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BRIAN MCKIM has performed standup comedy in all 50 states. He earned a B.A. in Magazine Journalism from Temple University. Any resemblance to a living person is purely coincidental.


Brian McKim
Editor In Chief

"B.C.(R.) Before Carson (Retired)"

We here at SHECKY! will tell anyone who'll listen that it wasn't television that killed comedy. Television never killed anything. And neither will television revive comedy.

Note: By "comedy," we mean, in this instance, live standup comedy; the kind in the comedy clubs that people go and see live and in person, the way it is meant to be experienced. And by "killed," it is usually meant that a preponderance of standup comedy on television somehow destroyed the public's desire to get off their duffs and hand over cash for the privelege of witnessing comedy live and in person, as I said before, the way it was meant to be experienced.

It became fashionable to parrot this position as the standup ship began to take on water. Then, in a classic example of sour grapes, some folks even tried to downplay the importance of an appearance on television. Once in 1992 or so, I was engaged in a conversation with a blowhard comic while sitting in a club in Little Rock, AR. I mentioned that I had recently taped an Evening At The Improv. Mr. Blowhard, unaware or unconcerned that he was about to insult me, said, "Anyone with a suit and seven minutes can get a shot on Evening At The Improv. (I concluded that he had only a suit.) Not only was this an insult to me, it was a blow to all the fine and talented comics who had appeared on that show over the years.

No, Virginia, television didn't kill comedy. Comedy killed television.

The formula, at least for a while, was simple: do open mikes, become proficient, hit the road, get good, move to New York or L.A., appear on any or all of a number of television showcases and, using the credibility that comes with multiple television credits, hit the road as a headliner. Headline for a while, showcase when you can in New York or L.A., sign a deal, buy a house in the hills.

Somewhere along the way, television got cut out of the mix. When did it happen? When did appearing on television stop lending instant credibility? When did comics stop striving (at least with such singlemindedness) to appear on the most powerful medium the planet has ever known as a prerequisite to hitting the big time?

It's no coincidence that the aforementioned conversation took place in 1992. That was a watershed year for standup comedy and a watershed year for standup on the telly. For it was in that year that Johnny Carson retired.

I missed it, myself. I was nearly unconscious in the bedroom of our apartment in Burbank, just up the hill from the very NBC studios where Carson had sat earlier in the day issuing his final farewell. I was in a fevered haze, having contracted some sort of bug or whatever was going around. Traci watched that tearful goodbye and she wept, too. It wasn't just the end of a long run for a host, it was the end of a dream for many comics.

For many years, an appearance on Carson (mind you, it was never an appearance on The Tonight Show, it was an appearance on "Johnny" or an appearance on "Carson") meant that you were golden. If you received his blessing, it was the only one that mattered. You were on your way to...something big. Over the years, his franchise launched more stars than the Big Bang.

That was B.C.(R.)--Before Carson (Retired) . It's no secret that comics regularly distinguish between Tonight Show appearances made "with Johnny" or "on Leno." The implication being that it somehow doesn't mean as much if you got on the show after Carson's retirement. When Johnny packed it in, standup comedy lost that important television shot, that worm hole that instantaneously led from obscurity to stardom. Ever since then, there hasn't been a show or a host or a talent coordinator that has had such power to confer upon a performer such instant credibility. The word on the street was that you didn't do Carson "until you were ready." Ready for what? Ready for whatever it was you got into this business for in the first place. There were many stories of the comics who were asked to do their sets 12, 16, 24 times before they were scheduled to finally come on down to Olive and Alameda to tape it in the studio while Johnny himself looked on from behind his desk.

A great part of this power stemmed from the fact that Tonight was the only game in town. He was the king of late night television by default. Few dared to challenge his claim to that throne. Those who did were quickly beheaded.

In the period P.C. (Post Carson), all of the late night power was diluted, diminshed, fragmented. It was instantly halved when Dave went to CBS. It hasn't been anywhere near as concentrated since.

And for many comics, the Holy Grail had been taken away. The disappearance of Johnny Carson knocked the wind out of many a comic and, in an era when standup comedy was already buffeted by political correctness, a natural cyclical downturn and other influences, it was a devastating hit. A hit from which standup comedy is only beginning to recover.

Standup comedy and television will once again establish a mutually beneficial relationship. But it will never be the same as it was. Not when people like Letterman are saying things like "We already have too many comics."

Some folks have posited the theory that the Internet will fill the role previously held by television with regard to standup comedy. Don't hold your cyber-breath. To be sure, humor is right up there with pornography and music when it comes to the Internet's greatest hits, but the "humor" that's so prevalent in emails and on web sites has precious little relationship with live standup comedy, as it was meant to be experienced.

The Internet's infatuation with youth culture is another impediment. As are its technical limitations. In order to see even an approximation of a live standup performance, you must have a culvert-pipe-sized connection to the Internet, much larger and faster than the silly straw that most people are currently connected to.

At some point, however, television lost its power to boost a comic into the stratosphere and the standup comedy biz realized that while nearly all roads to the big time passed through the tube, the order of things got a bit jumbled and television became another path instead of the path to fame and fortune.

For many comics, this came as a shock to the system. But after a bit, the net effect is positive. After you get over the initial shock (after five or six years), you survey the landscape and re-strategize. Comics in the Post Carson era have realized that there are as many paths to success as there are comics. HOME Back to the Top