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.