Hazell recalls Johnny Carson for Carson Lecture

Pat Hazell (right) with Johnny Carson School of Theatre and Film Director Paul Steger at the Carson Lecture on Sept. 25.
Pat Hazell (right) with Johnny Carson School of Theatre and Film Director Paul Steger at the Carson Lecture on Sept. 25.

Comedian Pat Hazell used to watch The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson with his father.

“He allowed me to stay up late if there was a comic on or call me out to the living room if something was funny,” he said. “So I remember that experience as a viewer, a bonding, and I became fascinated by the fact that a guy could have a job being funny. I didn’t understand that as a host he was doing other things. I would just see that monologue. That’s a funny way to make a living.”

Hazell delivered the Carson Lecture in September in the Johnny Carson School of Theatre and Film. The biennial Carson Lecture Series has been created to celebrate the contributions of entertainment icon and UNL alumnus Johnny Carson.

Appearing on the Tonight Show was a goal of Hazell’s.

“Because I’m from Nebraska and because I grew up in the Omaha area, that was the mountain to climb, to get on the Johnny Carson Show,” he said. “For comedians, you needed Johnny’s endorsement to have a career in comedy.

He got his chance, appearing on the June 7, 1989, show, just a couple of years before Carson retired in 1992.

“I remember being on the back side of the curtain, but having a visual sense because I had seen the front side of the curtain so many times on television,” he said. “And I thought, when I get on the other side, I’ll be in charge of television for six minutes. What’s going to happen? That’s the fantasy becoming real. Instead of talking to the studio audience, you’re kind of talking to the whole world. It’s really hard to get your bearings.”

Normally, Hazell worked with a microphone and a stand, but on the Tonight Show, you don’t have either.

“When you come out, and there’s an overhead boom mic, and there’s nothing to hold on, I just remember not knowing what to do with my hands,” he said. “So when I watch that spot now, I’m petting my tie and putting my hands in my pocked. I really looked odd to me.”

He also remembers that his appearance was just three days before his 10-year high school reunion.

“I thought I had nothing to say, I had no success,” he said. “Well the gift that was given to me was having done the show and coming back and not being a complete failure. Guys who beat me up were saying, ‘There’s my friend.’”

Hazell said what the younger generation may not know is how influential Carson was to so many careers.

“If you look at all the current guys in the late night situation—Jimmy Fallon or Steve Colbert. Everyone is on a path that he created for it. His endorsement to Jay Leno or to Jerry [Seinfeld] or to Roseanne [Barr] or to any of those people, there’s a connect the dots,” he said. “That’s the Ivy League school you wanted to be from. Where I might been in a freshman class, and Leno was in the senior class, there was some kind of bond in the comedy fraternity. When you got a Carson shot, it could launch a career.”

He made six more appearances on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno. He is also one of the original writers on NBC’s “Seinfeld.”

“I co-wrote a play, ‘Bunk Bed Brothers’ with Matt Goldman, and Matt and I got the first two writing jobs on the show,” Hazell said. “I was there when the music was being created and we were naming the restaurants. I also contributed Kramerica Industries, Kramer’s fake corporation.”

He later got a credit of special consultant for “Seinfeld.”

“At the time, it sounded really special to me,” he said. “What I didn’t realize, it wasn’t a guild credit, so I don’t get residuals. But I would keep it the same way. For that to be my first TV writing job on that show, there’s no trade for the value I got out of that.”

He also appeared on screen as the “Man in the Other Bed,” behind the curtain in a hospital scene with George Costanza in one episode. And he also portrayed the studio audience warm-up comic in the episode titled “The Pilot” that was a mock of how the show was originally made. He had also been the actual studio audience warm-up comic for about 75 episodes of the show.

“To me the ultimate credit all of show business was when you see a movie, and Johnny Carson was in it, and it would say ‘Johnny Carson as Himself,’” Hazell said. “How do you get that? In that one episode it says ‘Pat Hazell as Himself.’ That is a reflection of ‘Wow, you just get to be yourself in a movie.’”

Born in Passaic, New Jersey, Hazell’s family lived in Michigan and Colorado before landing in Omaha when Hazell was in junior high.

“I always credit Omaha for being my hometown,” he said. “The gestation period was over. That’s where my education came from and where my friendships come from.”

Hazell said he knew pretty early that he was funny. As one of six children, Hazell said to break through the noise, you really had to come up with good material.

“There’s a famous family story about there being a table full of yakking people,” he said. “Where our dining room was, there was a bay window, and you could see the neighbors behind. I don’t know why I said it, but to get everyone to stop talking, I said, ‘Mrs. Gibbons is having an affair with the milkman,’ as the woman was crossing her backyard. There was stone silence. That was just command of the audience and then tell them what you want to tell them. Poor Mrs. Gibbons. I don’t even know. But it got a laugh.”

Like Carson, Hazell received a magic kit when he was younger.

“I had an uncle Tony who diligently showed me how the tricks worked,” he said. “And then it was like, ‘Now, you will present them to the family.’ It was pretty addicting at this age to have everyone pay attention to you.”

He attended the University of Nebraska at Omaha, but did not complete his theatre degree.

“I went to UNO 90 days same as cash—about a year and a half,” he said. “I have no recollection of how it ended. I opened for Rodney Dangerfield in Las Vegas and never went back.”

Showtime declared Hazell one of the five funniest people in America. His 25 years of experience as a writer, performer and producer have made him the go-to guy for custom corporate entertainment, where he is now president of Sweetwood Productions.

“We’re doing more of that consulting work. If there’s a problem, can we solve it in a funny way and can we have people remember it,” he said.

Hazell said Carson’s legacy is that he “was the star at the top of the Christmas tree. The braches of this tree are all the other comics he influenced, and the presents at the bottom was the idea that humor became this really viable commodity.”

But he also said his legacy is reflected at UNL.

“The legacy around here is reflected in this building and in the students,” Hazell said. “He is still a viable person to serve as a mentor, and the philanthropic nature of what he’s done has opened doors for many more people that may know his influence.”

He said students can learn a lot from Carson.

“There’s a ton of stuff to learn from Johnny,” he said. “His professional life, and there’s a certain top-shelf, first-class sense of philanthropy. This guy knew where his roots were. There’s a great sense of generosity, a huge amount of instinctual talent as a writer and a presenter. It isn’t that easy to be a talk show host. He made it look easy, but it’s not easy. It’s worthwhile for students to watch how he did it. He tells a great story, he moves things along. It’s ultimately entertaining.

“With all respect to everyone who followed Johnny, no one was as good at specifically this kind of medium.”