Jordan Peele & Mel Brooks

From The Stage To Behind The Camera: 18 Comedians Who Became Feature Film Directors

Many comedy fans might not know just how much the movie business & stand-up comedy go hand and hand. In fact, some of the biggest stand-up comedians in the game have ventured on to other sectors of entertainment & business to grow their empire & expand their creative arsenal. This shouldn’t be too much of a surprise, as comedians are storytellers by nature. As comedians, it’s their job to hold a mirror up to what we encounter every day but never take time to notice. In film, those observations are just as much at home. So shifting to writing and directing films - which is simply another form of storytelling - is about as smooth of a shift if there’s ever been one.

The history of comedians going into filmmaking goes back many decades, all the way to Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. Mostly, it was a way for them to have even more control over their output, once their star rose to a certain point. This continued over the years with the likes of Jerry Lewis, Mike Nichols, Mel Brooks, Albert Brooks, Christopher Guest, Bob Odenkirk, Judd Apatow, to recent entries like Amy Poehlor and Jordan Peele, among countless others.

In this unique list, the 800 Pound Gorilla News Team breaks down 18 comedians who’ve made their way into directing and spotlighting their catalog of films directed throughout their career so far. Here are just some of the many established comedians turned feature film directors who’ve successfully made the jump from stand-up & sketch comedy to directing.

Disclaimer: this list is dedicated to filmmakers who’ve shifted more into the filmmaking world as opposed to doing just as a one-off film.

Chris Rock

Chris Rock is indisputably one of the biggest names in comedy who’s conquered just about every feat you can think of in the stand-up comedy world from winning & being nominated for Best Comedy Album at the Grammys to winning two Emmys for his comedy specials. But beyond stand-up & acting, Rock has proven himself to be an established filmmaker having directed three feature length films. First was his 2003 directorial debut Head of State, then 2007’s I Think I Love My Wife & his most notable offering so far being 2014’s Top Five (all of which he also starred in).

Judd Apatow

Judd Apatow got his start as a stand-up comedy fan, before becoming a stand-up himself in the mid-1980’s. By the 90’s, he left stand-up behind in favor of writing and producing for TV and films like The Cable Guy, The Larry Sanders Show, The Ben Stiller Show, Heavyweights, and of course Freaks and Geeks. After producing Anchorman, Apatow decided to take a seat in the director’s chair for the first time with The 40-Year Old Virgin. That film set the mold for what an Apatow film is.

An Apatow film is a comedy that manages to look past the lead character’s shortcomings to find their heart at the center. With directorial films like Knocked Up, Funny People, This is 40, Trainwreck, and The King of Staten Island - not to mention films he produced like Superbad and Forgetting Sarah Marshall -, we look past the rough exterior of the subject and find the comedy within the person. He made the long dormant R-rated comedies commercial mainstays again. As a director, he also brought us Emmy-winning documentaries on Gary Shandling and George Carlin that show how Apatow has matured as a filmmaker over the years.

Mel Brooks

Mel Brooks is, easily, one of the most important comedic filmmakers of the 20th century. After having gotten his start as a stand-up performer in the Catskills and as a writer on Sid Cesar’s iconic Your Show of Shows, Brooks spent nearly two decades working in the Hollywood system before he got the chance to make his own film. That was The Producers, for which he won an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. He followed this up with a line of films as a writer and director, including The Twelve Chairs, Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, Silent Movie, High Anxiety, History of the World Part I, Spaceballs, Robin Hood Men in Tights, Life Stinks, and Dracula Dead and Loving It.

The films featured his trademark love of visual and physical gags, as well as writing that was not afraid to offend anyone and everyone, all for a laugh. A Mel Brooks joke is the kind that will stick with you long after you see it for the first time, and you can’t help but to recite your favorite moments to your friends. As far as comedies go, his films are in a league all their own, and they still hold up today. Not only did we grow up watching them, but they informed us of what we find funny. Easily the best of the best.

Bobcat Goldthwait

When you think of Bobcat Goldthwait, there’s many different places your mind can go. To some, they remember him as the comedian who screamed in the 80’s. To others, he’s remembered for the Police Academy movies, or for setting Jay Leno’s chair on fire during an appearance on The Tonight Show. As much as we love his wild stand-up and anarchist talk show spots, his work as a filmmaker is widely overlooked. That, to us, is a travesty.

