Published: Sunday, July 8, 1984
My biggest fear about going on The Tonight Show was not that I would throw up in front of 40 million people. No, that would have been fine. In fact, it would have been the kind of hilarious and spontaneous televised moment that they save to show on The Best of The Tonight Show, like the time Ed Ames (I think it was Ed Ames) threw the hatchet at the plywood human silhouette and hit it square in the crotch. They'd repeat the tape of my appearance for years to come. "In this next segment,"
' Johnny Carson would say, introducing it, "watch the hilarity that ensues when a guest trying to plug an obscure book launches his lunch all over Dick Cavett."
So that was not what I was worried about. What I was worried about was that I would get up there, shake hands with everybody, sit down in the primary-guest chair, and turn to Carson expectantly, waiting for the first question, and suddenly it would dawn on him that somebody had made a terrible mistake, putting me, as opposed to a Well Known Personality, on the show. So he'd suggest that maybe I'd be more comfortable in one of the chairs down at the far end, past even Ed McMahon, down where you have to set off marine flares if you want to get a word in edgewise, and Carson and Cavett would go back to having witty repartee. Then I'd have to go home and face my wife and friends and neighbors and mother, all of whom I had pretty much obligated to stay up late and watch. "You were great, Dave!" they'd say, trying to be nice. "During some of the repartee, we could see part of your leg!"
That was my biggest fear.
The way I got on The Tonight Show was that I wrote a book, The Taming of the
Screw, which is supposed to be a humorous parody of do-it-yourself books and
which is no longer available in bookstores anywhere. But it was available last
fall, and I
went on a local TV talk show to plug it, and the publisher sent a tape of my appearance to The Tonight Show, and then everybody pretty much forgot about it. Then about two months ago, Shirley Wood, who is what they call a Talent Coordinator for The Tonight Show, called me up and asked me a bunch of
questions about home repair to see if I would give funny answers. Then about six weeks ago, on a Thursday, she called up and asked if I wanted to be on The Tonight Show the next Tuesday, and of course I said yes and called my mother.
I flew out to Los Angeles Tuesday morning, surrounded on the plane by ordinary mortals who were not going to be on The Tonight Show and thus were able to read magazines rather than just sit there and develop armpit stains. I was taken from the Los Angeles airport to my hotel in a limousine driven by a man who struck me as being much funnier and more relaxed and entertaining than I am, much more worthy of being on The Tonight Show, and he was just the limousine driver, for God's sake. The hotel people called me "Mr. Barry" and gave me this little card that said I was to receive Distinguished Customer Service, which means I got a room next to the pool and they brought me a basket of fruit. I was really feeling awful now.
spent the next hour or so on the phone with Shirley Wood, going over the questions that Carson might ask me and the answers that I might give. She had done this a million times, and she knew exactly what she wanted. "Nah," she'd say, if she didn't like something. "Too long. Not funny." She never actually laughed at anything I said; if she liked something, she'd say something like, "Okay. We'll do that." By the time we were done, none of it seemed even remotely funny to me.
She told me I should talk slowly. She also told me, maybe a dozen times,
"Don't be a wise-ass." This worried me greatly,
because I have always been a wise-ass. When I was born, the doctor pulled my parents aside and said: "I'm very sorry, Mr. and Mrs. Barry, but I'm afraid your son is a wise-ass." It is my distinguishing personality trait, and here was a talent coordinator for The Tonight Show, disapproving of it.
They tape the show at 5:30 p.m., and at 4:30 a limousine came to the hotel
for me. This limousine was even bigger than the first one. It had a color
television, a bar and a telephone. It was clearly intended for someone with far
more elaborate limousine needs than I have. It whisked me to the
Artists' Entrance, where there were lots of other limousines and several guards. "I have Mr. Dave Barry, for The Tonight Show," said the chauffeur, referring to me, back there with the phone and the bar and the color television. I would say this was the low point of my entire life.
In the studio, a dapper, articulate, witty, confident, handsome person in a suit greeted me and escorted me past dressing rooms that said "Dick Cavett" and "Jimmy Brogan" to one that said "Dave Barry." I asked this person who he was, and he seem surprised. "I'm nobody," he said. "I'm a page."
My dressing room had a television, a couch, a desk and a bathroom. In the
desk were some notes for jokes that I figured out had been written by Joan
Rivers. I didn't do any actual dressing in there, because I already had my suit
on. It wasn't nearly as nice as the page's suit. Maybe they stuck me in
because they wanted me to do some more dressing. At 5 I went across the hall to Makeup to have a makeup person smear my face with a cosmetic substance that people used to call "flesh- colored" back before the discovery of minority groups. Doc Severinsen was in there, reading the paper, and then Carson
himself walked in, wearing jeans and looking very lean. He winked at me on the way by. That was my only contact with him, other than on the actual show.
