10 Spin-off TV Shows That Made It Big

By: Susan Sherwood
Some of America's most popular TV shows, including "The Jeffersons," were spin-offs from other (often less-popular) precursor programs.
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

In television, it seems like there's never too much of a good thing. If you have a popular series or popular character, spread the joy around. A spin-off is a fresh show based on characters or situations from an established series. One approach is to put a supporting character into a new situation. For instance, Angel, the vampire-with-a-soul who battled evil alongside "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," took his crusade to Los Angeles. In another tactic, the new pilot is introduced as an episode on a well-known sitcom. That's how the space alien Mork ("Mork & Mindy") came to earth; he showed up on "Happy Days."

Sometimes spin-offs are less than successful. "The Brady Brides," an offshoot of "The Brady Bunch," centered on sisters Marcia and Jan when they married and shared a house. The audience wasn't impressed, and the show was history after 10 episodes. Spin-offs can make it big, however, and some even overshadow the original show. The nerve!


10: "The Andy Griffith Show"

Actors Don Knotts, Andy Griffith and Jim Nabors on the set of "The Andy Griffith Show."
CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images

A quaint Southern town. A singing sheriff. A deputy who keeps his only bullet in his shirt pocket. From 1960 to 1968, the "Andy Griffith Show," a CBS spin-off of "The Danny Thomas Show," chronicled the everyday lives of the residents of Mayberry, North Carolina. Episodes focus on relatable experiences in both home and work, such as Sheriff Andy's social life as a single father and his second-in-command's struggle to gain professional respect. In just its first season, the series rose to fourth place in the Nielsen ratings [source: Michalski].

Central to the show is widower Andy, his young son (played by future Academy Award-winning director Ron Howard), and their Aunt Bee. Andy is wise and calm in contrast to his best friend and deputy, the excitable and bumbling Barney Fife, played by comedian Don Knotts. In 1964 there was a spin-off of the spin-off: "Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.," starring Jim Nabors. Southern charm met military discipline.


9: "The Jeffersons"

"The Jeffersons" was one of many television shows that got its start thanks to "All in the Family."
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

In 1975, George Jefferson was eager to move out of Queens. You would be, too, if your neighbor was Archie Bunker. This CBS spin-off of "All in the Family" featured an African-American couple, George and Louise, who rose from their humble beginnings and moved into an expensive high rise. The husband was as distrustful of other races as Archie Bunker. Prejudice was a prominent issue. The show was the first to feature an interracial couple – the Jeffersons' neighbors Tom and Helen Willis – as part of the regular cast. The comedy handled other serious issues, as well, including sexism, class struggle and family dynamics.

"The Jeffersons" wasn't the only spin-off from "All in the Family" (itself an Americanized version of a British show called "Till Death Us Do Part). "Maude," "Gloria," "Archie Bunker's Place," and "Good Times" – the latter of which was technically a "Maude" spin-off – had the same lineage. However, the spin-off about urban transplants was one of the most successful. During its 11-year run, "The Jeffersons" received 14 Emmy nominations and had two wins, including one for Isabel Sanford as outstanding actress in a comedy [source: Television Academy -- Jeffersons]. Way to go, Weezy.


8: "Laverne & Shirley"

Cindy Williams and Penny Marshall in a 1976 episode of "Laverne & Shirley."
ABC Photo Archives/Getty Images

"Schlemiel! Schlimazel! Hasenpfeffer incorporated!" Each week, these nonsensically used Yiddish and German words set the lighthearted tone for this 1976 ABC "Happy Days" spin-off. For the original show, Laverne (Penny Marshall) and Shirley (Cindy Williams) were "loose" girls on a date with Richie and the Fonz. However, on their own series, they were just two working girls toiling at the Shotz Brewery in 1950s Milwaukee.

"Laverne & Shirley" specialized in broad physical comedy, which often came in the form of the roommates' upstairs neighbors Lenny and Squiggy. Michael McKean and David Lander, who created the iconic characters, were originally hired as writers on the series. The slapstick humor worked: In its second year, the show became the most watched in America, even topping "Happy Days" [source: Sher]. When Williams left in 1982, the series carried on "Shirley-less" for one more year.


