3 Historical Comedy Wormholes to Stardom
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If you’ve watched any of the iterations of Star Trek, you already have a TV Ph.D. in wormholes -- theoretical tunnels that connect two disparate points in space-time. Need to travel a few galaxies over but don’t have millennia to get there? Find yourself a wormhole, Picard!
But what if you’re a comedian toiling away in craphole clubs, asking sad-sack patrons where they’re from - when you know dang well the answer is “New Jersey”? A journey to stand-up stardom isn’t quite as far away as the Ngame Nebula, but it might as well be.
If only there were some kind of comedy wormhole, full of neutrinos, theta-band radiation, and uncontrollable laughter, that could launch an unknown comic on a shortcut shuttle to overnight fame.
As it turns out, comedy wormholes do exist. A number of them have broken comics to the big time -- David Letterman, Star Search, Last Comic Standing, Def Comedy Jam, Conan, celebrity roast spots on Comedy Central. But in the history of modern stand-up, there have been three major cosmic portals that can instantly take comedians to the promised land: Carson, cable, and computers.
Wormhole 1: The Johnny Carson space-time distortion
The first wave of comedy wormholes came with an actual wave -- from the hand of Tonight Show host Johnny Carson.
Here’s how it worked one night in 1973, according to Wayne Federman’s History of Stand-Up: From Mark Twain to Dave Chappelle. Carson interviewed his first two guests (Diane Keaton and Sammy Davis Jr.), then gave one of his usual introductions:
He works in New York at the Improvisation and a place called Catch A Rising Star… would you welcome Freddie Prinze.
What was unusual? Prinze was 19 years old, just out of high school. And he freaking killed.
Knocking it out of the park on a 1970s Tonight Show appearance was huge for any young comedian. But the wormhole? That happened when Carson waved you over to his desk for a follow-up chat. He didn’t do it all of the time, most of the time, or even some of the time. The wave was a turbo-powered seal of approval that shot comics into orbit.
Before the wave, Prinze was an unknown. Within one year? He was a millionaire with a top three sitcom, Chico and the Man.
Carson took pride in breaking new performers. “There is 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 ‘em out with their first appearance, coast to coast.”
Drew Carey agreed. “ exactly what it was like. I can’t compare it to anything else.” Like Prinze, Carey’s call to the couch changed everything.
Prior to his late-night debut, the Funny Bone comedy club chain had been haggling with Carey over a couple hundred bucks. The Funny Bone wouldn’t budge. After The Tonight Show appearance, however, Carey had a message that Monday on his answering machine, “Hi, this is so and so from the Funny Bone, it’s OK for that 1,500 now, bye bye.”
Carey’s response? “Well, I got news. Now it’s like 2 grand, $2,500.”
Everyone wanted the wave. “It changed my entire experience as a human being on this planet,” said Steven Wright.
There was even a Carson code for comedians to know how they performed, according to Last Comic Standing producer Barry Katz:
- If Carson said “We’ll be right back” - Zero chance of appearing on The Tonight Show again
- If he applauded and gave a “nice job, we’ll be right back” - Slim chance of being invited back
- If he winked and said “Nice job, very funny” - Maybe you’re coming back
- If he gave you the OK sign? You’re gold, kid
Wormhole 2: The cable intermittent cyclical vortex
As Carson’s influence began to wane, a new wormhole for comedians formed on the horizon -- one in which you could say naughty words.
Fledgling subscription service Home Box Office -- HBO to you -- took a chance on a Robert Klein comedy special that got great reviews in the New York Times. Emboldened, HBO ordered up more, including a March 1977 special featuring George Carlin.
Now the guy who was famous for his “Seven Words You Can’t Say on Television” routine was actually saying those effing words on television -- and just a few years after he’d been busted on obscenity charges for the same bit.
But Klein and Carlin were established names. To help break new comedians into the big time, HBO introduced its annual Young Comedians Special.
The yearly showcase quickly became known for breaking new comedy stars like Jerry Seinfeld, but when Rodney Dangerfield took over as host five years in, the show kicked into a higher gear.
“They were always decent specials and guys got exposure—but the ones hosted by Rodney were the first to explode,” says comedian Harry Basil. “After it aired people would recognize you on the street and your money went up.”
