Jimmy Fallon has taken over The Tonight Show this week.
What better time to reminisce about Johnny Carson, right? Right. Welcome to “The Carson Podcast,” hosted by Mark Malkoff. Malkoff made his mark online over the past several years by doing things you didn’t dare dream — living in an IKEA, bringing a goat into an Apple Store, consuming something at every Starbucks in Manhattan within 24 hours — but this is no stunt. This is a culmination of Malkoff’s lifelong obsession with The Tonight Show and particularly the three decades in which Johnny Carson reigned over late-night. And when Carson made a comedian’s career.
“I have a Carson mug in my office. When I was a teenager I asked my parents for the Carson VHS box set when Johnny retired. I’m especially captivated by stories from Steven Wright and Tom Dreesen who had their lives changed overnight by going on the show,” Malkoff told The Comic’s Comic.
Wright and Dreesen are the first two guests on “The Carson Podcast,” with episodes lasting a little bit longer than a half-hour each. Malkoff’s upcoming guest list for the podcast is mighty impressive: Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Dick Cavett, Martin Mull, Rich Little, Kevin Nealon, and many more. New episodes will upload to his site and iTunes on Wednesdays. Although it’s very much also a Throwback Thursday or Tuesday, Flashback Friday and so on as it captures a time when one man and one show really dominated the discussion when it came to comedy.
Malkoff told The Comic’s Comic that he did reach out to Johnny Carson’s estate and that they were nice to him in his brief interaction with them.
Wright tells Malkoff how Johnny Carson changed his life twice — once just by inspiring him to do stand-up comedy, and then ultimately giving him his big break in 1982. Actually, make that two big breaks, as Wright got invited back to perform again less than a week after his debut.
Wright told Malkoff that Carson was “very nice” and “encouraging,” talking to him during the commercial breaks. “Even though he was the top, gigantic, above Mount Rushmore, and I was way down, bottom, like the guy who cleans the moat at the castle — you could feel that you and him were equal. Coming from him. That you and him were in the same game of performing, doing stand-up in front of the audience. You could feel that he welcomed you. Like you were connected, even though he was at the top and you were at the bottom.” He added: “And that boosts your confidence, too.”
“I am so thankful for that experience. To talk about it, I feel like I’m thanking him about it again just by sharing what happened. It’s like I’m thanking Johnny for the whole idea just by talking about it again,” Wright said.
Tom Dreesen may be longtime friends with David Letterman, but that only makes his own admiration and appreciation of Johnny Carson that much more special.
Dreesen told Malkoff that he went Hollywood after his comedy duo with Tim Reid split up in 1975. He debuted on The Tonight Show the following year.
“Wherever you went in America, people would say ‘What do you do for a living?’ In 1975 you say, ‘I’m a stand-up comedian.’ And the next question out of their mouth was, ‘Oh, yeah. You ever been on Johnny Carson?’ They didn’t say The Tonight Show. They said have you ever been on Johnny Carson. So. In the eyes of America, if you’ve never been on Johnny Carson, you might want to be a comedian, you might are going to be a comedian, but you aren’t one now. He was the stamp of approval.”
One appearance could do the trick.
“I did one appearance and the next day CBS signed me to a development deal. I was hitchhiking, I was broke. I was drawing unemployement. and the next day, after I did my Tonight Show, CBS signed me to a development deal for nearly $25,000 dollars. My wife and kids we had the rent paid for a year, groceries. I could concentrate on my act really more so than ever.”
“Johnny put that little circle up with the finger and I knew that I had arrived.”