The Best Comedic Debuts on 'The Tonight Show'

Legendary sets that made careers of Joan Rivers, Jerry Seinfeld, Drew Carey, Garry Shandling, Roseanne and more

Ellen DeGeneres

DeGeneres' first set on The Tonight Show is a small window into the giddy whimsy that has become her trademark as a talk-show host, and an even bigger window into her imagination. She begins talking about fitness and childhood, but shortly thereafter transitions into her early, showstopping bit, "A Call From God." Taking a cue from the long, imagined phone conversations pioneered by Shelley Berman and Bob Newhart, Degeneres gets on the phone with the Guy Upstairs to find out why fleas exist. He puts her on hold ("Somebody's at the gate."), tells her terrible knock-knock jokes and convinces her that fleas are necessary to keep the flea collar industry going. ("Well, I guess you're right — of course you are! Being who you are.") The way in which DeGeneres plays with pauses and ostensible cross-talk is delightful, and rewards the audience for leaning in and paying attention. The fun, light and fanciful presentation is all part of the DeGeneres package, and even on November 18th, 1986, it's easy to sense her sitcom just on the horizon.

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