ARI SHAPIRO, host:
This month, Jay Leno starts his highly anticipated new gig as host of a 10:00 show on NBC. Of course, Leno's most well-known for being the kind of late-night as host of "The Tonight Show." But this morning we're going to take a look back at the time and place where Leno and many other big named comedians got their start, Los Angeles in the 1970s.
Mr. JAY LENO (Comedian): I just - I'm originally from the East. I've been living out here about four months. You know what? You know why I can't get used to living out here? I don't know how many of you are from New York. The beach is on the wrong side.
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SHAPIRO: That was Leno with black hair and a plaid shirt, same big chin, right after he arrived in LA so poor that the police picked him up thinking he was homeless. Another young comedian came to LA a few months later from Indiana. His name was David Letterman.
Mr. DAVID LETTERMAN (Comedian): I just got back from Reno, stayed in a condominium up there and really a cheap condominium. It had one of those whirlpools, you know what a whirlpool/Jacuzzi is? I think it was a cheap Jacuzzi though, 'cause when everybody got in the water we had to take turns going
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SHAPIRO: Leno and Letterman were joined by Robin Williams, Andy Kaufman, Richard Lewis, and many other household names to be during what our guest calls stand-up comedy's golden era. Bill Knoedelseder was a reporter for the LA Times at the time. He was covering the burgeoning comedy scene and his new book is called "I'm Dying Up Here: Heartbreak and High Times in Stand-Up Comedy's Golden Era."
Welcome to the show.
Mr. WILLIAM KNOEDELSEDER (Former Reporter, Author): Nice to be here.
SHAPIRO: Why do you call this stand-up comedy's golden era?
Mr. KNOEDELSEDER: Well, in Los Angeles people were arriving by the week from all around the country, you know, class clowns from all over the place just picked up and moved invariably inspired by sitting there watching "The Tonight's Show" and hearing Johnny Carson say, now here's a young comic who's appearing here in town at the Comedy Store. And boom, that was it. They heard that and they packed their bags and headed to LA thinking that if they just got on this stage at this place called the Comedy Store, well they would be on Carson and they would be comedians. Before long you had 300, you know, young comics living in West Hollywood around the Comedy Store trying to get on that stage.
SHAPIRO: But Los Angeles was not always the hub for comedy. Early in your book you talk about Johnny Carson moving "The Tonight Show," from New York to the West Coast.
Mr. KNOEDELSEDER: Well that was the most significant thing because Johnny Carson was the arbiter of what was funny in America for a very long time. If he thought you were funny and put you on his show, you had a career. If he didn't, you didn't have a career.
SHAPIRO: This world that you write about was so densely packed with talent. What impact did that tight-knit community have on the comedy that these guys were doing?
Mr. KNOEDELSEDER: It was absolutely electric, and they were - they would all share stuff and they would write stuff down on napkins and they'd be hanging out at the bar between, you know, between sets. I mean, you know, it's hard to imagine now, but you - on a random Friday night, you could see Letterman and Leno and Richard Lewis and Robin Williams and Elayne Boosler all on the same stage.
SHAPIRO: Will you read a passage from the book that kind of captures a bit of that sense? This is on page 106.
Mr. KNOEDELSEDER: Ringo Starr made a memorable solo appearance at sunset one night, arriving so intoxicated that Mike Binder, who was working the door, had to help him to his seat in back. Starr was seated jut as David Letterman took the stage and the former Beatle immediately began heckling him which attracted the attention of every comic within earshot.
Letterman had a reputation for eviscerating hecklers, and as words spread along the back hallway other comics started filing into the room to watch the impending bloodshed. It wasn't a fair fight. In the spotlight Letterman couldn't see who the heckler was so he showed no mercy. And Starr was too drunk to appreciate how badly Letterman was beating him up.
Finally one of the comics took pity and called out - hey Dave, it's Ringo. Oh, that makes sense, Letterman shot back in the direction of Starr. You ruined your career and now you've come here to ruin mine. George Miller almost fell off his stool laughing.
