Cookies help us deliver our Services. By using our Services, you agree to our use of cookies. Learn More.

Dana Carvey On What Johnny Carson Was Really Like When The Cameras Were Off

Time is humbling, and one of the most exciting moments of your life might wind up, if you're very lucky, as an anecdote that's fascinating to a niche audience. Take, for example, landing a spot on "The Tonight Show" back when Johnny Carson was still making 30 Rockefeller Plaza smell like the inside of a bowling alley. Nowadays, the better part of a generation of comics might have no idea what that represented, but there was a time when getting the late night host's blessing was the pinnacle of show business success. More than box office numbers or hearing Don Pardo announce your name on a given Saturday night, pulling up a seat next to Carson meant that you'd made the right choices, that your career as an entertainer had merit — that you'd made it.

Dana Carvey will attest to this. The "SNL" legend and occasional master of disguise appeared on Carson's show six times before — according to him — he was "blacklisted" for doing an unfavorable impression of the beloved television personality on Saturday Night Live. 

Going on the late night talk show is the sort of experience that comedians love to hear about, and stand-up superstar Bert Kreischer was thrilled to learn more while interviewing Carvey on his "2 Bears 1 Cave" podcast, where Carvey described his moments standing behind the curtain and waiting to be called out on stage as "the most nervous I'd ever been." 

Asked for a candid take on Carson as a person, Carvey wasn't shy, portraying the king of late night as a startlingly human individual.

Dana Carvey got to meet his heroes

"It was analog television," Carvey recalled, "so it was not HD. So when I go out, the first time I sit next to him I'm like 'holy ***.' The makeup is, like, this thick. There's a lot of cigarettes in that skin, and a lot of coke, and a lot of sun."

With that out of the way, Carvey painted Carson in a more endearing light. "He was very supportive and stuff backstage. He was really shy ... really likable. I think he was kind of like — because I was doing voices, he goes 'I'm working on my George Bush, too.' He wanted to be a comedian, he wanted to be one of the boys, and I think he was a really complex guy ... He had an edge to him."

It's strange to think that arguably the greatest late night host of all time was, like a lot of comedians, just a guy who spent his free time half in the bag, trying to work on bits and impressions with the people that made him laugh. Then again, it's also strange to think that Carson's show is hosted by the guy who couldn't stop giggling in the background of the "More Cowbell" sketch 23 years ago. Like we said; time is humbling.