Comedians and The Tonight Show w/ Johnny Carson

I read that if JC liked your act he would call you over to the couch for a chat. What I want to know about is the comedians that didn’t get called over. Does anyone remember a specific comedian? Did any of them hit it big despite JC’s stamp of disapproval?

From what I recall, the “calling over to the couch” was very rare, so it wasn’t a vote of disapproval if the comedian didn’t get the couch chat.

Getting called over to the couch the first appearance was extremely rare. It happened to Freddie Prinze and people still talk about it. For most comics, a call might not come until the third or sixth appearance. I know that some comics didn’t click at all. Anybody along the line, from Carson to Fred DeCordova to the talent scouts, could decide not to have them back. Some comics had a good five minutes but didn’t have the second good five minutes for a return visit and so got sent away until they had a full act put together. And by the end Carson was only working three days a week forty weeks a year, so that most comics after around 1980 would make their debuts on the show with some other host. Lots of good comics never got called over.

Drew Carey was called over on his first appearance, and Carson told him, “You’re funny as hell, you know that?” Carey looked like he was the happiest human on earth, which at that time he probably was.

That said, not being called voer was never considered an insult. For one thing, while Carson would not call the comedian over if they weren’t really good, he sometmes couldn’t call them over even if they were great, because time did not allow it. The Tonight Show, being the format it is, will sometimes run over or under time, depending on how precise the monologue is, how long the vits and the interviews run, etc., and so sometimes it just wasn’t possible for the standup to be called over.

Jim Carrey was not called over on his first appearance, and mentioned in a later guest appearance with Johnny how it had devastated him. Carson remembered it, and apologized, saying Carrey had been great but there just hadn’t been time.

You can watch Drew’s performance and his reaction to being called over here:

Drew on the Tonight Show

I recall an interview Cheech and Chong did where they said they would have been happy to do the Tonight Show and their agent asked for an appearence but Carson decided they weren’t right for his audience.


Interestingly, Carey’s routine was not as funny as I remember it being. I remember being very impressed at the time - granted, I was a teenager - and being thrilled when he got a show, thinking, “How cool that guy I saw has done so well.”