After I was made up, Shirley Wood gave me typed notes listing the questions Carson would ask me, and the things I'd said in our telephone conversation that she liked. It was very reassuring to hold this piece of paper, even though I was too tense to actually read it. It also helped that Wood, who turned out to be, despite her tough, no-nonsense phone manner, a kind and motherly sort, took me to the backstage bar and gave me a large glass of wine, which I drank the way football players drink Gatorade on commercials.
Wood told me that until it was time for me to go on, I could sit and watch the show in the famous Green Room, which is where guests and hangers-on wait for their turns. A surprising number of people have asked me what the Green Room is like, so just for the record: It's a non-green room with two televisions in it and some sofas, and off at one end are some guys who are on the telephone all the time. I'm sorry I can't give you a more detailed description, but at the time I didn't realize it was such a famous room, so I didn't spend much time in there.
Mostly I wandered around backstage, which was crowded with people, mainly Californians by the look of them, tanned and healthy from avocado consumption. I imagine they had some reason for being there, but most of them just stood around and watched the show.
At about 5:20, McMahon started warming up the audience. Watching the show from home, I had always had the impression that the audience is a late-night crowd of Los Angeles sophisticates, but it's actually an afternoon crowd of tourists and honeymooners from places like Iowa, and they have to be warmed up. "I know it's a Tuesday night," McMahon told them, looking very sincere, "but you people -- and I mean this with all my heart -- you people sound like a Friday night crowd." The crowd went nuts. They knew this was high praise.
And then it was 5:30, and Heeeeeeeeeere's Johnny! A dense knot of Californians gathered backstage to watch the monologue. They laughed violently at everything, even the jokes that bombed, the ones where Carson winds up making a joke out of the fact that the joke bombed. The jokes come from brief notes on pieces of cardboard in front of him, and he makes it look easy, turning the notes into jokes. After the monologue, there was a commercial, during which he talked a bit with the audience, cracking jokes about newlyweds ("If you need any advice...") and thanking them for coming. They loved it. Just before the commercial ended, Carson sat down at his famous desk.
The set where Carson and his guests sit is off to the side of a large stage, with a photograph of Los Angeles at night behind it. The band, which is very good and plays during commercials, is on the other side of the stage. Right in front of Carson are a half-dozen camera, sound and production people, and some folding chairs where high-level staff such as the producer and director sit, along with the talent coordinator who coordinated whatever talent is performing at the time. The audience, about 500 people, is off in the darkness, heard but not seen.
The first guest was Dick Cavett, who came on and had about 25 minutes of repartee with Carson. The main thing I remember about Cavett was that he said you can rearrange the letters in Spiro Agnew's name to spell "grow a penis." For some reason, this helped calm me down.
Next they had Jimmy Brogan, a standup comedian, who stood up and did comedy. It was his first time on The Tonight Show, too. As he was finishing his act, Shirley Wood came looking for me and led me to the curtain you wait behind while Carson introduces you. When Brogan finished his act, he walked by us and said "I am so glad that's over." Then the commercial started, and I was next. Shirley Wood grabbed my arms, wished me luck, told me to talk slowly and talk to Carson, not the camera, then she disappeared to take her seat in front of the set. The commercial ended, Carson introduced me, the band started playing, a man held open the curtain, and there I was, out there shaking hands with Johnny and Dick and Ed.
What everybody asked me later was: "What's Carson like?" The answer is: How the hell would I know? In the entire seven minutes during which I sat next to him on national television, he did not once lean over and confide in me what he is like. But he was wonderfully professional, I will tell you that. He set me up for all the jokes, and he let me have the laughs. He didn't get the least bit annoyed when, in my eagerness to answer him, I kept interrupting his questions. I mean, he could have said: "Dave, I know that you know these questions, inasmuch as you and Shirley Wood discussed them for an hour today via telephone, but it's conceivable that some members of the audience may not know them." But he didn't. So after the first minute I realized I was in good hands and it was going to be fine, and by the end of the show I was actually enjoying myself, right up until I threw up on Dick Cavett.
Just kidding. Maybe on my next appearance.
So anyway, after the show I got back into the enormous limousine and poured a large glass of scotch and turned on the color television to watch the Celtics play the Lakers with the sound turned down because the chauffeur had bet $100 on the Celtics and couldn't bear to hear the game in progress. From time to time other motorists would pull up next to us and look inside to see if I was Somebody, riding around in this enormous luxury vehicle, then they'd see that I wasn't, and they'd move on. The hell with them, I thought. For the next 25 minutes, this is my scotch, and my limousine, and my color television. I would have made a phone call, but I don't know anybody in the Burbank area.
Dave Barry writes a humor column for Tropic magazine.
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