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Freddie Prinze Blew Up Like No Other Comedian in History

Illustration: David Perezcassar

You need to know a few numbers about Freddie Prinze’s Tonight Show debut on Thursday, December 6, 1973, the night his brief career was launched: 19. 325. 9. 28.

Prinze was 19 years old. He was on stage for 325 seconds. Within nine months, he was the undeniable star of an undeniable hit television show, and just 28 months later, he killed himself with a friend’s gun. We could argue about the impact on legacy of a tragic early death, but it clouds the truth — which was that for as fast as Freddie Prinze left, it finishes laps behind the pace at which he arrived.

“At the time, I was still doing local radio and TV in Indianapolis,” recalls David Letterman, “and I would see a long list of these guys on the Tonight Show — Mike Preminger, David Brenner, Ed Bluestone, Steve Landesberg — and it became pretty clear to me what the formula was to become successful in show business: You move to Los Angeles, you go to a place called the Comedy Store, you get on the Tonight Show. I mean, they’re begging you to come out! Freddie Prinze, more than anyone else, typified the way that formula worked. I don’t know of anyone who it happened for that expeditiously.”

And yet, it almost didn’t.

“That night was a very traumatic experience,” says former Tonight Show talent booker Craig Tennis. “Freddie de Cordova (longtime producer of the Tonight Show) had maybe the worst taste in comics of anyone alive. I guess he saw Freddie Prinze in his dressing room before the show, and he came up to me and said, ‘He’s not going on. I hate the way he looks. Johnny’s going to hate him. I’m canceling him right now.’

“Back then,” continues Tennis, “I had a standard speech I would give to someone we bumped: I would wait until the end of the crawl, and then I would say, ‘We ran out of time. We’ll talk tomorrow. I’ll get you a new date.’”

The Thursday night show was loaded, so it looked like de Cordova would get his way. Lead guest Diane Keaton, on to promote the upcoming Woody Allen film Sleeper, was her endearingly goofy self for two segments. “But then the second guest, Sammy Davis Jr., ran out of things to say after three minutes,” says Tennis, “so de Cordova had no choice but to put Prinze on, hope he’d bomb, and then I’d get fired.”

There remains, for public consumption, only one record of the entire appearance — a YouTube upload that is just jumpy and grainy enough to make you think some forward-thinking relative trained their Bell & Howell on the family Zenith that 1973 December night into morning. Turns out it’s an iPhone dupe from Ana Torres, a Staten Island writer who runs the Freddie Prinze fan page on Facebook. “I got lucky,” she says. “Someone on iOffer was selling a DVD of the whole show. I bought it six months ago. Fifteen dollars, plus $2 shipping. I uploaded it from my phone because I wanted to share some of it on YouTube with fellow fans who’ve been searching for anything on Freddie. I was thrilled. It felt like a rare find.”

Watch. Watch now. Watch before it’s yanked down and removed for no reason, like some hopeful Syrian mother at a JFK arrival gate:

Johnny Carson teed everything up nicely:

“We have a new young comedian with us tonight, and, as you know, it is a hard commodity to find in this business are young guys who can come out in front of an audience and do not have a great deal of exposure and try to find people who accept what they do. And this gentleman, Freddie Prinze, is just 19 years old and just graduated about six months ago from the High School of Performing Arts in New York, and he works in New York at the Improvisation and a place called Catch a Rising Star …

Catch a Rising Star was a showcase club (translation: no pay) for comics and singers in Manhattan that was just shy of a year old. “We opened December 18, 1972,” owner Rick Newman says. “Freddie came in quite quickly after we opened. He might have been 18. You knew what he had right from the start. He was good from the get-go. Great poise. He used to go up and work out. I put him up in prime time. A typical show in those days was Richard Belzer, Billy Crystal, Freddie, Patti Benatar, David Brenner, and Andy Kaufman.”

Belzer and the kid became fast friends. “He seemed so much older than he was,” he says. “He had a certain wisdom.”

That much was clear to everyone, and it was another Freddie, the veteran comic Freddie Roman, who would help Prinze move his career along. As Roman recalls, “Here’s the story: I was at Catch, having a drink at the bar with Rick Newman, who had just opened the club. I was going to go home, and he says, ‘You need to see this kid.’ He was, I don’t know, 18? I watch this guy. He blew me away. I took him to the Green Kitchen for breakfast next door. He hadn’t eaten. He kept calling me ‘sir.’ I tell him, ‘You were wonderful. I’m gonna bring my manager [Dave Jonas] down.’ I brought Jonas the next night. Oh my God, he says.”

Roman, about whom Belzer once said, “Jack Ruby had a longer career in television,” stayed with it. “Originally, Jonas brought the booker from Channel 7 to see him. (Jack Paar had a one-week-a-month late-night show on ABC — Channel 7 in New York.) I said to him, ‘What are you doing? Don’t fuck this up. This guy is going to be a superstar.’ Eventually, he got the guy from the Tonight Show, Craig Something, down there.”

