When Joan Rivers first appeared on Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show" on February 17, 1965, it was pretty much do-or-die time. Nobody really knew -- nor particularly cared -- that the 32-year-old former ad agency copywriter had spent the previous five years tirelessly honing her stand-up in the small, smoky comedy clubs of Greenwich Village. They just wanted her to be funny.
Joan wanted to be funny, too -- so desperately, in fact, that she'd written "Break a leg" on one knee and "Good luck" on the other, so that she could secretly touch those encouraging words through her dress while she was on the air. "No one had faith in me," Joan remembers.
But when it came to perform her material, Joan did what only the best and most enduring comedians do when the pressure's on: She killed.
"Yeah, I was funny out there," Joan told me once. "And afterwards, right on the air, Carson said, 'You're going to be a star.' That did it. The next day the phones went oﬀ the hook. It was like an overnight sensation. My life had changed."
If there was ever such a thing as a coronation in the annals of show business, it would be the honor that Johnny Carson regularly bestowed on the nation's young comedians during his 30-year reign as host of the show. A brilliant comic mind himself, Carson knew that he was, in essence, handing the up-and-comers a passport to stardom -- and it was theirs to enjoy if they delivered. But it wasn't just appearing on the show that sealed the comedians' success: they had to be good, and they had to be invited back.
"It wasn't that ﬁrst shot," says Joan, "and it wasn't that second shot. It was that third show that established you. That proved you weren't just a ﬂuke."
This year marks the 20th anniversary of Johnny Carson's departure from The Tonight Show -- and the 50th anniversary of the show itself -- and comedians both young and old continue to strive toward his higher-than-high standards, almost as if they believe they can still somehow earn that gratifying thumbs-up from him. As for those comics who were lucky enough to have launched big careers from the Carson springboard, they have never forgotten their debt to him, nor the memories of those first appearances.
Roseanne Barr once told the New Yorker that, backstage before her Carson debut (in which she introduced her "domestic goddess" shtick), she read a letter that she'd written to herself years before, in which she'd dreamt of this big moment. "This is the beginning of your life..." the letter began -- and then she heard Johnny say, "Please welcome Roseanne Barr!"
Jay Leno, who not only soared to fame after appearing on Carson, but ultimately took over the host's chair when Carson retired, remembers the privilege of appearing on that stage. "As a performer, I never wanted to impress anyone more than Johnny Carson," he's said. "When you were invited into his house -- this show -- you knew you were an honored guest."
And for Drew Carey, there was one other telltale sign that let you know you were a cut above the rest: getting called over to the couch to chat with Carson after your set. Carey was one of those chosen few.
"It was very rare to get called to the couch," he once told a reporter, likening the honor to a religious experience. "He would wave you over, and the next thing you knew, you were in show business."
But for most comedians, those debut gigs were all about nerves. Steven Wright learned to calm his jitters by pretending he wasn't at Burbank Studios, but rather in a small comedy club. ("If you stopped to think that 10 million people were watching you, you'd get so nervous you couldn't even function," Wright said). But for Jerry Seinfeld, no amount of self-soothing could help.
"I have never been more nervous about anything," Jerry told me. "It feels like the stomach flu, except it's in your whole body. Those first couple of years, every time I did The Tonight Show, I'd be up all night the night before. I remember one time asking myself, 'Why do I do this? Why would anyone put themselves through this?'"
Johnny Carson passed away in 2005. We still miss and love him -- and not just because he left his own legacy as a master of his craft, but because he also bequeathed to us an entire generation of comedians who still have the power to engage us whenever they step up to the mic.
Here's a collection of some of those comedians' remarkable "Tonight Show" debuts, routines that would become the most memorable of their careers -- because on that particular night, more than anything, they wanted to make Johnny laugh.