Goldthwait’s first film was back in the early 90’s, when he gave us Shakes the Clown. It was a very dark comedy that Martin Scorsese praised as “the Citizen Kane of alcoholic clown movies.” Those dark undertones would follow Goldthwait throughout his filmmaking career, including on his 2006 film Sleeping Dogs Lie, and his 2012 film God Bless America. But perhaps our favorite Bobcat Goldthwait film is Robin Williams turn as a dad who stages his son’s accidental death as a suicide in World’s Greatest Dad. Beyond that, he’s made documentaries and an anthology TV show. Don’t let his work as a stand-up make you forget about just how good he is behind the camera.

Woody Allen

While Woody Allen’s name may be shrouded in controversy, you cannot ignore his contribution to film. If you’re looking for a prolific filmmaker, Woody Allen is in a league all his own. Once regarded as one of the great stand-ups of the 60’s, Allen managed to step behind the camera with 1966’s What’s Up, Tiger Lily? Despite mixed reviews, Allen set a precedent for his career with this venture. It was followed up with films like Take the Money and Run, Bananas, Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask), Annie Hall, Manhattan, to more modern films like Midnight in Paris and Blue Jasmine, among countless others. 

Just this past year, Allen completed work on his 50th film. He’s so prolific that from 1982 until 2017, we never went a year without a Woody Allen film. That’s a record that’s never going to be broken, we reckon. His personal life and the allegations against him have understandably tarnished his image, you also need to give credit where due. Allen’s films were confessional and showcased human behavior in ways we had seldom seen before, and managed to influence all of your favorite filmmakers. 

Jerry Lewis

Jerry Lewis is another case of separating the art from the artist. His contribution to comedy - whether as part of the comedy team Martin and Lewis or his solo work - may be legendary, but his contribution to filmmaking is just as noteworthy. After making 17 (!!) films with Dean Martin in a 10 year period, Lewis started starring in his own films in 1957’s The Delicate Delinquet. He linked up with Frank Tashlin the following year for Rock-a-bye Baby, who easily influenced Lewis’ style as a filmmaker for their next few outings.

In 1960, Lewis decided to direct his own film, The Bellboy. To accomplish starring in and directing a film, he created what is now known as the video assist, where he could watch a take back after calling cut. Lewis then primarily directed his own films, including The Ladies Man, The Errand Boy, The Nutty Professor, The Patsy, The Disorderly Orderly, The Family Jewels, and countless others. His trademark - like Brooks - was to rely on visual gags and physicality onscreen. He set the bar high for comedies to come, with many citing him as an inspiration, including Jerry Seinfeld, Jim CarreyEddie Murphy, and countless others.

Jordan Peele

Since the beginning of Jordan Peele’s career in 2003 to 2017, he was primarily known for his brilliant & standout work as one half of the sketch comedy duo, Key & Peele, opposite Keegan Michael Key, as well as his work on Mad TV. Little did everyone know that when Peele stepped into a completely different genre of horror as a feature film director with his directorial debut, Get Out, his career would skyrocket even further. His debut was an exceptional critical & box office success that ultimately landed him three Academy Award nominations including Best Picture, Best Screenplay (which he wrote AND won) and most impressively in relation to this list: he landed an Oscar nomination for Best Director.

We don’t hear too much from him in the comedy world these days as he’s continued to make more smash horror flicks including Us (2019) & Nope (2022), but when we do, it’s most likely credited to his fellow talented & comedian filmmaking wife, Chelsea Peretti.

Christopher Guest

Christopher Guest is the king of the mockumentary. Long before The Office brought the format to TV, Guest was doing it in film. Guest was part of the National Lampoon Radio Hour camp, right before half the crew went onto do the first season of SNL, a show that Guest would later join in the mid-80’s for a season. In 1984, he joined forces with Michael McKean, Harry Shearer, and director Rob Reiner to write This is Spinal Tap, easily one of the best comedies of all time. While Guest didn’t direct it, he did step behind the camera for his own films that would define his career.

By 1996, Guest made his first foray into directing with Waiting for Guffman. The film was a mockumentary that was mostly improvised, and set the blueprint for a model that he’d follow throughout his impressive career. Subsequent directing outings were Best in Show, A Mighty Wind, and Mascots. While he may not be the most prolific filmmaker on our list, he is easily one of the most important. If you’ve never seen a Christopher Guest film, make sure to add it to the list!

