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, which premieres on PBS tonight (check local listings). 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.
You’ve mentioned that being called over to the couch by Johnny was like a religious experience…
That’s exactly what it was like. I can’t compare it to anything else.
What was it about his support of stand-up comedians and their desire to be called over to the couch?
Well that was the only place you could see stand-up for a long time. You know what I mean? Like there wasn’t any “Evening at the Improv” or HBO specials for forever. And when there were, not that many people had HBO and cable. So if you wanted to see a stand-up comic, you had to watch The Tonight Show. So that was the place to be. Everybody related to the show through Johnny, so if Johnny liked it, they liked you. It was just that simple.
Do you see any show having that same impact now?
No. None. None. Can’t name one. I mean, there are shows that are good to be on, but now you have to be on multiple shows. But right now, there’s guys on YouTube making stupid videos that are, they’re fun, but they’re not anything near what you would call professional entertainment. Just guys yapping and being snarky, and they’re making millions of dollars a year from GoogleSense ads and stuff like that. I mean, the whole world’s upside down. So there’s like no place where, if you’re a comic…
I’ll tell you what can happen if you’re a comic. You can be somebody like Kevin Hart, who does a Comedy Central special, and it’s so good it just blows you up. Or Louis CK, you know, and do an HBO special or a Comedy Central special and it’s so fuckin’ funny that everybody is like “Wow, that guy’s the greatest.” That’s what can happen for ya. But your special better be good, because there’s a lot of guys that do Comedy Central and HBO specials. Comedy Central specials especially; they’ll do a half hour and they’ll be OK, you know, they’re funny, but they’re no Louis CK, they’re no Kevin Hart, they’re no Chris Rock. And that’s your competition. But if you think you’re as funny as that, and you can do a special that’s that funny, and people are like, “Oh my god you gotta see this special,” and they’re trying to post illegal clips on YouTube or something, if you’re that, that can blow you up, but there’s nothing else. That’s the only way.
What did you think when you found out what Louis was going to do with that special, to put it out for five dollars on the internet?
It’s a great idea. He shoulda charged ten. (laughs)
Well, considering how many people downloaded it, I know! Is it because he’s Louis CK that he can do it and he’s built up this much fan base with the series and the standup?
Yeah. Yeah. I mean, it’s a whole other model now.
Do you think you would’ve been able to do that in the ‘80s and ‘90s when you were doing stand-up?
Yeah, I was kind of a hustler. So I mean, if I was doing it now, I was kind of a hustler back then, so yeah, I would’ve been going that route and working an angle for sure.
What were some of the things that you hustled?
I took every gig, I lived out of my car for a year and a half. I was really driven, you know what I mean? For a while after the shows, I sold t-shirts and buttons so I could have money to eat. That was my food money that I would save for my eating expenses and gas and stuff like that. I did that for about a year. I was always aware of what clubs to work, what clubs to avoid, what path to take, how to get from one place to the next.
So if I was operating nowadays, I would have done like what Louis CK did and say, “Why should I put up and give the money to these guys? I’ll just sell it myself and charge people five bucks, and if they want to pay it, they can pay it.” You have to be prolific if you’re a stand-up comic. So Louis CK is very prolific. He’s always writing. I don’t know what he was thinking, but he could have probably… he could have been thinking “Well, I’ll get this hour out there and if it doesn’t sell, it gets ripped off, I’ll just write another hour.” Whereas another might think, “Oh my god, I only have this hour. I don’t have any other hour. I’ve been doing this hour for five years. If I give it away for five bucks, I’m screwed.”
When you did sit on the couch with Johnny, what was it like, knowing that you’d grown up watching him, and now you’re sitting here as close as I’m sitting talking to you?
I’m telling you, I like floated out on that stage. That whole thing was like a dream. Because the night before, I was working. I lived in LA, but I was working in Chicago doing a gig when I got the call. “They want you on Friday.” I got the call on Tuesday or Wednesday. And I was like, “Holy cow.” So Wednesday and Thursday, I did my set in Chicago with my Tonight Show set, and then I did the rest of my act. Then I got a plane Friday. But Thursday, I couldn’t sleep, and I was awake all night in my hotel room. Because I’d visited the stage before and I’d been on the stage, I knew what it looked like to walk out on stage and stand on the spot. I knew what everything looked like. Kevin Pollack told me to do that. Really good advice from him. And so I was imagining my set in real time, through my eyes, over and over and over all night. Couldn’t sleep.
