When comedian Jack Coen first started doing stand-up comedy full time at 21, his ultimate goal was to one day do a guest shot on “The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson.”
Over the next 11 years, he performed in nightclubs and on college campuses around the country, honing an act that now deals with topical material, growing up, married life, having kids and sports.
During that time he also appeared on “Evening at the Improv” and the usual cable comedy shows.
But still no “Tonight Show.”
Then he got the call.
And last July--on Friday the 13th, no less--Coen made his stand-up comedy debut on the NBC show.
“Up to this point, it’s the best moment I have had as a stand-up comedian,” says Coen, who is appearing at the Improvisation in Irvine through Sunday.
The comedian, who is polishing a new six-minute set for his second, as-yet-unscheduled, “Tonight Show” appearance, said that appearing on the granddaddy of late-night talk shows for the first time was a professional pinnacle.
“It’s like I heard somebody once say: It’s the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval for comedians. It says, ‘You are a comedian,’ ” said Coen.
So what’s it really like to stand behind the curtain of “The Tonight Show” and hear the king of talk show hosts announce your name?
The following is an anatomy of Coen’s date with comedy destiny:
The call in July came from “Tonight Show” talent coordinator Jim McCawley, who had seen Coen perform at two different comedy clubs in recent months. When the offer finally came, Coen had mixed feelings.
“After years of watching the comics on ‘The Tonight Show,’ ” Coen said, “a part of me felt, ‘I’ve grown past this. I don’t need this anymore.’ Because I wasn’t getting on the show and no one was interested, I decided it wasn’t that big a deal anymore.
“And then when he told me I had it I cried like a baby.”
Coen laughed. “It was like a monkey off my back. When you actually accomplish a goal that, when you first set it was more of a dream than a goal, it’s really emotional.”
The call came on a Tuesday, and McCawley asked Coen to do the show that Friday.
“I heard they do that sometimes with your first shot so you don’t get crazy thinking about it, but it was horrible,” said Coen.
It meant that he had only three nights to practice his six-minute “Tonight Show” set.
That night, McCawley met Coen at the Improv in Los Angeles to go over the jokes he wanted Coen to do on the show.
“I did them that night at the club and it didn’t go real well, which was frightening,” said Coen. “McCawley said he wanted to come see it again the next night. But he called me the next morning and said, ‘I have confidence in you. I’ll just see you Friday.’ ”
That, Coen said, was a relief. And over the next two nights, he did his six minutes at four different comedy clubs each night.
On Friday, Coen arrived at NBC Studios in Burbank at 5 p.m., reporting to a dressing room with his name on it.
Along to provide moral support were his wife, Dawn, and his best friend.
Ten minutes before show time at 5:30, Coen’s wife and friend went to the “green room” to watch the show on a monitor, and Coen went backstage, standing behind the wall directly behind Johnny Carson’s desk.
Coen immediately began pacing back and forth, trying to relax: “I went through moments of being, ‘OK, I’m cool, I’m ready’ to ‘Oh, my God, I can’t do this!’ ”
Comedian Bob Saget, host of “America’s Funniest Home Videos,” was also a guest on the show, and he came up to Coen to wish him luck. “I know what you’re going through,” Saget told him. “It’s the greatest and it’s the worst. . . . Just have fun.”
Then the “Tonight Show” theme music started.
“When I heard that,” Coen said, “My knees buckled.”
Coen said there were “a lot of people hanging out” backstage before the show. “Johnny Carson was about 2 feet away from me waiting to go on. Then Johnny said, ‘Well, ready to do a show?’ and he turned around and walked out on the stage.
During a commercial break about 40 minutes into the show, Coen was escorted to a spot behind the curtain.
“All of sudden I heard like a low thud,” he said. It was the sound of the spotlight out front being turned on.
“I turned to Jim McCawley--he practically holds your hand until the curtain goes up--and I said, ‘Can you get me a glass of water?’ He bolted and got a glass.”
Coen said there were “two big guys whose only job is to open that curtain, and they didn’t say a word to me. They just looked at me like, ‘You’re crazy to go out there.’ Every nerve of my body was alive. I was twisting and shaking, kicking my legs and rolling my head to relax.”
Although he didn’t know it at the time, his wife and friend had been backstage so long that they lost their seats. They were taken onto the stage floor next to the camera to watch his act.
“They told me that when that spotlight came on they were so choked up because here they were on that floor,” said Coen. “They just couldn’t believe how intense it was. Then they were thinking, ‘Oh, my God, he’s got to come out and tell jokes.’ ”
Coen was no less intense behind the curtain.
Because the band was playing loudly during the commercial break, Coen said, “I screamed at the top of my lungs to get the tension out. The minute I got done screaming the band stopped playing.”
As Carson was introducing him, Coen swished water around in his mouth and handed the glass to McCawley. Then the curtain opened and he stepped out on stage, walking to his mark, a small red T on the floor.
“I got on it and I didn’t move,” he said.
Coen said all his nervousness vanished after his first joke. And his six minutes seemed to fly by.
“It was weird because all of a sudden that monitor light came on for Johnny’s cue to go to a commercial and I thought, ‘Oh, now the band is going to start playing,”’ said Coen. “While that was going on in my head I was listening to myself and I thought, ‘Oh, my God, I’m on the last joke!’ It was absolutely perfect” timing.
Coen said he has a lot of friends who are comics who have done the “Tonight Show” and the one thing they kept telling him was, “Make sure you have fun.”
Two or three minutes into his set, he said, “I just really hit a stride where I thought, ‘Oh, boy, this is just so great.’ ”
Coen nevertheless was visibly relieved when he finished. In fact, Coen said, Carson said to Saget, “Did you see the sigh of relief?”
“He knows that first shot is pretty nerve-wracking,” Coen said, “although I can’t imagine the second one being any less nerve-wracking.”
After the show, Carson came backstage to Coen’s dressing room.
“He shook my hand and he was really pleasant,” said Coen. “And he gave me a joke to go onto one of my other jokes. The whole time I kept looking at him, thinking, ‘You’re Johnny Carson!’ ”
Coen said he was so awed by Carson that his wife and friend later had to reconstruct the joke Carson had given him.
At the time, Coen said, the Berlin Wall had crumbled and there was talk of cutting back on American troops in Europe.
“My joke was, ‘Can you imagine what a loser you’re going to feel like when you get laid off from the Army?’ And then Johnny said, to punch it up--to do a tag--would be to say, ‘Oh, man. And I was so close to being all I could be.’ ”
Coen’s “Tonight Show” odyssey has its own tag ending.
Ever since that night, whenever Coen is introduced, the emcee lists the show among the comic’s credits.
“That makes me feel good,” Coen said. “A lot of famous people have stood on that mark, and I got to stand on it too.”