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

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Bill Maher

"It's important to talk about religion because it makes you think big," muses Bill Maher during his debut set on The Tonight Show. (The punchline we can talk about later.) Knowing Maher as we do now, it's easy to see how much of his future act is encapsulated here: His inquisitive nature, his potentially mischievous notions about slightly dangerous topics, his willingness to provoke. Clad in white suit and charmingly demure, the only aspect of Maher's personality that seems dormant here, other than a bit of his incisive intellect, is his acquired smugness. He talks about growing up with a Jewish mother and a Catholic father, and how the two parts of himself influenced his religious life: "We used to go to confession, and I would bring a lawyer in with me. ‘Bless me father, for I have sinned. I think you know Mr. Cohen.'" This was years from any big project like Politically Incorrect, but the feeling of communing with a new talent is here. Case in point, the punchline of Maher's above joke, which was surely the subject of prudish letters following its airdate of August 31st, 1982: "Jesus Christ died for our sins. It doesn't get much better than that. That's what I call picking up the check for the whole table."

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