Two Jokes Over the Line
By Ritch Shydner
In 1962, when Johnny Carson made his debut as host of The Tonight Show, there were three channels on the TV. Pick one, read a book or stare at each other. In no time, Carson was “The King of Late Night,” and for the next 30 years the most powerful man in the world of stand-up comedy. Cable TV started to bite into the broadcast pie in the late 1970’s and early ’80s, but nobody touched Johnny’s slice.
A young stand-up comedian of this era heard the overnight success stories while learning joke structure. His show was the launching pad for stand-up stars like Joan Rivers in the ’60s and Robert Klein in the ’70s. Johnny’s Midas touch was still there in 1982 when an unknown Steven Wright went from a killer first Tonight Show, to a stunning second shot only days later, and then into packed theaters. Do not stop. Pass Go and collect a career.
At the very least, an appearance on the “Johnny Carson Show” was a marker of show business success that even a comic’s worried family recognized.
My first Tonight Show with Johnny Carson came on Aug. 30, 1984. As a stand-up, this date was more important than my birthday. This birth I did. This birth I remembered. This birth I sweated.
The comic’s midwife was the Tonight Show talent coordinator, Jim McCauley. He decided when the new Jester was ready and what jokes to present to the King. Whenever Jim McCauley entered The Improvisation or The Comedy Store, the room became electric. Doubt disappeared, hope materialized and the push for the stage resembled the Oklahoma Land Rush.
After several successful minor league stints on The Merv Griffin Show and A&E’s An Evening at The Improv, Jim declared me ready for the majors in the summer of ‘84. He cherry-picked jokes from my act. I then fashioned segues to stitch up the disparate pieces and practiced those five minutes night after night, word for word, until it became part of my DNA. I even managed to stop drinking and drugging two weeks before my scheduled date. However, the pre-show stress caused painful shingles blisters to break out on my right hip and thigh two days before my due date. There’s no crying in comedy.
The day of the shot, my telephone’s answering machine filled with well-wishes. My acting coach, knowing my tendency to speed-talk my way to incoherency, said, “Speak slowly. If you’re worried you’re speaking too slow, then slow down some more.” Jerry Seinfeld said: “You already hit the home run. Just don’t trip rounding the bases.”
When the applause began after my final joke that night, I did as instructed and looked to Johnny for my next move. He had three basic signals for a new comic. The first was a wave to come do panel, a sign of total love and acceptance. The second was an outstretched hand with the forefinger and thumb forming an OK circle, meaning a passing grade — nothing special, but you lived to fight another day. That’s what I got. At least Johnny wasn’t tapping his pencil on the desk, while smiling and nodding to the music. That was the third option, the equivalent of a trap door opening beneath the comic. Few survived the execution after the pencil drum roll.
A very happy Jim McCauley greeted me behind the curtain. Jim lived and breathed with the comics he brought to the Tonight Show. His job was on the line as much as yours.
As the show ended, McCauley positioned me along the path Johnny took every night from the set to his office. For my efforts, I got the standard reward for most first-time comic: A handshake, a photo op and a second appearance. I was relieved, happy and soon on my way to drunk.
My second Tonight Show shot was scheduled for February 1985.
This time I decided I wanted more say about the material. Spending a lot of time with Jack Daniels, “Peruvian Product” and Sam Kinison gave me a blurred, but intense vision of a need to be edgy.
My idea was to end it with two jokes about suicide which were working in the dark, boozy clubs. Jim knew the difference between night club funny and TV-funny.
Jim chose a couple of relationship jokes for my closing. I agreed, but soon became obsessed with new jokes about Barney Clark, the world’s first artificial heart recipient, and the life-saving technique of defibrillation.
The Barney Clark joke reacted to a doctor’s assertion that “Mr. Clark would lead a pretty normal life.” I complained that it would at least hinder his bowling game, and ended the bit by mimicking Clark trying to pick up a spare while dragging the 200-pound heart pump. I then pointed out that the defibrillator caused the patient’s body to jump off the bed. Some sadistic doctor was sure to turn up the juice in an effort to set a record height. This bit ended with doctors using two sets of paddles to volley a patient back and forth in a game of tennis.
To me there was nothing wrong with this material. I was getting laughs by complaining and pointing things out. That’s what stand-ups do.
Almost every night I practiced with a different closer. The drinking and drugging was by now a daily chore, a tedious job. It was a huge effort to abstain the night before the show. It was not so much a sober night as the start of detoxification. I placed a post-show gram in the pocket of my show suit, an addict’s security blanket.
The night of the show, I begged Jim to let me do the heart material, arguing it was a perfect fit with the rest of the set’s jokes of broken bones, doctor advertising, and brain storage capabilities. McCauley was reluctant, doubting if it suited Johnny’s taste.
I was a crazed comic begging for his artistic soul, which at that moment meant being the first on TV with a Barney Clark joke. The Devil was bargain shopping.
Jim finally relented.
The set went fine; the laughter coming at all the right places. I closed and looked for my signal. Johnny was tapping his pencil, smiling and nodding to the music.
Jim met me behind the curtain and hustled me straight to my dressing room. Jim was pleasant. He gave me a beer, but offered no pretense as to my situation. There was a problem with my set. Although all the blame clearly rested with me, Jim was the one apologizing. “I should have known Johnny would hate that heart stuff. He smokes three packs a day and worries about having a heart attack. We better stay in here for awhile.”
It took me two more months of bad decisions to finally quit alcohol and drugs.
Thanks to Jim McCauley’s advice and support I did a third Tonight Show in late 1986. It probably didn’t hurt that Johnny Carson stopped smoking during that period. Jim helped me through nine more Tonight Shows before Johnny finally retired. I regret never fully thanking him for what he did for me and all the other comics in his 25 years at the Tonight Show. Rest in Peace, Jim. If there is an afterlife, please tell me there are no pencils.
Ritch Shydner on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in August 1984
Shydner is the co-author and editor of I Killed: True Stories of the Road from America’s Top Comics
and was profiled in the documentary, I Am Comic.
Shydner’s credits include appearances on Roseanne, Married with Children, Beverly Hills Cop II and Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist. He was a co-executive producer on The Mind of the Married Man as well as Blue Collar TV.
He also performed stand-up on HBO’s One Night Stand, A&E’s An Evening at the Improv, Late Night with David Letterman, and The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.