1/17/12 - the johnny carson show was the mecca for comedians

In today's excerpt - the 1970s were highly fertile years for comedy in America. That period yielded a who's who of future stars bursting forth from places like the Second City Comedy Club. For most though, it was a painful rite of passage, appearing at clubs that did not pay, taking menial jobs to pay rent, and dreaming of that one appearance on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show that would send them to stardom. Two such comedians were Al Franken (now a U.S. Senator) and Tom Davis—Franken and Davis—who later gained fame as writers and performers on Saturday Night Live:

"For a stand-up comedian in L.A. in late 1973, getting on 'The Car­son Show,' as we called it, was everyone's goal. It was a rite of pas­sage for all the great ones, who still crawled over each other to appear on that stage. Craig Tennis was The Tonight Show's chief tal­ent coordinator. He would periodically attend a Friday or Saturday 10:00 to 11:30 at Sammy Shore's Comedy Store, sitting in the booth in the back, like an emperor at the games.You'd find out what you were worth by your order in the lineup. Each act was allotted ten minutes, but almost everybody would go overtime, some worse than others.

Other: 'Hey man—you were out there twenty-five minutes.'

Worse: 'Yeah—but I was killing! Did you hear them?'

"So a few acts on the bottom of the list would miss the Emperor's au­dience. It was not fun.

"However, Franken and Davis were chosen to audition at The Tonight Show studio at NBC Burbank, along with two other stand-ups. A van picked us up at noon on a Saturday in front of the Hyatt on Sunset, next door to the Comedy Store and its empty parking lot. Why didn't they pick us up there? I don't know.

"At our destination, we were shown into the cold, cavernous Tonight Show studio and seated in the center, a few rows up from the floor. Finally, Craig Tennis entered with a gaggle of production staffers and they sat above us several rows, just outside the general stage lighting.

"Steve Lubetkin was up first. He was maybe a year or two older than Al and I. He had a good act—I remember something about insect actors auditioning for The Hellstrom Chronicles (a popular low-budget documentary feature about how insects will rule the world). Watching Steve caught in the stage lights made it seem kind of ironic.

"Al and I did our local news on the day of World War III routine. ...

"After we had all endured this scrutiny, we watched them climb the stairs up to the executive offices and disappear. After half an hour, an imperial guard appeared and announced, 'Sorry, but we don't have a place for you on our show now. Thank you and good luck.'

"In the van on the way back, Lubetkin was very upset. 'I can't be­lieve it! I got turned down by Carson!'

Al: 'It's okay, Steve. There'll be other things.'

Steve: 'But that was my best stuff!'

I: 'F**k Johnny Carson.'

Steve: 'No - I'm f**ked.'

"Ten days later he took a running leap off the Hyatt's roof and landed in the Comedy Store parking lot. He had a note in his pocket: 'My name is Steve Lubetkin. I was a comedian.' "


Tom Davis


39 Years of Short-Term Memory Loss: The Early Days of SNL from Someone Who Was There


Grove Press an imprint of Grove/Atlantic Inc


Copyright 2009 by Tom Davis


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