7: "The Simpsons"

The longest-running scripted show in American television history started out as a short feature on a now-obscure comedy show.
Fox/Getty Images

It must be tough to be an animated character on a live action show. What's a cartoon to do? Get your own series, of course! "The Simpsons" began life as a reoccurring segment on Fox's "The Tracy Ullman Show" in 1987. The animated family soon got its own timeslot, and, in 2014, the show celebrated its 25th anniversary. Though Matt Groening's characters are mere cartoons, they're relatable, addressing basic and important human issues, including family, politics, religion, pop culture, and social relationships. Its relevance, in addition to its original humor, helped make the series television's longest-running sitcom [source: Michalski].

"The Simpsons" is popular with celebrity guests, drawing personalities as diverse as Stephen Hawking and Lady Gaga, who played themselves. Benedict Cumberbatch showed up as Severus Snape, and Elizabeth Taylor appeared to voice Baby Lisa's first word. The most memorable character, though, might be the head of the family himself: Homer Simpson. Over and over again, Homer has displayed his unique thought processes: "I believe that children are our future. Unless we stop them now" [source: Seddon].


6: "Melrose Place"

The cast of the seventh season of "Melrose Place," a show spun off from "Beverly Hills, 90210."
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Love. Sex. Revenge. Money. Sex. Crime. Sex. That's a lot of adult activities spinning off from "Beverly Hills, 90201," a series about high schoolers. "Melrose Place," which premiered in 1992, followed the love and work lives of adults living in an L.A. apartment complex. Even with all those adult pursuits, the series got off to a slow start, and ratings were low. However, once Heather Locklear was added to the cast as Amanda, a powerful, ruthless and sexy character, people tuned in.

Other characters include Kimberly Shaw (Marcia Cross) as an increasingly psychotic doctor; Peter Burns (Jack Wagner), a scheming doctor attracted to Amanda; and Billy Campbell (Andrew Shue), a comparatively normal, nice guy. The show is pure melodrama, with sensational story lines that included drugs, blackmail, adultery, murder, a bombing, rape, and miscarriage. Viewers followed the deeds and misdeeds of the residents of Melrose Place until 1999.


5: "Frasier"

The character of Frasier Crane is a highlight of Kelsey Grammer's long career.
NBC/Getty Images

In 1993, psychiatrist Frasier Crane (Kelsey Grammer) moved from a Boston pub where everyone knew his name clear across the country to rainy Seattle. His new gig: hosting a radio call-in advice show. Surprise celebrity guests, including Helen Mirren, John Cusack, Cindy Crawford and John McEnroe, voiced the quirky callers. Frasier had reservations about his transition: "Lincoln had a brighter future when he picked up his tickets at the box office" [source: Hallmark]. An added complication: Frasier's disabled, blue-collar father moved in, as did his sassy little dog Eddie. The pompous, fussy therapist often got his comeuppance. Fortunately, he found companionship, consolation and rivalry with his equally snobbish brother, Niles (David Hyde Pierce).

Strong audience support kept the series running until 2004. Along the way, it won more Emmys – 31 – than its parent show "Cheers" had. In fact, as of 2014, "Frasier" has won more Emmys than any other series, with the exception of "Saturday Night Live," which has aired longer [source: Michalski]. Guess the future was bright, after all.


4: "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit"

Simply known as "SVU" to its fans, "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" has become a syndication smash hit.
Justin Campbell/Getty Images

You never can have too many warrants and subpoenas. In 1999, the creators of the legal drama "Law & Order" spun off a new show that focused on sex-related crimes and social issues. Like its parent, the new series often pulled topics from the real world, including sex slavery, child abuse, child pornography, celebrity violence, domestic violence, adoption, parenting problems and misogyny.

