Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The Second Greatest Showbiz Story Ever Told

And I say second because Tonight Show veteran, American Comedy Award winner, and hilarious friend Cathy Ladman told the greatest one about Mike Nichols on her blog recently. I jacked the concept from her because since I've started blogging five days a week, ideas are now a luxury I can no longer afford.

So, I was living in New York but visiting L.A. twice a year because my sister lived out here. A year after I began doing standup she started dating Johnny Carson.

The back story here is that my mother was the Carson fan. She was a teacher with chronic insomnia and a bad marriage so she spent her evenings watching Johnny and grading papers. I too had insomnia and would join her every night. When I tell you that my parents yelled at me for much less, it was amazing that I was allowed to stay up and watch The Tonight Show. And trust me, I had the grades to prove it.

So fast forward to 1984, when my sister was dating Carson. He had a beach house on Pacific Coast Highway and was also dating Alex, the woman who would become his wife. My sister knew about Alex but I'm not sure Alex knew about my sister.

I arrived in L.A. and my sister told me we were going to have dinner with Johnny at Chasen's. Any goal I had in life went right out the window because at that point in time, I had achieved the ultimate one. Dinner with the Sensei. And. He laughed at everything I said.

My sister and I went down to Malibu another day to meet him at his house. Again, he laughed at anything I said because I was knocking myself out at this point. My head could have flown off and blood could have been spewing everywhere but if Johnny laughed at that, mission accomplished. But I was making him laugh without jokes or punch lines, just unstructured riffs off of what he said or what I saw out the window. And that's where I got into trouble.

After an entire afternoon of watching people on the beach and listening to Johnny play the drums, he turned to me and said, "Call this number and tell Jim M. that I want you to be seen for the show." And I froze. Solid. I'd been doing standup for about 8 months. Standup takes a million years to get 5 perfect minutes and even with the little knowledge I had at the time, I knew I would never make the cut. The God of standups wanted me to audition and I had about 32 seconds of television-ready material. Maybe less.

Timing really is everything.

I never called the booker. I didn't want to embarrass myself and in my mind, make Johnny look like he had made the wrong choice.

I finally moved to L.A. in the 90's. I'd been doing standup for about 9 years at that point. My agent got me an audition for the same Tonight Show booker, Jim M., who knew nothing of my previous relationship with Johnny. And I didn't mention it. When you do standup, you worry about the guy in the third row with the crossed arms and a scowl on his face. The entire room could give you a standing O but if Scowly McThirdrow didn't, it would haunt you for weeks. What would I do if I didn't get the show after saying I knew Johnny and that he had wanted to help me all those years ago? Probably kill myself is a good guess. So I kept quiet.

I was auditioning along with two male standups from my agency. The night went very well and we all had terrific sets and my agent said to me, "Of all the comics I've auditioned over the years, you're the only one Jim M. ever applauded." I thought the gig was a lock.

Days went by. I heard nothing. Finally I called my agent and asked him what was going on and he said that the Tonight Show had picked one of the two guys from our agency. I asked him if they said anything about me and he said no. I asked him if he at least mentioned me to Jim M. and he said no. When I asked him why he said, "I didn't want to rock the boat."

I hear those words in the middle of my nightmares where I'm naked in front of strangers and running down an unfamiliar street trying to get to the math test I never studied for.

Many, many months later I auditioned for The Dennis Miller Show and the new booker for the Tonight Show, Jim B., was in the room. At this point The Tonight Show had been considering me every 6 months for about two years and I couldn't wait any longer for my agent to "not rock the boat." I asked Jim B. if I had any chance at all and he said I was too edgy for the show. I told him I had just booked Starsearch and he blanched. Starsearch didn't do edgy but I had changed my persona to get the gig. There's this little thing called rent that apparently you have to deal with every month.

So I got Starsearch but never got The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. It's one of my biggest regrets and I'm sure I speak for thousands of comedians when I say that. But I made one of my comedy idols laugh. And I can live with that.

