It was the stamp of approval that every comedian longed for, the simple gesture that catapulted dozens of club comics from the unknown into primetime: the invitation from Johnny Carson to come over to his house and shotgun a Diet Dr Pepper on his roof. Here are four legendary comedians talking about the day that changed their lives forever.
I was so obsessed with The Tonight Show growing up that by the time I got booked to do it, I had already memorized all of the little signals and tics Johnny would do during a comedian’s set that indicated whether he liked them or not. If he banged on his desk and said to his sidekick, Ed McMahon, “Shut the fuck up, you loud-breathing geezer,” that’s a good sign. If he stopped clipping his nails to pay full attention to your jokes, that was even better. But every comedian was really hoping for the biggest prize of all: Johnny walking into frame with about a minute left in your set, putting his arm around your shoulder, whispering into your ear, “I hope you’re thirsty, motherfucker,” and then slowly swaying you back and forth for the rest of your set. That meant that Johnny Carson was about to drive you to his house, ask you to pull his ladder out from under his porch for him, and climb with him onto his roof to shotgun a Diet Dr Pepper. And that’s exactly what happened to me! It was absolutely surreal. He didn’t say a word while we were up on that roof shotgunning the Diet Dr Pepper, and he didn’t have to. He simply pulled out the oldest, rustiest math class compass I’ve ever seen, poked two small holes in the cans, handed me the soda, and we were off.
Every comedian knew that their career was about to take off if they got that Dr Pepper invite from Johnny, but I figured it’d never happen for me because I’d already been on the show twice without getting it. After my first Tonight Show set, I looked over toward Johnny’s desk hoping to get a good sign and instead saw that he was sifting through a pile of Advil pills to make sure they all said “Advil.” After my second appearance, I looked over and saw that he was busy casually explaining to Ed McMahon what it was like to kill a guy during the Korean War. So needless to say, the last thing I expected when I turned toward the desk after my third set was to see Johnny dangling his car keys in front of his face and coyly saying, “You’re about to climb a ladder,” but that’s exactly what happened. After we drove to his house and got onto the roof, I saw that next to the chimney were two cans of Diet Dr Pepper so old and sunbaked that each can’s color was almost entirely faded. I figured he was saving them for just the right comedian and I felt pretty proud. He took out an old, rusty compass that he amazingly and dangerously had in his back pocket that whole time, and we quietly shotgunned the sodas. I’m telling you, nothing in my career will ever top that day.
It was always my dream to get the Dr Pepper invitation from Johnny, and I was so excited when I finally got it that I didn’t even care how obvious it was that I barely made the cut. When I finished my set and looked over at Johnny, he just stared at me for a good 15, 20 seconds, rubbing his chin. Then he asked me to re-tell a joke I told about my grandma but slower this time. After I repeated it, he let out a heavy sigh and muttered, “That’s what I thought you said,” while rubbing his eyes. Eventually he stood up, headed toward the fire exit and said, “Let’s get this over with,” without looking my way. From there on out, I was in a state of total shock and happiness. I didn’t even mind that he made me sit in the backseat during the drive to his house. We climbed the famous Diet Dr Pepper ladder of lore and shotgunned the two sodas he had in his coat pocket. When we were done, he wordlessly asked for the empty can back by snapping his fingers at me a few times, and after I handed it over, he kept snapping his fingers like that until I gave him two dollars for the soda.
My invite came in the middle of the night when the phone rang. I answered and the voice on the other end said, “What are you waiting for, solider?” and hung up. Of course I knew it was Johnny right away, so I drove to his house and saw him up on his roof, waving me toward the ladder. I’ll never forget what happened when I got up there: He handed me a Diet Dr Pepper, looked me right in the eyes, and said, “I like your stuff, kid. You remind me of a comic I came up with, Eddie ‘The Finger’ Fingertoni. Every time you’re onstage and get down on all fours to tell jokes from the dog’s perspective, I see Eddie’s influence all over it.” I replied, “Oh, that doesn’t sound like me, really. I don’t do that.” Then Johnny said, “It’s possible then that I don’t know any of your work,” to which I replied, “That’s pretty upsetting to hear.” And that was it for the talking. He pulled out his famous rusty compass, carved a hole in each of our cans, and we shotgunned the sodas. A few years later I landed Seinfeld.