It’s going to sound like a weird story, but I saw it exactly how it happened, through my own eyes, over and over and over again, all night. Couldn’t sleep at all. Got up, walked around the hotel once, went back to bed, kept having the vision, and I finally slept on the plane. When I finally got to the plane, I was like, oh my god, I gotta get some sleep, I’m supposed to do The Tonight Show. I slept a few hours on the plane, got to LA, got a haircut, went to the Tonight Show, and it happened just like I dreamed it. And as it was happening, I was like, “Oh my god, this is just like how I dreamt it.” I was like, out of body. You know what I mean? I wasn’t present like that whole time. When he called me over, I walked over and I was — I couldn’t believe I was sitting there, and there’s Johnny, and it was like a dream.
And Ed’s on the other side of you…
Yeah! And I made a joke to Ed, just like in my dream. In my dream, I made a joke to Ed, which I did. And the whole time, I was like, this was the most weird, metaphysical thing I’ve ever been through.
How did your career change from the day before the appearance to the day after?
Oh, just like every agency wanted to meet with me, my managers just got slammed with phone calls. The assistant at their office did nothing but answer phones about me for a week. She actually complained about it to me once, in a joking way. She’s like, “That’s all I’ve been doing.” I went in the office that week, and she had all these envelopes with DVDs of me, my resumè that everybody wanted to get a hold of.
And I remember there was a comedy club chain that… it was the Funny Bone. I’ll just say it. It was the Funny Bone. And if you got Funny Bone work, it was a lot of work, because you could get a whole fourth of your year, half your year booked by just doing Funny Bones. And I remember I was getting like $1,300 a week and I wanted to get $1,500. And they were like, “Nope, sorry.” And I was like, “Eh, come on, just give me the extra 200 bucks.” And then I did The Tonight Show, and I got a call that Monday on my message machine, “Hi, this is so and so from the Funny Bone, it’s OK for that 1,500 now, bye bye.” And they hung up the phone. And I was like, “Well, I got news. Now it’s like 2 grand, $2,500.” My money jumped way up. Like “$1,500, you’re not even close now.”
It doesn’t sound like much, making $2,000 a week, but it is, for doing an hour’s worth of work a night. I went from making like $1,300 a week to making $2,000, $2,500, automatic, just because I was on The Tonight Show. Got a hotel instead of staying at the comedy condo. I mean, that little bit changed. I got a nicer comedy condo if I was at a comedy condo.
And it only was a few years later when The Drew Carey Show started… 3 or 4 years later?
Yeah. 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.
And you got in under the wire, because Johnny was what, less than a year away from retiring?
Oh, I was in November, he retired in May. And I got on again in February. And that’s when I couldn’t say hi to him because Regis Philbin pissed him off. He really did. I was standing there behind the red velvet rope and I was going to go “Hey Johnny, thanks, you made my whole career, I’m out of debt now, and everything’s going great.” And he just blew right back with “Jesus Christ,” taking his tie off. Couldn’t get away from that fucking place fast enough. (laughs)
Regis can do that to people. I can see Letterman doing that too.
And I was like “Heyyyy…” (laughs)
In your gig now at The Price is Right, do you take cues from what Johnny did as a host?
Oh, yeah. Oh, all the time, yeah. Everybody. You know, him and everything else everybody else ever did. Because you know, Price is Right is a big family show. And there’s only so many things I can say, because it’s a big family audience during the day. And Johnny Carson could only say so many things, because he was on a network show, even though it was late night, you couldn’t go crazy. There was no cable.
Like I remember one time there was a woman on, really huge boobs, on The Price is Right. And the only reason I mention it is, she came up and she started bouncing them around. And this was right after the bank bailout, by the way. And she’s up there, and she’s like “Drew, so nice to see ya,” and she’s bouncing her boobs up and down, and everybody’s laughing. And I looked at the camera, and I said, “too big to fail.”
And when I said it, I thought to myself, “Eh, that was a Johnny Carson line.” I felt like it was kind of slick. I was kinda proud of myself. I said something, it wasn’t dirty, but I acknowledged it and I got away with it. I think I kind of Johnny Carson-ed it. So I do think about him all the time. Not all the time like every day, but stuff like that will come up and I’ll go like “Hey, I was pretty happy. I handled it like Johnny Carson would have handled it.”
Joel Keller is freelance writer who toils for XfinityTV.com, The AV Club, Vulture and The New York Times, among other publications and websites. He remembers when the most “cutting edge” musical act to appear on Johnny’s Tonight Show was ZZ Top.