End of chat.

14 comments:

  1. Suzy, I remember you telling me you were at Johnny Carson's house years ago, when your sister was dating him. But, I never heard this part of the story. Great story. Making Johnny laugh. Pretty fun, eh?

    ReplyDelete
  2. Hey, now I know 2 people who were on Star Search!
    My husband still talks about missing Johnny Carson. He used to come home late from work and watch it with his mother too.

    ReplyDelete
  3. cathy, it was fun to make Johnny laugh. I think that's why comics loved him so much. He could always share the stage.

    gm, your husband and I are twins!

    ReplyDelete
  4. Anonymous12:10 PM

    One of my friends was a singer who "Jim M" had been longing for and was just downright enamored of. She and I appeared in a number of cabarets doing a singer/comic show. She repeatedly told "Jim M" that he should see me, that I was funny and fabulous. Finally, one night at Igby's it was all arranged. I KILLED! It was a great set, worked on for weeks, manicuring it to the perfect 5 minutes. I even got a standing O (oh and hello, no friends in the audience). I thought The Tonight Show was in the bag. My friend said, "so is she booked?" Then "Jim M" said, "I don't know why everyone was laughing." Suzy, you should have called him in the beginning. He could have helped you get on the show and guided your material. He loved doing that. It was very difficult for him with women who didn't need "help."
    Aloha,
    Martha Jane

    ReplyDelete
  5. Here's Rickey's story of meeting a famous person. I was walking through a hotel lobby when I spotted Larry David. Naturally, I said, "hey, you're Larry David" to which he responded "yes I am" and then walked away.

    Andy Rooney also told me to quit smoking, but that's another story altogether.

    ReplyDelete
  6. MJ, it wasn't the one who became a comic was it? I asked Carson why that one appeared so much on his show and he said because she was sleeping with Jim M.

    rickey, LD does that to everyone. He's shy.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Yeah, I've heard that too about him. Funny how a comedian whose show is all about making a huge schmuck of yourself in public is actually shy in real life.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Suzy,

    I'm not Johnny Carson, but you always make me laugh. The fact that you can translate that to written words makes you a very special person. I'm being really nice to you now because there were so many people I worked with in the past who went on to become huge stars and I regret not being nicer to them. So if this post sounds like I'm sucking up...then you'll know why. Not that I want to achieve anything in show-business just because someone throws me a bone. I prefer to make it on my own talents, but it doesn't hurt if you know someone who can at least turn the spotlight on so others can see you.

    Great Carson story. To most real comics we know he was someone who could launch a career with a simple "okay" gesture of his hand.

    Brad Slaight

    ReplyDelete
  9. Thanks Brad, but you've always been nice to me and I find it hard to believe you're not nice to everyone...

    ReplyDelete
  10. surcie7:19 PM

    You got to hang out with the legendary Johnny Carson and he genuinely enjoyed your sense of humor. This is an AWESOME story, Suzy. Don't regret a thing.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Suzy,
    Regret EVERYTHING. Jimmy B. in in wikipedia under chuffa. Oh, yaeh and because I only read this stuff once a week or so, HBD on Monday. (And everybody likes Slaight)

    ReplyDelete
  12. Chandler, I'm going to have that needlepointed onto my forehead.

    ReplyDelete
  13. Allen Enlow10:00 PM

    Great story Suzie...to coin Jimmy Durante-"you got a million of 'em." But I couldn't help thinking (and no disrespect to your sister) when Johnny finished the big O with his partner did the woman stand up pumping her fist in the air and yell, "Hi-yoh!" Sorry, the mind works in a mysterious way. I blame God.

    ReplyDelete
  14. HI
    great blog about hollywood standup i like it Hollywood theme parties are becoming extremely popular these days as more and more people are deciding on putting a twist to their normal run of the mill house party.

    Hollywood standups

    ReplyDelete