“This is his first appearance on the Tonight Show, so make him feel welcome. You sound like you’re in a good mood. Would you welcome Freddie Prinze. Freddie?”

It took Prinze about 15 seconds to get his first big laugh:

“I come from two backgrounds. Hungarian and Puerto Rican. I’m a Hungarican … I can never figure out how my parents met, a gypsy and a Puerto Rican. I asked my mother, she said on the subway, they were trying to pick each other’s pockets … My mother used to talk about the wedding. ‘Oh, it was beautiful, you should have been there.’ I was.”

“Any time there was a comic on Carson, we put a TV in the bar and took a break to watch the shot, “ said Newman. “That night was a perfect storm. He was great looking, he was ethnic, he had worked on his set so he was calm and cool. Brenner had helped him a lot with his set. He was so ready for that Carson shot. And the audience was on fire. Carson and Sammy Davis Jr. were hysterical.”

Belzer and Dick Capri, another comic in the Dave Jonas stable, said the word came back that during Prinze’s set, Davis got up off the panel, walked to the front of the stage, and sat down in front of the camera, legs crossed, Indian-style. “He kept falling over on his hands and knees laughing,” said Tennis. “The audience saw that, and that was it.”

Two minutes in, after a smart throwaway about his apartment in Washington Heights got nothing (“it’s a six-floor run-up…”), Prinze detonated what was to become his first catchphrase. It’s the kind of building, the super never has to fix anything, but he still wants the key to your apartment. In case of an emergency, like he needs a few dollars. We have Mr. Rivera. Whenever you go to complain to Mr. Rivera, he answers the door with his six kids, so you feel bad. “Mr. Rivera, man, no hot water for 11 years now.”

His answer, “Eees not my job, man …”

The line was something Prinze had picked up in a bar from a stranger. “We were banging the same girl,” says John Mendoza, an eventual Carson stand-up regular. “A bartender on First Avenue at a place called Fiddle Faddle. Her name was Collette, which is the name of my daughter. Neither of us knew each other. Neither of us knew we were both seeing her. We both showed up one night at the same time. We’re at the bar and he asked me to pass the pretzels. They were too far, so I said, ‘Eees no my yob, man.’ He said, ‘That’s funny, can I have that?’ I said sure. It was a very common line in my neighborhood. I didn’t think anything of it. At the time, I was back from the service, bouncing around, driving a limo. But as you know, before you do comedy, you know nothing about comedy. Then you see a guy on TV doing a line you gave him.”

Prinze called the line back to close the set: Imagine if we had a Puerto Rican president, and he got in trouble. How would he pass the buck? “Eees not my job, man!”

“I saw it at home,” says Freddie Roman. “Afterward, I called Jonas and said, ‘You’re the luckiest Jew in America.’”

There was no wavering. At the 326th second, Prinze bowed, and then became the first comic ever summoned to the couch by Carson after his first shot. He sat briefly, then stood up again, as the applause crested to over half a minute. If it doesn’t sound like much, try clapping for 30 seconds.

“This is sumthin,” was all Prinze could say. That, and the ovation, gave Johnny enough time, as Letterman explains 43 years later, “to realize the moment called for some analysis.”

“You know, there’s no greater thrill for me personally than to have somebody come out here who’s unknown and stand up in front of an audience and absolutely wipe them out their first appearance on the show, coast to coast. You know you’re gonna find a lot of people started on this show, and you can always sense that there’s something there if the audience likes them right away. They gotta like you. A lot of guys do comedy, and they come out, and the audience says, ‘I don’t like him. He’s funny, but we don’t like him.’ You got that nice empathy with the audience.”

There were two more short segments, barely half a minute of wrap-up (Johnny: “You come back?” Freddie: “I’d love to. Same audience?”), then goodnight and the credit crawl. Tennis got to use his “I’ll get you another date” speech on humorist Erma Bombeck, bumped before she was able to come out and promote her new book, I Lost Everything in the Post-Natal Depression.

For Jerry Seinfeld, a not-yet-stand-up 52 days older than Freddie Prinze, nothing was lost. “I just remember he was a young, funny guy,” he says. “In those days, it didn’t mean anything to me that he was Puerto Rican. Anybody that walked out on that stage electrified me. What’s it called, a Van de Graaff generator, when you see the lightning go between the balls for the first time? The Tonight Show was adult entertainment. It was for our parents. So to see anyone young handle that moment was transfixing.”

Clearly over the trauma of the night, Tennis agrees. “Everything about it was fascinating,” he said. “The following day, I get a call from (producer) Jimmy Komack, who I knew because he was the uncle to a girl I was dating. You know how incestuous show business is. He told me he saw the shot and found his Chico.”

Nine months later, “Chico” would come to mean Chico and the Man. Little more than two years after that, Prinze was gone.

“Yeah, let’s just stop on that night,” says Belzer of the Tonight Show appearance. “Like Butch and Sundance. Just freeze the frame there.”

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Freddie Prinze Blew Up Like No Other Comedian in History