Add Paula Poundstone to the List of Female Comics Who Had A Chilly Relationship with Johnny Carson
Johnny Carson had a particular way of anointing young stand-up comics as future stars. If he thought the comedian had done a particularly good job on his Tonight Show, Carson would wave the performer over to the couch for an extended conversation. This was Carson the Kingmaker, knighting the funny people he thought deserved a seat at his roundtable. But for Paula Poundstone? The whole waving business was “such bullshit, such crap.”
“What an awful system,” Poundstone said this week on the Last Laugh podcast. She likened Carson’s technique to a dinner party with a single table. Some of the people are invited to the table to sit down and have dinner. The other people? Well, they get to be in the room and watch the others eat. “A horrible idea,” said Poundstone, noting that Carson didn’t use “the wave” with any other performers besides comics.
It took Poundstone three appearances before she got the call to the couch, not surprising since Carson wasn’t shy about how he felt about female comedians. “Women comics are a little aggressive for my taste,” he once said. “I’ll take it from a guy, but from women, sometimes, it just doesn’t fit too well.”
And when Poundstone did get her chance to chat with Carson? “You know,” she said, “sitting with Johnny wasn’t necessarily the big thrill you might think.” For one thing, Carson didn’t speak to her when the cameras weren’t rolling. “It was a job for Johnny, and he didn’t talk to anybody during the break,” she explained. “The band was playing, and he might have whispered something to a producer, took a sip of water out of his Johnny cup, and you’re just sitting there awkwardly.”
The whole Tonight Show experience was no great shakes, according to Poundstone. The set was dusty. Everything backstage was colorless. Holiday Inns had nicer accommodations than the dressing rooms. But there was one event that made her first Tonight Show experience memorable.
After her set, she packed up her stuff to leave with no intention of watching the rest of the show. But she was momentarily trapped in her drab dressing room as roadies for musical guest ZZ Top moved equipment through. A dude with a long beard and sunglasses approached Poundstone and complimented her on a nice comedy set. Poundstone was embarrassed since she hadn’t watched ZZ Top perform, managing a “you too!” as a cover.
Now the dude was confused. He took off the glasses and ZZ Top hat and assured Poundstone, “It’s me.” The comic still had no idea who she was talking to. “And he’s pulling on his beard, he’s trying to get the mustache off and he gets cranky because he can’t get it off,” Poundstone remebered. Turns out it was Carson himself, dressed up like ZZ Top as an end-of-the-show gag.
Carson was shaken up, “really worried that I didn’t know who he was,” Poundstone continued. “It was like his identity had been stripped from him. I wonder if he ever dressed up again after that.”