the less-nimble players react.  1981 was a much more buttoned-down era of television comedy.  The pseudo-improvisational style of Curb Your Enthusiasm, Arrested Development, and The Office was non-existent. The look on the other actors' faces is proof of the innovation here.