Harold Ramis

Harold Ramis was another case of someone coming straight out of the world of Second City and National Lampoon. His first foray into filmmaking came in 1978 with the iconic Animal House. Once that became a runaway hit, he followed it up with Meatballs, before he got his own chance to direct with Caddyshack. Simply put: If you are a fan of comedies in any way - especially 1980’s comedies -, you revere Harold Ramis. He was a clear forefather of the offbeat comedies that we all grew up with.

Even though he didn’t direct Ghostbusters, his fingerprints are all over it as a star and writer, as it is with Stripes and Back to School. As a director, however, Ramis brought us National Lampoon’s Vacation, Club Paradise, Groundhog Day, Stuart Saves his Family, Multiplicity, Bedazzled, Analyze This, Analyze That, The Ice Harvest, and Year One. During his 30 years in film, he gave us work that will last a lifetime.

Paul Feig

Many comedy fans may know renowned film director Paul Feig for his work on Bridesmaids, the 2016 female led Ghostbusters, Spy, A Simple Favor and for creating one of television’s biggest cult followed yet short lived comedy series, Freaks & Geeks. But what most people may not know is that Feig first got his start in LA as a stand-up comedian. While making his way up the comedy ladder early in his career, he came up with fellow comedian turned filmmaker Judd Apatow performing stand-up where they would end up collaborating together on Freaks & Geeks, Bridesmaids & so much more.

Albert Brooks

Albert Brooks - the song of comedian Harry Einstein - has comedy in his blood. That’s something he proved as one of the most innovative stand-ups of the 1970’s, where he managed to deconstruct the art form by tearing down the fourth wall and showing comedy for what it really could be, aside from your standard set-up/punchline. His work was a thing of legend, but there was a whole new area he had yet to deconstruct: Film.

It started when he made some short films for Saturday Night Live, starting with the show’s premiere episode in a piece called Show Us Your Guns. After directing six short films, in 1979 he made Real Life. Again, by playing a version of himself that talks directly to the camera, he’s breaking down the fourth wall of the medium. He followed this up with Modern Romance, Lost in America, Defending Your Life, Mother, The Muse, and Looking For Comedy in the Muslim World. He hasn’t directed a film in nearly two decades, but his impact will surely live on.

Seth MacFarlane

Since 1999, Seth MacFarlane introduced a new wave of animation & comedy via his mega successful television series Family Guy, for which he created & voices the majority of the characters on the show including Brian, Stewie, Peter & Quagmire among other guest roles. The show in fact just recently celebrated 25 years on the air & hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down anytime soon. Before launching his career, he studied animation & performed stand-up comedy on the side while attending the Rhode Island School of Design.

As far as filmmaking goes, MacFarlane easily earns a spot on this list as a comedian turned filmmaker for his debut directing one the highest earning R-rated comedies of all time with the help of his 2012 raunchy teddy bear flick: Ted (earned $549.4 million gross worldwide).

The film later spawned a 2015 sequel & just this year launched a prequel event series at Peacock (which also has a second season on the way). In between all this, he also directed & starred in the 2014 western comedy flick, A Million Ways To Die In The West, what many may perceive as a misfire was just a small bump in the road that would eventually lead to more success in comedic television including creating The Orville.

Ben Stiller

Ben Stiller loves to multitask. Stiller’s films seem to find success when he is the star both in front of the camera and behind it. Zoolander and The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty had Stiller as both the lead and the director. Stiller has also directed many more films, television shows, music videos, and even as a segment of Saturday Night Live. Severance is Stiller’s newest directing job with the producer also directing 6 episodes. The AppleTV+ show has only released one mind-bending season but is hoping to release its second later this year. The show follows Mark (Adam Scott) as he tries to figure out the truth behind the company he works for who has surgically separated Mark’s memories at the office from those at home.

Amy Poehler

The longtime Saturday Night Live mainstay and star of the hit sitcom Parks and Recreation, Amy Poehler has also found a love for directing. Poehlor brought her SNL friends along for her Netflix Original film Wine Country starring herself, Rachel Dratch, Ana Gasteyer, Maya Rudolph, Paula Pell, Emily Spivey, and Tina Fey. After the comedic film with its hilarious cast, Poehler tried her hand at a more earnest comedic drama called Moxie which follows a teenager who hopes to call out sexism at her high school. Poehler took a complete 180 with her newest film, the 2022 documentary Lucy and Desi which tracks the rise of the comedic legend Lucille Ball and her relationship with her husband Desi Arnaz.

