The king of late-night television, Johnny Carson dominated evening talk shows for thirty years as millions tuned in to “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.” Each night he held audiences spellbound and helped them keep up with the hottest movers and shakers in showbiz. Carson’s trusty sidekick Ed McMahon bellowed “Heere’s Johnny” for the last time on his farewell show on May 22, 1992. More viewers than ever watched the man who brought to life such characters as Art Fern and Carnac the Magnificent say good night one last time. The ultimate gentleman when it comes to Friars roasts, Johnny Carson let his quick wit and sophisticated sense of humor guide his clean, yet hilarious, roasting.
Starting out as a comic, Dick Cavett soon found a more comfortable niche, first as a talent coordinator for “The Tonight Show” under Jack Paar’s reign and then as a writer for Johnny Carson. But it is his career as a talk show host that has revered him to audiences around the world. His conversational style was a new concept for television viewers, as he easily got superstars to open up and share their lives, careers and opinions in front of the cameras. His interviews with Katharine Hepburn and Groucho Marx are classics, and have been replayed for new generations to experience these Hollywood legends.
Comedian Don Rickles has sustained a long and successful career doling out insults and trouncing egos on anyone within earshot. A frequent visitor to “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” Rickles has regaled millions with his swiping barbs. Early on in his career, while working at a nightclub, he was brave enough to pick on Frank Sinatra who was seated in the audience, “Make yourself at home Frank. Hit somebody.” Lucky for Rickles, Sinatra found him hilarious and encouraged other celebrities to check out his act. As an actor Rickles appeared in his own sitcom “C.P.O. Sharkey” and such films as “Run Silent, Run Deep,” and “Kelly’s Heroes.” He’s the worst nightmare for any guest of honor at a roast.
Before Ed Sullivan became a household name with his long-running variety show he was a gossip columnist, taking over for Walter Winchell, showcasing Broadway and entertainment news. His “Toast of the Town” television show (later renamed “The Ed Sullivan Show”) premiered in 1948 and had a successful run until 1971. The stone-faced Sullivan introduced some of the most popular names in show business history to his Sunday night audiences, from Elvis Presley to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. He also gave up-and-coming comedians a big boost before late-night talk shows took over that mantle. An Abbot of the Friars Club, Sullivan’s stodgy demeanor gave comedians valuable fodder for roasting.
Always upbeat and funny, Flip Wilson’s star rose in the 60s and 70s during frequent appearances on shows such as “The Ed Sullivan Show.” He became so popular with audiences he earned his own variety show, “The Flip Wilson Show” where he introduced such infamous characters as Geraldine and Reverend Leroy, pastor of the Church of What’s Happening Now. The hip, sassy Geraldine’s mantra was “The devil made me do it,” a catchphrase that spread like wildfire across the country. A Golden Globe winner, Wilson also earned a Grammy Award for his comedy album, “The Devil Made Me Buy This Dress.”
With his trademark painted on mustache and eyebrows, glasses and cigar Groucho Marx created one of the most popular characters in the history of entertainment. Along with his brothers Chico, Harpo (and on occasion Zeppo and Gummo), the Marx Brothers made 15 films, many of which are still talked about and quoted today. Who hasn’t heard of “Animal Crackers,” “Duck Soup,” “A Night At the Opera” and “Horse Feathers”? He also enjoyed a successful solo career as the host of the popular radio and television game show “You Bet Your Life.” It was Groucho who made the infamous joke about resigning from the Friars Club, saying, “I don’t care to belong to any club that would have me as a member.”
The first host of “The Tonight Show,” Steve Allen brought comedy, music and tons of humor to this new concept of keeping the folks entertained after dark. Spearheading the television talk show, Allen was adored by viewers for his good-natured ribbing of the average Joe during his on the street interviews and bantering with audience members. After leaving “The Tonight Show” he went on to host his own variety program, the “Steve Allen Show” and the TV hit “I’ve Got A Secret.” He was also a regular panelist on “What’s My Line.” Allen was also a prolific songwriter, winning a Grammy Award for best jazz composition for “The Gravy Waltz.”