Posts Tagged ‘Johnny Carson Theatre’

Norfolk, Neb. Festival at the Johnny Carson Theatre Hosts Intersection of Comedy’s Past, Present, Future

January 4, 2012 1 comment


One of the top annual comedy events in the United States occurs in what seems be a most unlikely place, Norforlk, Neb., until you realize the northeast Nebraska town is where Johnny Carson grew up and where he helped endow a state-of-the-art theater in his name.  Looked at in that light then, the Great American Comedy Festival that plays there every June and that attracts a roster of emerging and legendary comic talents doesn’t appear so out of place after all.  I did this story a couple years ago in advance f the festival when its emcee headliner was David Brenner and its legend recipient was Bill Dana.  Depending on your age and your knowledge of pop culture figures from the 1960s-1970s and earlier, those names may or may not mean anything to you, but Brenner and Dana were once very big deals in the comedy world.  It was fun to speak with each of them.  Space constraints dictated I could only use a bare fraction of the interview materials.  Time constraints prevent me from posting the full Q&As on this blog.  Maybe some day, if I ever acquire an assistant or intern, I can share those full interviews here.

By the way, this blog contains several stories by me on Dick Cavett, whom I’ve interviewed extensively the last few years.



David Brenner




Norfolk, Neb. Festival at the Johnny Carson Theatre Hosts Intersection of Comedy’s Past, Present, Future

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (

The June 14-20 Great American Comedy Festival in Norfolk, Neb. honors the legacy of hometown legend Johnny Carson by celebrating comedy’s past, present and future. Twenty-four stand-ups from around the country compete for a grand prize.
The comics qualified via auditions held in 10 cities. Many already boast impressive credits: appearances on “Late Night with David Letterman,” “Saturday Night Live,” Comedy Central and gigging at top clubs. Others are still waiting for that big break.

For audiences of a certain age, however, the real attractions are two venerable comedy stars – stand-up David Brenner and writer-performer-producer Bill Dana. For the June 20 gala finale at the Johnny Carson Theatre Brenner’s the emcee and Dana’s the Comedy Legend recipient (2008’s was Dick Cavett). They’re among the competition’s judges.

The pair’s combined comedy careers approach 100 years. Both claim a strong connection to NBC’s “The Tonight Show,” the fabled program that made the late-night talk format a staple. Norfolk native Carson inherited the gig from predecessors Jack Paar and Steve Allen but, Dana said, Johnny “perfected it.”

Brenner’s 158 “Tonight Show” appearances are a record. He’s guest-hosted 70 times. He made his national television debut there, killing with his sharp observational bits. The show was at the height of its star-making power then. Brenner makes no bones about the impact those early spots meant.

“I’m thrilled to be doing this because not only did Johnny give me my first break and my first shot on television but he kept having me on and that sustained my career, so that you’re talking to someone now who’s still doing comedy after 40 years and that’s because of Johnny Carson,” Brenner said by phone from Las Vegas. That success allowed Brenner to meet the great comics he idolized as a kid.

Before that first Carson set, though, a struggling Brenner was ready to call it quits.

“Think of this – one small room, a pull-out sofa bed, two trunks with things in ‘em, a globe of the world because the person there always dreamed of traveling the world, a little kitchen you couldn’t sit down in, a bathroom, a closet and an outer- wear closet before leaving. Maybe 300 square feet. And three dollars in the pocket. That’s where I lived and how much I had when I walked on the stage to do my first ‘Tonight Show,’ and the day after I did that first one my life changed.”

Brenner, whose father was a vaudeville comic, grew up on Phillie’s mean streets. Having starred in his own live HBO special, hosted his own late night talk show (‘Nightlife’) and been a Vegas headliner, Brenner’s not the sentimental sort but mention Carson and he turns softie.

“I don’t get excited much about gigs anymore. I mean, I haven’t done it all, but I’ve done close to it. When Eddie Brill, who’s talent coordinator for ‘Letterman’ (and the fest’s executive producer), called and told me what he’s doing – keeping the memory of Johnny Carson alive – and would I consider emceeing the thing, I said, ‘What, are you kidding? You got it.’ I can’t wait for that gig, and I haven’t felt that way about a gig in a long, long, long time.”


 Bill Dana


Dana’s eager to pay homage, too. The Quincy, Mass. native and World War II combat vet had no show biz dreams until attending Boston’s Emerson College on the GI Bill. When fellow Emerson grad Gene Wood got on as an NBC page Dana joined him. The page route opened doors for their Dana and Wood comedy act.

Wood went on to write for “Captain Kangaroo” before turning TV’s preeminent game show announcer. Dana hooked up with Don Adams, writing routines that caught the attention of “Tonight” originator Steve Allen, who brought Dana on as a writer/talent scout. Dana soon became the head jokesmith.

Dana has the highest regard for Allen’s pioneering role.

“Everything you see on ‘The Tonight Show’ to this day comes from Steve. The couch, the chair, the desk, the proscenium, the relationship with the orchestra, all of that pabulum with the band leader and the announcer, all of that was done in the original ‘Tonight Show’ at the Hudson Theatre (New York),” Dana said by phone from Nashville. “Nothing has changed to that formula because it was just perfect right from the beginning. It was exciting to be part of that.”

Steve Allen
Johnny Carson



Dana contributed bits like The Answer Man that morphed under Carson into Carnac. Though primarily a writer, Dana said he acted “as a sort of utility infielder” in select skits. One bit Dana wrote and performed in ‘59 – “My name, Jose Jimenez” – became a sensation that led to his own sit-com.

He was virtually out of the business before penning the memorable “All in the Family” episode in which Sammy Davis Jr. kisses Archie Bunker. He’s toured with comedy legends Cavett, Mort Sahl, Dick Gregory and Shelley Berman. In 2005 he launched the American Comedy Archives ( at his alma mater. Dana’s the subject of a new documentary.

Something Allen once told him is coming true. “Steve always said, ‘If you live long enough you’ll start to get awards,’ and it’s starting to happen. These days, I’d rather have a job.” Rim-shot, please.

For festival details visit or call 402-371-2932.

%d bloggers like this: