By Shannon Peavey
During its five decades on NBC, “The Tonight Show” developed a reputation among standup comedians as the ultimate springboard for success. From Lenny Bruce to Steve Martin to Billy Crystal to Roseanne Barr, hundreds of the world’s most beloved comics are woven tightly and affectionately into the program’s historical fabric.
In its first decade the show boasted a standard format that gave entertainers a national stage unlike any other. “Tonight! With Steve Allen” first aired in September 1954. Comedians such as Shelley Berman, Jonathan Winters, Mort Sahl and Don Adams had, for the first time, a unique forum within which to showcase their talents in the fairly new medium of television.
Mr. Allen hosted his last “Tonight!” show Jan. 25, 1957. A subsequent version, “Tonight! America After Dark,” with host Jack Lescoulie, lasted about six months, bridging the gap until Jack Paar took over the show that July. Mr. Paar ran “Tonight” for almost five years, bringing on such new comedians as Carol Burnett, Dody Goodman and Woody Allen.
But it wasn’t until the arrival of “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” on Oct. 10, 1962, that the show’s status as a comedy hotbed congealed.
Mel Brooks was a guest that first night, along with Tony Bennett, Rudy Vallee and Joan Crawford. Mr. Brooks had never met Mr. Carson before, but right away he liked him. “Johnny wasn’t always just waiting for an opportunity to trump you with a joke or looking for an opening to get his own big laugh,” Mr. Brooks said. “He was really a fan. You could see his respect-sometimes it would border on adoration. He loved comics, and he would listen like no other host would listen.”
America liked Johnny too. In his first week the show captured more than 40 percent of the viewing audience. By 1977 the show was attracting an average of around 9 million nightly viewers. A comedian who got a gig on the show was going to get the biggest audience of his life-and knew he had to make it or break it.
“Mr. Warmth,” Don Rickles, appeared about 100 times on “The Tonight Show,” including in its first incarnation with host Steve Allen. Mr. Rickles said it was his first Carson-era appearance, on Oct. 7, 1965, that contributed to his breakthrough, opening the door to comedic as well as dramatic work.
“It opened me up to many people who otherwise had never seen me,” he said. “And Johnny always made it possible for me to look good. He’d ask me straight questions. Instead of reading from the sheet, he’d ask, `How’s your wife?’ That’s my kind of humor. And I always went for my best punch.”
Drew Carey remembers the exact date of his “Tonight Show” debut. “Eleven-21-91,” he said. “I’m thinking of getting a license plate made.”
On the big night, he had everything planned out to the second, word for word. The night before, “I was going through my set in my head, seeing myself in my own eyes, seeing myself being called to the couch,” he said. “I did it over and over, and then I dreamed about it.”
The approach worked. “My set was just killer,” he said. “I was in show business the very next day.”
Mr. Carson developed his own personal cast of beloved recurring characters, such as Aunt Blabby, Carnac the Magnificent and tea-time movie host Art Fern.
Indeed, many of the show’s greatest comedic moments originated with Mr. Carson himself. There was the time Oct. 16, 1987, when he pretended to eat a specimen from guest Myrtle Young’s prized potato chip collection. Then there was the night of April 29, 1965, when Ed Ames, who played Mingo on the series “Daniel Boone,” demonstrated his tomahawk-throwing skills on a log with a human form outlined on it. Ames hit the target squarely in the crotch.
Mr. Carson ad-libbed, “Gee, Ed, I didn’t even know you were Jewish. A frontier bris!” The audience went wild.
Mr. Carson also developed his own way of appraising talent. His ultimate nod of approval was to invite the performer to the couch at the end of a set. Comedian/ventriloquist Jeff Dunham was invited to the couch on his first-ever “Tonight Show” appearance, an honor shared by only a handful of comedians, including Freddie Prinze and Ellen DeGeneres.
