HOLLYWOOD -- David Brenner clearly remembers the night of Jan. 8, 1971. The comedian had $3 in his pocket and had to borrow $100 to buy a suit for his first appearance on "The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson."
"I only did it as a lark," Mr. Brenner recalled. "I wanted to get on television once. . . . In 18 months as a comic, I [had] only made $8,000."
That all changed in less than 24 hours. "By the end of the business day after I did Carson, I had $10,000 in jobs," Mr. Brenner said. "I took them all."
Mr. Brenner, who went on to guest host for Mr. Carson countless times between 1976 and 1983, is one name on a long list of comedians and actors who credit their appearance on the show as an event that made their career. Their reminisces come on the occasion of the 29th "Tonight Show" anniversary program tonight (9:30, Channel 2) -- the last before Mr. Carson retires May 22 as television's late-night icon.
Burt Reynolds recalled that Mr. Carson himself wanted Mr. Reynolds for the show after seeing the actor's comedic side during an appearance on "The Merv Griffin Show."
"You have to remember in the 1960s if you went on the Carson show and really scored, the next morning you were hotter than a burning tree," Mr. Reynolds said.
Mr. Reynolds did some homework before his appearance in 1971 and thought he came prepared. "I heard, as everybody does, all these storiesthat he doesn't talk to you when the commercial comes on," Mr. Reynolds said. "So I was prepared to talk to Ed [McMahon], and then the first commercial came up and he said, 'Hey, do you want to host the show?'
"I was the first actor to ever host the show."
Insult comic Don Rickles said that Mr. Carson gave him work when no one else would: "No one would come near me. I was considered Adolf Hitler's son."
David Letterman said that his first visit, in 1978, did not go so smoothly. Mr. Letterman was not joking when he recalled: "Ed had a small stroke on the couch. It was unbelievable. When I sat down he really did pitch face down. I reached over and began to do CPR. It turned out it was something he had eaten and we continued with the show."
Garry Shandling, who shared permanent co-host duties with Jay Leno until he got his own comedy series, "It's Garry Shandling's Show," said "The Tonight Show" also was the starting point of his career, "though I didn't get to sit down on the couch the first time [in 1981]. It is sort of a benchmark to sit on the couch."