Penny Marshall

Penny Marshall is a comedy connoisseur who had a pretty impressive upbringing into the Hollywood & comedy world rising alongside her soon to be legendary filmmaking brother, Garry Marshall. In the television space, she got her first breakout role from being a part of the hit television duo & series Laverne & Shirley, a spinoff of the cultural phenomenon Happy Days, where she first got to make herself known for her comedic chops (she first got her start as a dancer growing up). It was from performing on Laverne & Shirley that created the perfect launch pad for Penny to enter the world of feature filmmaking. Her brother Garry, who also worked on Laverne & Shirley as a producer, was an instrumental part of her learning what it took to work behind the camera from her first stints into directing her hit series.

From collaborating on the show with Garry, who in hand continued his ever growing resume of film credits, she would then get her first directing gig with the comedic thriller, Jumpin’ Jack Flash. Shortly after would be the film that perhaps she’s best known for directing with Tom Hanks starring-breakout role in the fantasy comedy classic, Big. That movie particularly was a monumental feat for Marshall as it ultimately became the first film directed by a woman to gross more than $100 million at the U.S. box office. And this is just cracking the surface for Penny, the rest of her critically acclaimed films following those truly make her the icon that she is today: she’s also directed Awakenings, A League of Their Own, Renaissance Man, and The Preacher’s Wife.

Elaine May

Before her run as a feature filmmaker & becoming an Academy-Award nominated screenwriter, Elaine May first became known for her improv stylings with the help of her frequent collaborator & fellow comedian turned filmmaker Mike Nichols, together they created their act as Nichols & May. They’re signature comedy act together earned them four Grammy nominations (including a win for An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May in 1962) & a massive impact influencing many of today’s working comedians including Jerry Seinfeld & John Mulaney, who’ve both cited them as influences for their own stand-up & comedy stylings growing up.

We have Elaine to thank for the 2007 version of the hit romantic black comedy film starring Ben Stiller, The Heartbreak Kid, as she directed the original film that came out in 1972. Her previous directorial efforts included her directorial debut in the screwball comedy A New Leaf, the gangster film Mikey and Nicky, and the adventure comedy Ishtar. The latter was, of course, met with derision at the time for going over budget, but has since gained a cult following. Of course, she later reunited with Nichols to pen the script for The Birdcage, which is also now regarded as a cult classic.

Mike Nichols

You can’t talk about Elaine May without talking about Mike Nichols. Alongside May, Nichols and May is regarded as one of the greatest comedy duos of all time. After first meeting in Chicago and doing improv together as part of the Compass Players, Nichols and May moved to New York and had the hit Broadway show An Evening with Nichols and May in 1960. Despite winning a Grammy Award for the album, they drifted apart and the team was broken up by 1961.

By 1966, Nichols segued into directing with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf? The film was a success, and followed up by The Graduate, Catch-22, Silkwood, Biloxi Blues, Postcards from the Edge, and The Birdcage, among countless others. The Graduate even managed to get him an Academy Award for Best Director, putting him in a small category of comedians who have gone onto hold one of the iconic statues.

Buster Keaton

Buster Keaton - also known by the nickname The Great Stone Face - was one of the earliest adopters of performers turned director. This allowed the performer to be in complete control of their output, naturally. From 1917 until 1920, the vaudeville performer turned screen actor only wrote and directed one of the silent short films he was in. By 1920, he made the leap to writing and directing his own work.

From 1920 until 1941, Keaton starred in countless shorts, including One Week, Neighbors, The Black Smith, The Butcher Boy, and The Haunted House. But in 1923, he also started directing feature films as well, something that he only did until around 1929. While he still continued to direct shorts and act in features for decades to come, he never directed another full length film. Still, his legacy as a performer and a director still live on, all these years later. 

Charlie Chaplin

When you think of a silent film star, you think of Charlie Chaplin. He created the ultimate persona - The Tramp - which consisted of a funny look, cane, tattered clothes, and a silly walk. He also had the quickest rise from actor to director in films, which was only 2 months in 1914, while making short comedies for Keystone. Thats because his Tramp character was a clear standout by only his second film.

By 1919, Chaplin segued from shorts to feature films with The Kid, co-starring Jackie Coogan. It was an instant success, and led to more Chaplin-directed efforts, including The Idle Class, Pay Day, The Gold Rush, Modern Times, and The Great Dictator. His final film - which he didn’t star in - was A Countess From Hong Kong in 1967, making his directorial career span over over 50 years. Beyond all else, though, he will forever be remembered for being one of the greatest comedians of the silent era.

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