It took Mr. Dunham nine auditions before getting booked for a “Tonight Show” date in December 1988. The night before his scheduled appearance, the show’s booker, Jim McCawley, caught Mr. Dunham’s set at the Comedy and Magic Club in Hermosa Beach, Calif., and told him he just wasn’t ready. “I think it was he who told me, `It’s better to be five years late than one day early,”‘ Mr. Dunham said.
His next shot came on a Friday in April 1990. Mr. Dunham did a set using dummy companions Peanut and Jose Jalapeno on a Stick. Just in case, he had put his now-famous curmudgeonly character Walter behind the couch. When Johnny waved him over, Mr. Dunham pulled Walter out. “He looks at Johnny and I say, `Walter, do you know who this is?’ Walter says, `Yeah, that’s my wife’s first husband. He paid off my mortgage.”‘
Later Walter told Mr. Carson, “It will be a cold day in hell before I come back to this show!” Mr. Carson loved it. Mr. Dunham guested on Mr. Carson’s show four more times.
David Brenner, who appeared on “The Tonight Show” 158 times as a guest and 175 times as a guest host, said Mr. Carson was one of a kind. “He loved comedians and he could tell from your eyes if you had another line to say. He nurtured and fostered your career,” Mr. Brenner said.
Mr. Brenner first appeared on “Tonight” on Jan. 8, 1971, at a time when the comedian had trouble making a living in the industry. “From there it’s all mystery,” he said. “The next day my agency had $10,000 worth of business [for me].”
It’s easy to understand the impact. “The whole industry watched Johnny. There were three networks, no cable. All agents, all managers, all nightclubs were tuned in,” Mr. Brenner said.
In 1972 Mr. Carson began leaving Mondays for guest hosts. Mr. Brenner as well as Joey Bishop, Bob Newhart, John Davidson, McLean Stevenson, Jerry Lewis and David Letterman each did many shows until Joan Rivers became exclusive guest host from September 1983 until 1986.
By then the television landscape had begun to change. Starting in the mid- to late 1980s, television talk shows multiplied, and “Tonight” was competing with other late-night programs. Options for comics expanded with the explosion of cable. Niches and specialization became more and more important.
Paula Poundstone considers her first spot on the show in 1986 more of a personal milestone than a career launcher. “I’m sure `Tonight Show’ appearances brought bigger audiences to my show, but my rise was never `meteoric’; it was more `dumbwaiteric,”‘ she said. “Any success I’ve had was not overnight but rather over 3,659 nights.”
Slowly, the endgame for comics had changed as well. To some extent, that was already the case when Jerry Seinfeld made his first appearance on the show in 1981. Warren Littlefield, former president of NBC Entertainment, said Mr. Seinfeld’s “Tonight” appearances played a large part in convincing executives he had the chops to make a series work.
“It continues to be the place where people look [to] discover talent,” Mr. Littlefield said. “If they get that shot and do well and continue to do well, people say, `Yeah, maybe it is their time.”‘
Mr. Littlefield, who served at NBC from 1979 to 1999, championed Jay Leno to succeed Mr. Carson after watching him develop over more than 10 years of appearances. Mr. Leno first performed on “Tonight” on March 2, 1977, and was named permanent guest host in September 1987. He became official host of “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” on May 25, 1992.
“We were able to watch Jay grow and develop,” Mr. Littlefield said. “He got his first shot because he was a great stand-up who really had a wonderful point of view, observational humor and, also important, topical humor. The monologue has only expanded from Johnny’s days because he’s so good at it. He is a populist comedian who is smart, funny, relatable, and [we knew] he would be the kind of partner we wanted.”
Agents, he said, frequently use “Tonight S
how” tapes to show casting executives what clients can do. In that sense, the show became and has remained the classic milieu for comedy performers, and Mr. Leno, like Mr. Carson, has that all-important ability to let them shine, comedians say.
Mr. Dunham, who has done the show six times with Mr. Leno, said, “Jay makes it easy. There’s a learned art there. You don’t know how difficult it is to make someone else look good until you run across someone who can’t do it.”