Best Johnny Carson 'Tonight Show' Comedy Debuts: Joan Rivers, Jerry Seinfeld - Rolling Stone
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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

While Johnny Carson was the King of Late Night, he could anoint comedic Dukes and Earls at will. For an extended stretch of the 1970s and Eighties, the way for a working stand-up comic to attract a national audience overnight was Carson’s Tonight Show. So it was not only a highly coveted opportunity, capable of kick-starting an entire career, but it made for very high-stakes, electric performances. Nowadays, the comedic landscape is too large and too diffuse and not one late-night spot – be it Fallon’s Tonight Show, Conan, Late Night with Stephen Colbert, Late Night with Seth Meyers, Jimmy Kimmel Live or James Corden’s The Late Late Show – can do what Carson’s show did. 

The abundance of network, cable and streaming shows, as well as nontraditional outlets including podcasts, YouTube and Twitter means it’s every (wo)man for themselves. But for a time, nearly every ambitious comedian in America was swirling around Burbank, hoping for a spot at the Comedy Store and an audience with Carson’s booker Jim McCauley. A small number of comics got the chance to deliver their tight five on The Tonight Show, and even fewer were asked over to the couch — the true sign that Carson felt that you had talent or promise above and beyond that of your peers. These sets are the most exciting and memorable of the bunch, and if they didn’t mint money for the comics responsible, they certainly created opportunities that changed their lives moving forward.

Roseanne Barr

Sometimes, during the Carson era, one spot was enough to introduce an audience to not only a comic but an entire comedic ethos. This was the case with Roseanne Barr, who distilled her entire “domestic goddess” worldview into one chatty, sassy, ear-piercing monologue. Every dismissive aside, delivered with a matter-of-fact tone and a little gum-chewing, solidifies the caustic, demanding persona which became so familiar during the nine-year run of Roseanne and beyond. 

After talking about how little fun she’s having as a housewife, she announces, “I’m fat. Just thought I’d point that out.” Then she talks about the advantages of coming home to a fat mom and her methods of curing depression: “Let’s have pudding, Oreos and marshmallows. When you wake up from that sugar coma, it’ll be a brand new week.” This set was filmed on August 23rd, 1985, and was just the thing Americans were ready to see: Moms with real hips being selfish, fed-up, human. And as opposed to her later TV persona, this stage persona is surprisingly bubbly and giggly, and endearing in its way.

Freddie Prinze

There’s a point at which the audience watching Freddie Prinze’s December 6th, 1973 set seems to realize something: This babyfaced Latino kid with the fuzzy, pencil-drawn mustache isn’t just good, he’s really something. Up top, Prinze sets the stage: He’s half Hungarian and half Puerto Rican (“Hungarican”), he lives in Washington Heights and he’s deals with the nuisances of supers and roaches. It’s got everything needed to seduce an audience: A clear point-of-view, an effective delivery, an open, easy presence and good, hard jokes. It’s even got a catch phrase that becomes a callback later in the set, first spoken by Prinze’s Mexican landlord and later repeated by the Puerto Rican astronaut of Prinze’s dreams, both abdicating professional responsibilities: “Ees not my job, man.” Less than a year after this set aired, Prinze was starring in Chico and the Man. And, tragically, the ride proved too much for Prinze, who died not two years afterward at the age of 22. Steve Martin and Jerry Seinfeld and Joan Rivers have all talked about feeling comfortable and successful on Carson only after several appearances; Prinze made it all happen in just one.

Eddie Murphy

By the time Murphy made it to The Tonight Show, America already knew him from Saturday Night Live: He was goofy, he was playful, and he had a bite. For the most part, they didn’t realize exactly who and what he was as a stand-up. When he strides onto the Tonight Show stage — clad in a dark suit and tie, hand casually slid into a pocket, with the confidence of a wolf in a sheep’s pen — he makes that stand-up persona abundantly clear. “Thank you,” he says and then, when someone in the crowd keeps hooting, barks, “Shut up.” Murphy easily ropes in the crowd talking about Buckwheat, a common point of connection due to his impression of the Little Rascal on SNL, and gives them that braying laugh. 

Though he has calibrated and sanitized his club act here, he hints at the aspects of himself which will later come bursting through in concert films Delirious and Raw. His dirty side is just in sight while talking about the underwear models without a “bulge,” and his politics are there while he considers the potentially dangerous life of America’s first black president. While Murphy delivers this assured set on January 1st, 1982, he is already well on his way to fame; Trading Places is a year away, and Beverly Hills Cop is not far behind.

