Los Angeles in the mid-1970s was a very funny place to be. Class clowns from all over the country were flocking to the city, inspired by Tonight Show host Johnny Carson, who was known to discover new comedic talent.
William Knoedelseder, a Los Angeles Times reporter who covered the city's burgeoning comedy scene at the time, describes is as "absolutely electric."
"[Aspiring comedians were] invariably inspired by sitting there watching The Tonight Show and hearing Johnny Carson say, 'Now here's a young comic who's appearing here in town at The Comedy Store,'" Knoedelseder tells Ari Shapiro. "And — boom, that was it ... Before long you had 300 young comics living in West Hollywood around The Comedy Store trying to get on that stage."
In his new book, I'm Dying Up Here, Knoedelseder chronicles what he calls stand-up comedy's "golden era." He says that Los Angeles wasn't always the epicenter of the comic universe, but when Carson moved The Tonight Show from New York to the West Coast, the comedians seemed to follow.
"Johnny Carson was the arbiter of what was funny in America for a very long time. If he thought you were funny and put you on his show, you had a career," he says.
Knoedelseder describes a tight-knit community where today's big name comics would hang out at the bar together between sets, writing down jokes on napkins.
"It's hard to imagine now, but on a random Friday night you could see Letterman and Leno and Richard Lewis and Robin Williams and Elayne Boosler all on the same stage," he says.
He writes about one particular night in which Ringo Starr began heckling Letterman:
Starr was seated just as David Letterman took the stage, and the former Beatle immediately began heckling him, which attracted the attention of every comic within earshot. Letterman had a reputation for eviscerating hecklers, and as word spread along the back hallway, other comics started filing into the room to watch the impending bloodshed.
It wasn't a fair fight. In the spotlight, Letterman couldn't see who the heckler was, so he showed no mercy, and Starr was too drunk to appreciate how badly Letterman was beating him up. Finally, one of the comics took pity and called out, "Hey Dave, it's Ringo."
"Oh, that makes sense," Letterman shot back in the direction of Starr. "You ruined your career, and now you've come here to ruin mine." George Miller almost fell off his stool laughing.
Knoedelseder remembers Letterman and Leno as a sort of "mutual admiration society." Leno, says the author, was so skilled at delivery that he could sell a joke even if it wasn't funny. Letterman, meanwhile, was probably the stronger joke writer.
"In separate interviews, I asked each of them , 'Ok, so who's act among your peers do you most admire?' and each of them instantly named each other," says Knoedelseder.