"Law & Order: SVU" has had an interesting mix of characters over its multi-year run, such as detective Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay), a child conceived from her mother's rape; captain Donald Cragen (Dann Florek), the first supervisor on the original "Law & Order;" investigator John Munch (Richard Belzer), who transferred from Baltimore PD (and TV's "Homicide: Life on the Streets"); and detective Odafin Tutoloa (Ice-T), a former undercover cop. An impressive array of guest stars also is drawn to the show. Robin Williams, Carol Burnett, Ellen Burstyn, Angela Lansbury and Marlee Matlin have popped up over the years. Also noteworthy: As of 2014, "SUV" has had 23 Emmy nominations and six wins [source: Television Academy -- Law]. Crime never paid so well.


3: "NCIS"

Though it has inspired a number of series of its own, "NCIS" actually got its start as a spinoff of "JAG."
CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images

Is it fair? In 2003, "NCIS" was created from "JAG," a series that had a long, successful run. The CBS spin-off, however, went on to eclipse that accomplishment. Though "JAG" ran from 1995 to 2005, "NCIS" is still going strong in the mid-2010s. In fact, according to CBS, "NCIS" had the audacity to be the most-watched American show for five years in a row. To add insult to injury, in 2013, it was ranked No. 1 in the world.

What makes this series about the Naval Criminal Investigate Service so watchable? An intriguing mix of professionals investigates alarming and sometimes odd criminal activities. The diverse team includes a former homicide detective, a Marine gunnery sergeant, a scientist with Gothic flair, and an MIT-educated computer specialist. Need to foil a terrorist plot? They're on it. Stolen submarine? Call in the squad. An intelligence leak? Have no fear – The Navy and Marine Corps have never been so safe. "NCIS" has gone on to spin off its own franchisees "NCIS: New Orleans" and "NCIS: Los Angeles."


2: "The Colbert Report"

Stephen Colbert launched his satirical show after appearing on "The Daily Show" for years.
Brad Barket/Getty Images

A blow (or boost) to democracy was dealt in 2005, when Stephen Colbert was promoted from "The Daily Show" supporting cast to host of his own series. Also along for the ride: Stephen Colbert, fictional conservative talking head. The character provides the platform to mock extreme, illogical, and hypocritical positions. Instead of alienating or depressing his audience, Colbert brings them along for the ride with memorable lines, such as, "If women are breadwinners and men bring home the bacon, why do people complain about having no dough? I'm confused. Also hungry" [source: Specktor].

The political parody occasionally ventures out of the studio and into the real world. In 2008, Colbert had a short stint as a presidential candidate. He's testified before Congress, started a super PAC, and earned his own Ben & Jerry's ice cream flavor, Americone Dream. Colbert the character has done well for Colbert the actor. As of 2014, the show has 37 Emmy nominations and six wins, including outstanding variety series [source: Television Academy – Colbert]. The 2015 Emmy Awards will be the last time Colbert can add to his cache, as he signed off for the last time on Dec. 18, 2014.


1: "Private Practice"

The "Grey's Anatomy" spinoff "Private Practice" drew millions of viewers.
Justin Stephens/Getty Images

When your love life gets out of hand, what's a girl to do? Pull up stakes and move to Los Angeles, of course. At least that was the 2007 plan of Dr. Addison Montgomery (Kate Walsh) when she left "Grey's Anatomy" and entered "Private Practice." In this ABC spin-off, the neonatal surgeon moved from drizzly Seattle to sunny California, where she worked with other specialists at the Seaside Wellness Center. Dr. Montgomery's colleagues included a pediatrician, fertility expert, sexologist, psychiatrist, alternative medicine physician, and neurosurgeon. The private lives of the physicians were just as varied, with secret affairs, new romances, custody issues, and pregnancy dilemmas.

The series occasionally took on controversial topics. For instance, in an Emmy-nominated episode about physician-assisted suicide, two doctors face a moral and ethical struggle when another physician appeals for help to end his life. In 2013, when the average audience had dropped to 6.1 million – down from 11.5 million in season one – the network closed down the practice [source: Goldberg].

Lots More Information

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