In one deeply moving scene, Drew Carey, voice cracking as he fights back tears, describes his first performance on The Tonight Show, where he made Carson laugh hysterically and got invited to the couch—a rare seal of approval from Carson that was mythic among comedians.
As Jerry Seinfeld notes, there aren’t that many definitive moments in life than that one. “Before, you’re wanting to be a comedian—and after, you are one.”
It may be hard to believe now, but until the early ’90s, the biggest influence on whether a stand-up comedian’s career took off was left to one man: Johnny Carson.
Not only would a shot on his version of The Tonight Show ensure that you could take a step up in the comedy world, but if he motioned you over to sit with him and Ed McMahon, you had the upper hand on any comedy club owner that ever tried to screw you over as you were coming up.
That’s what happened to Drew Carey, whose career skyrocketed after his initial 1991 appearance on The Tonight Show, where he cracked Johnny up so much that he was one of the lucky few called to the couch. Carey is one of the many who were interviewed for the American Masters documentary Johnny Carson: King of Late Night…
I talked to Drew about the experience — he envisioned the night before that he’d be called over to the desk — how things changed in the aftermath, and how he’s taken cues from Johnny while hosting The Price is Right.
“Got a development deal at Disney. That was in November, and by the end of the year, I had a development deal with Disney. They gave me enough money that I could pay off all my student loans, all my old taxes, I was debt free.
“I didn’t have any money left after I paid it all off, but I was debt free.
“I remember writing all the checks and I was like, ‘Man, I am out of debt, because of this development deal with Disney. Because I got it from doing The Tonight Show.’ That was crazy.”
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“It was all based on your performance, and if he liked you a lot, he would wave you over,” Carey recalled. “The closest thing I can relate it to is (that) when I was in junior high, I joined a Pentecostal church — a really evangelical Assembly of God church, and I got saved. There was an altar call, and I went up and got saved — I rolled around, talked in tongues, all that stuff you’ve heard about.
“Being called over to the couch by Johnny Carson was the closest thing I ever came to that. I’m not even saying that as a joke. There was just this feeling of … like people talk about the feeling of the Holy Spirit going through you and your body changing, and you feel like something’s changed in your life forever and ever — that’s what I felt like going over there, and I felt like I was in a dream the whole time. It was like being saved by Jesus, honestly.”
Carey added that the impact of that one appearance on that one late-night television show was immediate and irreversible.
“It was very rare (to get called over),” he said. “Like, very few people, and they all became really famous. Ellen DeGeneres got called over to the couch. Roseanne Barr got called over to the couch. I got called over to the couch. If you look at the people who got called over to the couch on their first Tonight Show appearance, they all became really famous. It was crazy … he would wave you over, and then the next thing you know, you’re in show business.”