SHAPIRO: Were you there that night?
Mr. KNOEDELSEDER: No, I was not. I was there on other nights, but not that one.
SHAPIRO: In the center of this book you have a collection of photographs and there's one that I just have to ask you about. It shows Andy Kaufman posturing in a full-length robe that looks like it could be made out of silk. The caption on the photo says Andy Kaufman getting ready to wrestle on the author's patio, November 1978.
Mr. KNOEDELSEDER: Okay.
SHAPIRO: What's the story?
Mr. KNOEDELSEDER: All right. I was set to do a profile on Andy for the LA Times and we had the interview set up for a couple days ahead. And one night around 7:00 or 8:00 my phone rang - and hi, it's Andy. Can I come over? And I was sort of taken aback. Well, sure, come on over. And about a half an hour later Andy Kaufman showed up at my front door and he had a cardboard Vaudevillian suitcase with him and he insisted on performing his entire act in pantomime while I took pictures complete with three costume changes. He would…
SHAPIRO: For an audience of one?
Mr. KNOEDELSEDER: Well, for myself and my wife who was eight months pregnant at the time. And he wanted to wrestle her. And that was his - that picture was his…
SHAPIRO: Did you let it happen?
Mr. KNOEDELSEDER: No, no. No, no. But there is a funny picture of him, you know, staring her down like he was going to wrestle her. But…
SHAPIRO: You know, so many of the people you write about in this book died before their time. Is it difficult to see the immense talent that is no longer with us?
Mr. KNOEDELSEDER: Yeah, well that sort of happened with that generation - in comedy and rock and roll. I think there was probably more drugs in the rock and roll arena.
SHAPIRO: Although you write about all night cocaine sessions with the comedians.
Mr. KNOEDELSEDER: Yep, that did happen, but it wasn't part of the comedy lifestyle. There was some who did that. There were a lot of them who didn't. I mean, you know, Jay Leno was an absolute straight arrow; Letterman, they didn't do that. And, you know, comics didn't make enough money to buy cocaine. You know, they were lucky to buy pot.
SHAPIRO: Robin Williams had the line that cocaine is God's way of telling you you're making too much money?
Mr. KNOEDELSEDER: A very true statement.
SHAPIRO: Well, you know, we're having this conversation on the eve of Jay Leno's new show. It would seem appropriate to go out with a clip of his first ever appearance.
Mr. KNOEDELSEDER: Yeah.
SHAPIRO: …on "The Tonight Show" with Johnny Carson.
Mr. KNOEDELSEDER: I know this one, yeah.
Mr. LENO: See, my folks grew up during the depression, so consequently they make you feel very guilty about everything, you know. I mean even now I go home for a weekend, hey Dad, pass the salt. We never had salt when we were kids. We had to live without salt.
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Mr. LENO: We didn't have underwear, potatoes, we ate dirt every day of the week.
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Mr. LENO: Your mother and I hunted wild dog for food. We had nothing when we were you age.
SHAPIRO: Bill Knoedelseder, what do you think?
Mr. KNOEDELSEDER I remember that Jay Leno. He told me this. He said, you know, that he could sell a joke that really wasn't that funny because he had a lot of attitude and he could do it with his voice and all that. Letterman didn't quite have that brio, so he had to write better jokes - was the issue. They were sort of a mutual admiration society back then. In separate interviews I asked each of them, okay, so you know, whose act among your peers do you most admire? And each of them instantly named the other.
SHAPIRO: Bill Knoedelseder, thanks a lot.
Mr. KNOEDELSEDER: Thank you.
SHAPIRO: Bill Knoedelseder is the author of "I'm Dying Up Here: Heartbreak and High Times in Stand-Up Comedy's Golden Era." And you'll find clips of Leno and Letterman's early performances in L.A., plus an excerpt of William Knoedelseder's new book on our website, npr.org.
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Ari Shapiro.
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
And I'm Renee Montagne.
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