Laughing It Up with Johnny

Article excerpt

Byline: Bill Maher

Why sitting on Carson's couch was every comic's dream.

Aug. 31, 1982, is one of those dates that is seared into my head, like a personal 1066 or 1776. That was my first appearance on The Tonight Show, which was the gateway to a career in my chosen field, stand-up comedy. It was the baccalaureate of stand-up, a test you took early on that would decide the rest of your life. If you did well, you'd get invited back and you might be on to a career. If you didn't, it was pretty much over. You might do other shows, but the goal was always to do other shows in order to get The Tonight Show, and you'd blown that. One thing I loved about Johnny Carson and I try to emulate at every turn: he was ruthless.

He was ruthless in the service of giving the absolute best product possible to the audience--and that means cutting people off. Sometimes (rarely) in the middle of a sentence, sometimes (often) from the show altogether. Johnny would use somebody with great frequency, they'd be on there every few months, so you knew Johnny liked them, and the person would think they were his best friend. Then one day: bam, like Joe Pesci in Goodfellas, back of the head, never saw it coming. Bye-bye, Phyllis Newman, it was fun while it lasted, but we've wrung from you the entertainment quotient you were born with, and this show is for the audience, not the guests.

That's how you stay on for 30 years. You know that you serve at the pleasure of the audience: they don't really love you; they love what you do for them. And if you stop doing it, they'll find someone else to love, as they should. As they have every right to. Johnny didn't ever do bad shows. He was at 100 when he was at his best and 95 at his worst.

As for that first appearance of mine, fortunately it went well, and I did two more that year, including New Year's Eve, so they must have seen something they liked in me. My thoughts turned to, when do I get invited to sit down?, because that was the next level of arrival. Just being on once shut up the wiseasses and doubters from the neighborhood about whether you could really be a comedian. One night on Johnny and you really were a -comedian--but nowhere near a star. In the era I did The Tonight Show, it didn't really make stars--it discovered new talent who'd be seen there and then get their own show, like Roseanne or Freddie Prinze with Chico and the Man.

There was nothing like getting to sit down with Johnny and talk to Johnny that said to the public you had arrived--or at least were arriving. For me, it came on my fifth appearance, and I remember -doing--for a 27-year-old kid on the couch for the first time--a very cheeky joke. I had a bit about people like Liz Taylor who get married nine times, and somewhere in the middle found a place to "ad-lib" a turn to Johnny and say, "Three is good," referring to the three famous marriages and very public divorces he'd had. This was a moment that could have ended it all for me, yet there's something great about being so young you have no idea how inappropriate you're being. …