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.

Stephen Wright

When Steven Wright filmed his first Tonight Show spot on August 6th, 1982, it’s safe to imagine that many home viewers had not really heard anyone with his particular rhythms and wit. (“I think you’re going to find him a little different,” Carson says when he intros the lanky, frizzy-haired absurdist.) The young Wright shows just a touch of animation — which, when talking about Wright, is a bit like saying he’s the most lively body at the morgue — mumbling a few of his signature one-liners, such as “It’s a small world, but I wouldn’t want to paint it,” in his affectless monotone. In just a minute, the audience senses his smarts, the economy of his writing, and the punch of his paraprosdokians. One of his signature bits at the time, which provided the title of his first Grammy-nominated album I Have a Pony, starts with the idea that he’s celebrating because his building allows pets. “I have a pony,” Wright deadpans, “I have a shetland pony named Nicky, and last summer he was involved in a bizarre electrolysis accident.” This is not even the punchline, which involves renting out the mostly hairless horse to Hare Krishna family reunions, but it’s indicative of just how far Wright could travel in just one sentence.

David Brenner

Long before Seinfeld hit the scene, David Brenner was the unabashed master of observational comedy. On January 8th, 1971, when he appeared on The Tonight Show for the first time, he introduced much of his audience to the colloquial question that is foundational to all of those who focus on the minutia of human behavior, “Did you ever notice…?” While everyday, political stuff was Mort Sahl’s stock-in-trade, Brenner exhibited his strength in analyzing the behavior of men asking for directions, gas stations and commuters in Manhattan. And make no mistake, when Carson says Brenner is “warped,” that’s not an exaggeration. 

The gawky, angular guy with the gigantic smile doesn’t just talk about the size of road maps and the hunting caps worn by gas station attendants, he has also invented some very strange what-if scenarios. His big closer is about committing the perfect murder by lugging the corpse into the aforementioned crush of morning commuters in New York City. Buoyed by the bodies of others, the corpse goes on an adventure through Macy’s, the Army induction center, onstage with the Rockettes, and up Broadway where it gets “mugged twice… and raped once.” Brenner’s set is at once strange and relatable, and Carson reportedly wanted him back the following week. He went on to become one of Carson’s favorite guests, and on the short list of comics to ascend the throne when Carson left.

Jim Carrey

Less an impressionist than a live-action cartoonist, Jim Carrey floored audiences with his brand of stand-up before his film career took off. This November 24th, 1983 appearance on The Tonight Show introduced Carrey’s manic energy, physical elasticity and multi-purpose rubber mug to a great number of TV watchers. In this very loose and very silly set, Carrey starts with a big, jittery Elvis impersonation, but really impresses with his series of celebrity impersonations that rely on no words at all. The sense that it all might be the power of suggestion goes away once he finds the steely, narrow-eyed sneer of Clint Eastwood, Charles Bronson’s pinched, taunting squint, the cool, blinking affectation of James Dean. The audience’s wonder and disbelief are apparent, as Carrey impishly carries on, mugging and grinning through a few more, including a quick duet between Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy. Though Carrey was apparently upset that first, big professional performance didn’t get him called over to Carson’s couch, it hardly mattered; audiences saw his promise, and he was on his way. 

Garry Shandling

Though Garry Shandling had spent the late-1970s writing for sitcoms such as Sanford & Son and Welcome Back, Kotter, he migrated to the world of stand-up comedy in order to push himself and nudge the boundaries of comedy, too. His March 18th, 1981 Tonight Show appearance, one of his first TV gigs, finds him chipper despite his nerves, and toying with a subtle subversion even while working in an observational mode. One bit begins, “I ate dinner last night at a friend of mine’s house and he has a—what do you call those things—baby?” From there, the baby “loads up” its diaper and its mother says, “‘Isn’t that adorable? Brandon made a gift for daddy.’ Now I’m figuring this guy’s got to be real easy to shop for on Father’s Day.” Ingratiating, clever and playfully nervous, Shandling caught Carson’s eye and would return regularly to fill in for the host over the years; though Shandling never completely abandoned stand-up, he left behind real talk shows when creating his own fake one on The Larry Sanders Show.

