What do legendary talk-show host Johnny Carson, disgraced comedian/alleged rapist Bill Cosby, and melodramatic, post-punk cult hero Morrissey have in common? You wouldn't be wrong if you thought "not a lot," and while you could argue Carson and Cosby appealed to a similar demographic back in the day, it's hard to imagine an iconoclastic sex figure like Morrissey sharing their company. Yet on June 14, 1991, these three figures somehow came together on The Tonight Show
, making for one of the most infamous moments in the show's history, made two of the most respected entertainment veterans at the time look like helpless amateurs, and cemented Morrissey's reputation as the master of causing mayhem by doing as little as possible.
Let's set the stage and take a trip back to the early 90s. The USSR was just beginning to dissolve, the Internet was just made available to a million people, and by June 1991, Nevermind
was still a few months out from taking over the world and thrusting a brand-new youth movement into the mainstream. In this day and age, it's hard to see Bill Cosby as something other than a breathing piece of trash, but back then, it seemed like things couldn't be better for the bumbling comedian. His career was riding high thanks to The Cosby Show
, which even after seven seasons was still raking in millions of viewers a week and received chart-topping ratings year after year. He was performing comedy specials, writing books, and frequently going on national talk shows just to shoot the shit with his friends. He was quite possibly one of the most recognizable pop culture figures at the time, and his wholesome and curse-free brand of comedy easily made him mainstream America's favorite comedian. Johnny Carson was in the home stretch of his 30-year run as the Tonight Show
host, but he was still in prime shape despite his career quickly coming to a close. However, like most aging comedians, it was clear that Carson was having more and more trouble keeping up with what the kids were into, now that the kids who grew up watching him were middle-aged adults themselves.
This generational difference might be why both him and Cosby never anticipated the Beatlemania-like fervor caused by booking Morrissey as the musical guest, but to be fair to the talk show host, Moz's fanbase had a knack for catching people off-guard. The Smiths had gone their separate ways by 1987, but Morrissey had no problem carrying over fans to his solo career. Even without the instrumental prowess of Johnny Marr, Moz still packed all the Wilde-esque lyrics and operatic charisma that made him such a compelling frontman. Though he was long a superstar across the pond in the UK, he was still fairly unknown to the majority of Americans, but that didn't make his American fans any less passionate, if not flat-out crazy.
Anyone who's gone to a Morrissey show even as recently as last year will tell you the crowd can get to near riot-levels of insanity the second he breaks out his melancholy falsetto. This was extremely evident during Moz's '91 US tour, as concert organizers were caught off-guard by the insane amount of teenagers hell-bent on seeing their leader in the flesh. People rushed the stage and the inanity was at a fever pitch the whole time Morrissey was onstage, and because security was only expecting a crowd of half its actual size, crowd control often went out the door and venues were left in pieces. Morrissey's success likely came as such a shock to the US mainstream because the reality was his brand of music was never meant for the mainstream in the first place. His music spoke to the underground, the diverse, alienated youth who were deemed too strange for upright, Middle America and felt lost in a world that wouldn't listen. Morrissey was the patron saint of lost, romantic souls, and that deep connection is why these kids would do anything to see him, including even sitting through a stuffy talk show only parents cared about.
The full taping of the show doesn't seem to exist online, but Dan Ozzi of Vice's Noisy
wrote a fantastic article
that gives the most detailed description of what happened. To summarize that night, it was clear to Carson and co. by the opening monologue that this crowd of oddly dressed teenagers wasn't his regular audience, and that this would be far from a regular taping. Like the seasoned TV host that he was, Carson hit all the right beats, from his one-liners about current events to the classic "How bad is it?"
jokes. It wasn't his fault that the jokes weren't landing like they usually do; it's just that the audience didn't care. The overwhelming majority were there for one man and one man only, and the 40-something minutes of show time was just a means to an end. As Ozzi points out in his article, after the third or fourth DOA joke, Carson just shrugged and said to sideman Ed McMahon, "Eh, what do I care? I'm leaving!"
Bill Cosby wouldn't fare much better, despite being a near-untouchable comedic master at the time. The reality was that this particular crowd likely weren't the ones tuning in to The Cosby Show
every night, and to Cosby's credit, he was at least aware of it. He came out onstage and urged the crowd to hold their applause because "We have to get on because Morrissey is coming," which got a better reaction than any of Carson's jokes. Despite the strong start, Cosby's bit just amounted to saying "Morrissey" over and over and exchanging smirks with Carson that seemed to say, "look at these damn kids."
Just like Carson, Bill was too out-of-touch for his own good and bombed, and that left only one man to save the show from going completely off the rails: Steven Patrick Morrissey.
Carson was visually frustrated by the time the musical part of the show rolled around, barely even trying to contain the crowd's excitement through Moz's introduction. Before Carson could even finish saying his name, Morrissey walked onto the stage and sent the crowd into an all-out hysteria. The singer performed two tracks off his new record Kill Uncle
, the rockabilly-tinged "Sing Your Life" and the wonderfully melodramatic "There's a Special Place in Hell for Me and My Friends," and the crowd predictably ate it up. They had finally gotten what they came there for, and Morrissey was clearly relishing in his network TV debut and his one-man takeover of one of the most watched shows in the US. Carson was clearly done with the wall of ambivalence he had dealt with all night on his own show, as he seemingly forgot Moz's name in the thank you's to his guests and left in a huff. Thankfully, the late-career blip didn't do much to damage Carson's reputation as the greatest American talk show host of all time, and he went one to enjoy retirement by the next year. Morrissey never hit a massive level of US success beyond his dedicated circle, mostly due to the fact grunge became the newest trend for the youthful underground by that fall, but he continues to have solid solo career and still occasionally deals with passionate riots at his US shows. In 2002, British magazine NME
placed the Smiths over the Beatles as most influential band of all time
, so clearly Moz's spotlight has never faded in his home country. As for Bill Cosby...well, we probably all know what happened to him.