John Lamb, Published April 09 2014
Nealon brings laughs to Fargo
But Nealon knew he really made it a few years earlier when he got his first spot doing stand-up on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” in 1984.
“Doing that is kind of like passing your bar exam for a lawyer,” Nealon said last week. “Once you do that, it validates you.”
Thirty years later, Nealon gets that validation on the road. He brings his stand-up comedy Saturday night to the Fargo Theatre.
Nealon says he was raised on comedy.
“I grew up watching the stand-up comics on the talk shows,” he says. “In fact, I would get the ‘TV Guide’ and I would circle which comics would be on and watch them and study them.”
He started working the comedy clubs when he was 24, influenced by the “silly” comedy of Steve Martin and Andy Kaufman.
His big break came when he was tabbed to be on Carson.
“I was so nervous,” he says, adding that he was told he’d be on three days before the appearance.
“The minute they said ‘You’re going to do it,’ I started going over the act in my head every five minutes. I could be talking to somebody and nodding like I was listening to them and really I was going over the act in my head. When the curtains opened up and I went out there to the applause and Johnny introducing me, I completely blanked out on my act.”
Nealon recovered by the time he hit his mark and the applause died down, but the one thing he still heard was Johnny Carson’s laugh.
“I never had an experience like that before, such a natural high. It was just a thrill of a lifetime,” he says, adding that he was asked to sit on the couch with guests Michael Landon and Rosalind Chao.
“That was just icing on the cake for me,” he says.
Asked how being on “The Tonight Show” was different then from now with five late night shows on the major networks and “Conan” on TBS, Nealon says it’s hard to compare.
“I don’t know what it means to comics now because it’s a whole different kind of scene, but to me nothing surpasses ‘The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.’ ”
As a stand-up, he wasn’t involved in improv troupes like Second City or the Groundlings, so he never gave much thought to being part of “Saturday Night Live.”
“ ‘Saturday Night Live’ is like a pretty girl,” Nealon says. “If you pursue them, sometimes you don’t get them. ‘Saturday Night Live’ was something I never pursued, I knew it was out of my league because I wasn’t an improv player.”
So when his pal Dana Carvey recommended him for an open position at the show, Nealon did the audition sure he wouldn’t get it. In a strange twist, that odd bit of confidence worked, Nealon nailed the audition and joined the staff in 1986 as a featured player and writer. The next season he was a regular cast member.
His first bit was a skit he wrote with now Minnesota Sen. Al Franken introducing his Mr. Subliminal character.
“I remember Lorne Michaels was by my side and just before we came back from a commercial, seconds to go on, he said to me, ‘Are you sure this is what you want?’ ” Nealon says. “That was a nudge, his sense of humor.”
Nealon would go on and be part of the franchise’s most popular duos, Hans and Franz, the arrogant Austrian gym rats he created with Carvey.
“People are always telling me, ‘Dude, I grew up watching you.’ ‘Dude, I was Hans for Halloween one year,’ ” Nealon says with a laugh.
Nealon also served as the anchor of the comic “Weekend Update,” manning the desk from ’91 to ’94.
Unlike his predecessor (Dennis Miller) and his successor (Norm McDonald), Nealon was more of a presence in show skits.
“It was nice for me because I got back to writing jokes again, which is where I came from – stand-up comedy. Before I was just writing sketches and characters,” he says of his time as an anchor. “But it did increase your workload, and you did have to focus on it. It really is a full-time job doing ‘Weekend Update.’ ”
Nealon has kept busy since leaving the show nearly 20 years ago. Most notably, he was praised for his acting in the black comedy, “Weeds.” The show ended its eight-season run in 2012.
He just wrapped filming a pilot for NBC with Rob Lowe and Rob Riggle, who play rival tennis pros at a country club where Nealon’s character works.
For now Nealon is enjoying life on the road, doing weekend shows and refining his conversational style of comedy.
“As a comic, your stand-up evolves over the years,” he explains. “It’s kind of like a blues musician. You need to live life and develop a style and see what you’re comfortable with onstage.”
Readers can reach Forum reporter John Lamb at (701) 241-5533
If you go
What: Kevin Nealon
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Where: Fargo Theatre, 314 Broadway
Info: Tickets are $36.50, plus fees. (866) 300-8300. www.jadepresents.com