Bill Maher Remembers Johnny Carson 20 Years Later


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. Johnny fell out laughing, and now I could tell my high-school reunion I not only sat down with Johnny, I ribbed him.

But I shouldn’t have gotten cocky, because my next appearance was, out of the 30 I wound up doing with Johnny, the really bad one. Dec. 8, 1983, is also seared into my brain. I did an edgy bit critical of President Reagan, which was stupid because I must have known that Johnny’s producer Fred de Cordova directed Bedtime for Bonzo and thought he was Reagan’s best friend. He was livid, and I got chewed out after the show. I thought my goose was cooked over there. I will never know what was said behind closed doors the next day when the staff reviewed the previous night, but I know how shows work. There’s only one person who could have saved my ass, and that was Johnny Carson. He must have said, “OK, so he -f--ked up, he’s a kid ...”

Johnny was a comic, so he knew, he’d been there. That was a great thing about being a comic doing The Tonight Show: the host was one of you.

Johnny was avuncular, and surprisingly approachable. I never saw him outside of the studio, of course, but I talked to him in the wings before he went on to do his monologue, and that’s something many talk-show hosts wouldn’t do. I recall him once using me to vent for what seemed like minutes about how Ed -McMahon did the same warmup material every single night. And once in the parking lot, I was walking out and Johnny couldn’t get his car started. A few people gathered around as he tried to turn it over, and at one point I—again, really too cheeky—leaned in and said, “I bet Jay Leno would know what to do,” referring to the famously car-adept Leno only months before he was slated to take over The Tonight Show. Johnny looked up from the driver’s seat and said in perfect Johnny-clip: “We’ll see how much he knows about television.”

carson-om01-3rd This year marks the 20th anniversary of Carson handing over the late-night reins. Ron Tom / NBCU Photo Bank-Getty Images

Johnny really did know television, he was the Marshall McLuhan prototype: cool guy for a cool medium. I loved him when I first saw him as a tween just starting to think about who I wanted to be when I became a fully grown-ass man. It was Johnny, my father, James Bond.

I also believe, as great as he was, he probably wouldn’t be right for today. He was great till the end, but Floyd R. Turbo made me understand that everything has a life span and in show business, 30 years at the top is an amazing run. And it turned out Jay Leno did know about television, too. He’s always taken for granted, but Jay knows the audience of his era just as well; the numbers don’t lie. If Johnny in his prime went up against Jay in his prime, and the year was 1965, Johnny would win. In 2000, Jay would win. I would not want to see Johnny Carson try to survive in this age, competing with YouTube and videogames and tapped-out attention spans; that’s not who he was. His era breathed a little, and I miss it. I miss him, and always will.

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