David Letterman

When David Letterman performed his first set on The Tonight Show on November 24th, 1978, did he imagine he’d one day be angling for the job being vacated by Johnny Carson? Hard to know, but there’s a lot in his performance that feels like Letterman, host and future late-night personality. The comedian’s high-brow smarts, his evocative writing ability, his wry silliness, his willingness to push an audience’s buttons all factor in here. In the set, he talks about those things he knows — cars, planes and the media, in particular — while teasing out his own sense of the absurd. One thing on Letterman’s mind is a tabloid headline that claims to help you lose weight without a diet or exercise: “Pretty much leaves disease, doesn’t it? ‘I was able to lose over 60 pounds without diet or exercise. What’s my secret? Well, I was lucky enough to be seriously ill for about a year and a half.'” Interestingly, Letterman doesn’t kill with the in-house audience, but there’s clearly enough of his warmth and personality inherent in his act to get him a foothold with Carson.

Drew Carey

“I’ve never been funnier than those seven minutes I was on The Tonight Show,” Carey told the Onion AV Club in 2012, when talking about his debut set on Carson. Watching the clip of the jocular Cleveland comic from November 8th, 1991, this point would be hard to debate, as Carey is clearly on the moment he steps onstage. Wearing gleaming Poindexter glasses, a flattop and a wide grin, he says, “Yeah, I know what I look like, thanks.” From talk of reunions to weight gain, the set is nearly all self-deprecation, delivered with Carey’s speedy murmur, his twitchy, physical energy and more than a few hearty chuckles. One telling quip: “If I put on a bikini underwear, I’d look like a Bartlett pair with a rubber band wrapped around the bottom.” His snickering, middle-American everyman is on display here, and this appearance sent him on the way toward The Drew Carey Show, which would air just four years later. 

Jerry Seinfeld

Everything fans now recognize as Jerry Seinfeld is right there in his June 5th, 1981, debut performance on The Tonight Show. The pippity-pap cadence, the exclamations, the unmistakable nasal tone and those tidy, carefully observed jokes that seek some happy common denominator in the audience. All that, plus he’s got the peppy energy of youth. He evaluates the battle-readiness of the Swiss army, compliments a morbidly obese man who lost a couple hundred pounds and, in the most perfectly Seinfeldian bit, he considers the subtext of the “Left Turn Okay” traffic sign. “We’re not crazy about you making the left, it’s okay… get it over with,” he says, and then adds a few more signs he hopes to see on the road, “Right Turn, Why Not? U-Turn, Enjoy It.” Seinfeld’s economy and precision aren’t quite there yet, but it’s more than enough to see the relief and delight break out in his face when road-tested material hits home here, knowing that it’s changing the shape of his career on the spot.

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.”

Louie Anderson

The turning point of Louie Anderson’s first Tonight Show set lies in this self-referential joke: “People say, Louie, why do you do those fat jokes? Because if I didn’t, you guys would sit out there and go, ‘You think he knows he’s that big?'” Yes, Anderson is big, and if he’d rather make an audience laugh at him (“I can’t stay long, I’m in between meals, so bear with me.”) than have them quietly sniggering to themselves. For that reason, he designed his set to tackle the obvious before relaxing into a bit more slice-of-life storytelling about his childhood and his rifle-toting father, with plenty of remembered detail. Anderson’s dad, a recurring character in his stand-up, “would say things that made no sense when you were a kid. He’d be driving, the traffic would get rough, ‘You know, if I was the last person on earth, some moron would turn left in front of me.'” Throughout, Anderson’s calm, cool demeanor lets the audience sympathize regardless of the context. Some of the careful, physical gestures of this set from November 20th, 1984, such as his dad’s incredulous glances, help contextualize future roles such as his strangely gentle portrayal of Zach Galifianakis’ mom in Baskets.

Joan Rivers

Brash, bold and outspoken, Joan Rivers came to The Tonight Show on February 17th, 1965, as a veteran of small stages in Greenwich Village. During her debut, she didn’t just dazzle the audience with her feminist slant on life and relationships (while remaining unafraid to go for the jugular), she endeared herself to Carson, too. While she would show up regularly on Ed Sullivan and Dick Cavett, it was The Tonight Show that was her home for quite some time. Their professional relationship flourished after this appearance, with Rivers filling in for Carson regularly until the fateful day she accepted The Late Show without consulting with him first. The duo never reconciled, though Rivers finally did make it back to Tonight Show on the Jimmy Fallon just months before she died in 2014.

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