Dangerfield also had clout. HBO execs thought the young Sam Kinison didn’t push the envelope so much as shred it into toxic confetti. But Dangerfield loved the guy and insisted on the booking. Kinison’s 1985 appearance on the Young Comedians Special made him into a primal-scream superstar.
Over the years, the show launched new faces like Judd Apatow, Dennis Miller, Roseanne, Rita Rudner, Bob Saget, Adam Sandler, Dave Attell, Louis C.K., Dave Chapelle, Janeane Garafalo, Rob Schneider, and David Spade.
“Getting onto that show was a huge deal for me, and a huge deal in general,” says Spade. “A slot on that show meant millions of people will know you. The HBO Young Comedians Special is the kind of thing that can land on the desk of someone like Lorne Michaels. It goes without saying that it is a game-changer.”
It changed the game for Spade. A few weeks after the special aired, he got the call for the Saturday Night Live audition. “You basically got one shot with them. Now was my time to strike. If I tanked, I wouldn’t get a serious second look for a very long time. This was for real.”
Spoiler alert: Spade got the gig.
Wormhole 3: The online Möbius inversion
The Young Comedian Specials eventually got lost in the glut of cable TV shows that it inspired. Shows featuring stand-up comics flooded the digital dial, including ComicView, Comedy Central Presents, HBO’s own Comedy Half Hour, the Apollo Comedy Hour, Uptown Comedy Club, and Premium Blend.
The proliferation of cable channels also meant there was no longer a kingmaker like Carson to anoint the next generation of comedy stars.
So the next wave of comedy stars jumped on the burgeoning phenomenon of streaming online video and anointed themselves, creating a new wormhole in the bargain.
The first comedians to break big on YouTube? That’s easy -- it’s the Lonely Island. In fact, one could argue that Lonely Island was the group that launched YouTube.
After graduating from college in 2000, the group’s three members -- Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone, and Akiva Schaffer -- moved to Los Angeles and started an online comedy site. The site had streaming video (amazing since this was five years before YouTube) and the fellas produced five years of online sketches before getting hired to work on the 2005 MTV Movie Awards. Host Jimmy Fallon loved their movie parodies and recommended the group to Lorne Michaels. Based on the quality of their videos, Michaels hired the whole gang as writers with Samberg landing in the actual cast.
Which brings us to YouTube. The streaming site launched in 2005 to minimum fanfare. Sure, the site was onto something -- but nothing had gone viral (a term that hadn’t even been invented yet). Jorma had certainly never heard of it when he got an email from his brother after the group’s second SNL digital short, Lazy Sunday, had run the previous night: “Look at this place where you can watch (Lazy Sunday) online.”
In one week, the video had two million views. For a new site in the mid-2000s, that was astounding, nearly doubling YouTube’s traffic for all its other videos.
Comedy wormhole engaged. And others followed through.
Like in late 2006 when high school junior Bo Burnham posted My Whole Family, an original comedy song he filmed in his bedroom. Fast forward one month and the video had millions of hits.
Suddenly, Burnham was more famous than hundreds of stand-ups who’d been toiling in comedy clubs, asking people if they were from New Jersey. By age 18, Burnham had become the youngest comic to tape a Comedy Central special.
But while YouTube was a boon for comedians, this particular wormhole, like many of those encountered on Star Trek, has a way of spitting out comedy travelers to bad places, too.
Take Michael Richards, Kramer from Seinfeld. Just as Bo Burnham’s first song was hitting it big on YouTube, a comedy fan uploaded Richards’ racist tirade from a set at the Laugh Factory. It was another comedy video with millions of hits, but this one damaged Richards’ career in ways from which he still hasn’t recovered.
Then of course there’s the 2014 grainy video of Hannibal Buress parsing through the rape allegations against Bill Cosby. The accusations had been around for years, but it was the YouTube video of Buress’s act that set things in motion leading to Cosby’s arrest.
Other online outlets continue to break current comedians. Twitter led to increased ticket sales for comics like Todd Barry, who found thousands of new fans who only knew him from funny tweets. Rob Delaney’s Twitter jokes led to a book deal and TV show. One IT guy from Peoria posted enough quality jokes to land a gig writing with Seth Myers.
How long until the current wormhole closes? What's the next iteration? Even Picard can’t say. Going forward, stand-ups will no doubt be like Starfleet, discovering new stellar shortcuts in unexpected corners of the comic galaxy and eating whatever food comes out of the wall.
Top image: Johnny Carson Productions