December 23, 2005 at 05:00 AM EST

OCT. 23, 1925-JAN. 23, 2005

Among my generation of comedians, getting on The Tonight Show was pretty much the only way that you could feel like you were successful. After my first appearance in 1974, Larry David and I went to Macy’s to see what kind of impact it had. He walked behind me humming the Tonight Show theme like Doc Severinsen’s trumpet for about an hour. A few people looked at us like we should be institutionalized, and we got kicked out of the store.

I don’t care how many times you did The Tonight Show, when you were behind that curtain and heard Carson’s voice, you froze for a second. Sure, you could make it without Johnny, but that’d be like Christopher Columbus trying to discover America on a raft. In the early ’80s, I had this monologue about the Department of Motor Vehicles. I’d done it in clubs for years, and I had it down to five and a half minutes. I went on, and it was getting such big laughs that it spread. The studio audience was too good. Suddenly, I’m midway through and the stage manager is giving me the wrap-it-up gesture. I’m thinking, If I end it now, it won’t make any sense. But if I finish it, I’ll never get The Tonight Show again. As it turned out, I did almost 11 minutes. Clueless, my agents took me to the Palm to celebrate, but I was so depressed. Then it was like divine intervention from the comedy gods: There was Carson having dinner. I ran over to Johnny’s booth, got on my knees, and apologized. I said, ”I did it out of respect for you and for comedy.” First he was startled. Then he started to smile. Then I saw the twinkle in his eyes. The next morning I got a call from the Tonight Show talent coordinator, who said, ”You are a lucky man.”

When a joke bombed, that’s when Carson was actually the funniest. He rode that to comedy heaven. Everyone knows how hip he was: Like Superman, he could pop into that phone booth with his Midwestern boyishness and come out like one of the Rat Pack. But I don’t think people really know how genius he was at making every guest — even one hell-bent on sabotaging his or her career — look good. When someone was floundering, he mined it for gold. When someone was cookin’, he was just an audience. Most hosts want their guests to succeed, but nobody more than Johnny Carson. Jay and Dave learned from the master, and they’ll admit it: No one will ever do this better. (Carson died of emphysema in Malibu.)

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