‘Tonight Show’ Was the Brass Ring for Comedians
Backstage before her first appearance on “The Tonight Show” in 1985, Roseanne Barr read a letter she had written to herself years before, dreaming of this moment. “This is the beginning of your life, for She who is and is not yet,” the letter said in part, as recounted in a profile of the comic by the New Yorker’s John Lahr.
Much has been and will be said about how Johnny Carson “discovered” Roseanne, Ellen DeGeneres, David Letterman, Jerry Seinfeld, Garry Shandling and Robin Williams. But they all had managers and club careers by the time their debut on “The Tonight Show” happened. Carson didn’t discover them; what he did was take them by the hand and say, “Here, America.”
I can’t think of the last time a comedian went on a talk show and, in essence, was introduced to the nation -- or even to the entertainment industry. The platform, if not the performances, no longer exists, not since Carson created it during the three decades that he ruled late night as host of the only game in town.
Carson was good for comedians, but he was even better for comedy. He created space in his show for up-and-coming talent to do their acts before a nationwide audience. He also made it an event, a showcase, for which competition was fierce (you first had to gain the hard-won approval of “The Tonight Show” talent coordinator Jim McCawley, who scouted Los Angeles clubs like a kind of prophet of either your future or your doom).
Once on the show, there were barometers to gauge whether or not you had arrived. Did Johnny give you the OK sign or even, perhaps, wave you over to the couch?
Shandling, noting in a 1991 interview with The Times that he didn’t get to the couch after his first appearance, joked that “when you go to Johnny’s house, you stand the first few times you are there.”
It sounds somewhat officious, the lordly position that he created over the stand-up world, and there were odd undertones of betrayal to the attempts by Joan Rivers and Arsenio Hall to have competing late-night shows, to say nothing of the Shakespearean drama that unfolded before “The Tonight Show” went to Jay Leno instead of Carson’s favored son, Letterman.
Whatever was happening backstage, the rewards for the viewer were tangible. If Carson functioned as a paterfamilias for new comics, he got cheerfully and shrewdly out of the way of the established ones -- usually because Carson thought they were a riot and wanted to continue to interact with them. In this way, he taught us how to appreciate a comic, to intuit his appreciation, whether the act was Steven Wright or Don Rickles or Rodney Dangerfield or Rivers -- among the comedians, as I recall it, who had the ability to reduce Carson to tears.
If Leno has struggled in the role of Carson’s successor -- not in the ratings, where “The Tonight Show” has long remained No. 1, although with increased competition from Letterman’s “Late Show"-- it is partly in the perception that he has failed to honor this kingmaker part of Carson’s legacy.
It should be said that many of the people who have criticized Leno are comics who don’t get on his show, but the argument is moot, anyway. There is no one show anymore; there are many, all confronting ratings pressures that pull their producers and bookers away from introducing new talent.
Today, a comic on a talk show is, if not an anomaly, then just a comic on a talk show. A talk show that more than likely has as its host someone who used to be a comic and who spends the first 15 or 20 minutes of his or her show establishing who in the room is funniest, behaving like, well, a comic, so that by the time the other comic comes on -- deep into the show, by which time you’re asleep -- it feels like filler.
Carson was not this kind of host, in part because he hadn’t come from a brutally competitive club scene (further proof that he wasn’t really a comic but skilled at interpersonal communication). On “The Tonight Show” he came out with a monologue and a desk bit, but when he introduced a comedian he made it clear that he was bringing out a kind of -- dare we say it -- artist. Someone whose skills were different from whatever talents Carson brought to the occasion of a late-night talk show.
We could feel his interest in them -- a young Albert Brooks, an older Henny Youngman. Leno debuted on Carson in 1977, appeared a few more times in the ensuing months, then endured a seven-year drought.
But the point was to build a new set of material that would get past “The Tonight Show” gatekeepers. Since then, the ground has shifted. Although Leno, Letterman and Conan O’Brien have used their success to form production companies that develop sitcoms on which they serve as executive producers, none has created the kind of training ground that Carson did.
A few weeks ago a comedian friend left a message on my voice mail saying he was going to be on “The Late Show with David Letterman.” I set my TiVo to record the spot and watched the following morning, as I was putting on my shoes to go out. My comic friend did well enough -- the laughs he got didn’t seem juiced, and after his brief set Letterman, who always looks stricken these days, came over and shook his hand. My friend wore a suit. The only thing missing was the sense that his career would now change.