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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.

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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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.

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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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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.

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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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