Friday, December 26, 2008

Forgotten Laughter

Here's a serious blast from the distant past for me: Ray Combs' "Tonight Show" debut, from October 1986. I've mentioned this set a few times over the years, but I haven't seen the entire segment in ages. I had moved back to NYC by this point, abandoning the LA sitcom temptation to starve in the West Village. But I was still writing for Ray, his celebrity heating up around this time. As you'll see, Ray killed. He not only got a standing ovation, but he was brought to the panel to sit with Johnny Carson, thus joining a very elite club of first-timers who joined Johnny after their sets (Letterman and Steven Wright among them).

Two of Ray’s jokes are mine -- the Love Boat, and arguing with schizophrenics. Both did quite well with the audience, which still warms my heart. The latter joke, which I wrote the day before this appearance and read to Ray over the phone, provoked a 3 AM call from veteran stand-up and Letterman pal George Miller, who was then headlining in Oklahoma City. Miller accused me of stealing his material. This was bullshit; his act did zero for me. When I patiently broke it down for him, it turned out that Miller felt he had a corner on certain premises, not specific jokes. His demented ego was that big. Miller soon retreated and admitted that he was mistaken. I never heard from him again.

I wasn't a fan of Ray's overall shtick; some of the phony showbiz crap he pulls here drove me nuts (and out of LA). Still, he liked my material. It lent him whatever "edge" Ray presumably possessed. Most times my jokes seemed out of place with Ray's more crowd-pleasing bits. Looking back, it made sense. Get the audience on your side, then slip in some different tastes. Ray could hook an audience within seconds. He had the gift, which he eventually squandered before his inglorious end. Various people continually suggest that I write a book or a film about Ray, but I'm not sure who would be interested in his sad story. Ray was merely one of countless talents who got a taste of the big time, then fell to the bloody pavement, swept aside, forgotten by many. Here he is at the launching point.