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Comedy festival to feature ‘Tonight Show’ writers panel

March 16, 2017
March 16, 2017

To help mark the 25th year since Johnny Carson stepped down as host of “The Tonight Show,” the Great American Comedy Festival is bringing to Norfolk four people key to the show’s success — its writers.

As well as a fifth who is playing an instrumental role in the creation of a new television situation comedy focused on Carson and “The Tonight Show.”

They’ll all be on stage at the Johnny Carson Theatre in Norfolk on Saturday, June 17, at 1 p.m. for the free 90-minute event organized by Jeff Sotzing, Johnny’s nephew and a former producer of “The Tonight Show.”

From Sotzing’s perspective, writers are key to the success of any show, especially a television talk show.

“The job of a writer takes an individual with real talent and creativity,” he said. “You can teach people to do just about anything, but to write is a unique gift. Add to that the pressure of writing for a daily show that demands production at a moment’s notice, and you have an incredibly stressful job.”

The Saturday afternoon writers panel will feature Nebraska native and entertain Dick Cavett — himself a former “Tonight Show” writer — as the moderator. He’ll be joined on stage by former “Tonight Show” writers Mike Reiss, Andrew Nichols and Darrell Vickers.

“I know for a fact that Johnny Carson, who was also a writer, held the work that the writers did to the highest level and was grateful and honored to have them as part of the team,” Sotzing said.

Also part of the panel will be David Steven Simon, co-creator with Paul Reiser of a new TV show currently in production called “There’s …. Johnny!” Eight episodes are being filmed for the Seeso streaming comedy network owned by NBC and are scheduled to air this fall.

Simon began his career with three overall studio deals at Disney, Universal and Columbia. He worked with Michael Jacobs and wrote on “Charles in Charge, “Together We Stand” and “My Two Dads.” He also co-created the Wayans’ Brother situation comedy that starred Shawn and Marlon Wayans. He has written feature scrips for Kevin Costner, John Travolta and Patrick Dempsey.

Mike Reiss has won four Emmys and a Peabody Award during his 26 years writing for “The Simpsons.” He ran the show in the series’ fourth season, which Entertainment Weekly called “the greatest season of the greatest show in history.” In 2006, Reiss received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Animation Writers Caucus.

Reiss has written jokes for such comedy legends as Johnny Carson, Joan Rivers, Garry Shandling and even Pope Francis. For his comedic contributions to the charitable group Joke with the Pope, in 2015 Pope Francis declared Reiss “A missionary of joy!”

Andrew Nicholls and Darrell Vickers were both born in England and met in Canada, where they began writing songs, as well as jokes for cartoonists and standup comics, and for radio, stage and TV. In 1983, they moved to Los Angeles, where they wrote for sitcoms and for performers including Mickey Rooney and George Carlin.

In 1986, they joined the staff of “The Tonight Show,” becoming Johnny Carson’s head writers in 1988 and earning four Emmy nominations.

The team has sold over 75 pilot scripts, of which 35 were produced and 20 made into series. They’ve created or staffed over 100 series and pilots, including shows for Faye Dunaway, Bronson Pinchot and Courteney Cox, Teri Garr, Dabney Coleman, Magic Johnson and Robert Townsend.  Since 1997 they’ve written over 200 episodes of children’s animation in a dozen countries.

Cavett served as a comedy writer for “The Tonight Show” when it was hosted by Jack Paar and subsequently for his “Tonight Show” successor, Johnny Carson.

Encouraged by such showbiz friends as Woody Allen and Groucho Marx, Cavett became a stand-up comedian. His success in this field led to an offer from ABC to host a daytime talk show in 1968.

Among several other projects, he went on to host a daily PBS interview series, which ran from 1977 to 1981, and led similar programs on the USA and CNBC cable services into the 1990s.

Mark Zimmerer, chairman of this year’s comedy festival, said the writers panel will feature video clips from “The Tonight Show” and the opportunity for audience questions.

“It should be a fun and fascinating discussion,” he said. “And it’s free!”