On April 17, 1967, I made my first and last appearance on national network television on the premiere of The Joey Bishop Show. It also marked the first time that most Americans heard the name Regis Philbin (he was Joey's sidekick). This late night talk show on ABC was created to compete with Johnny Carson and lasted two years. My opportunity came about because of nepotism -- my father was Joey Bishop's agent. "How would you like to be on a skit?" my father asked me. The fact that it would pay a couple hundred dollars made it a no-brainer.
The premise of the skit was that Joey would introduce to the viewers the staff of his new show. I was to play his director. I was told that I had to wear a suit and fake horn-rimmed glasses. I would have the set of earphones and a clipboard. No problem. I was already a pretty dorky thirteen-year-old, so I had nothing to lose.
After school, I was dropped off for my 4 pm call time, and soon thereafter had a rehearsal. Joey and I came out on the stage. He ran through the scene with me. "When I squeeze your shoulder, you say your lines," he told me. It was ten words exactly. "Thank-you-Mister-Bishop. I'm-glad-to-be-on-board." We ran through it a couple of times. Piece of cake!
I had to wait another four hours before the show would go live to the east coast. In the time, I thought how cool the whole thing was. I had told all my friends at school, and most of them got permission from their parents to stay up late especially for my performance. I rehearsed my line several hundred times, experimenting with the intonation to get it just right.
When it was showtime, I stood by the wings to wait for my cue to walk on the stage. The audience laughed at the sight of me, since the gag was fresh being that I was the first crew member to be introduced. I took my place at Joey's side and waited for my next cue to say my ten words. I looked at the camera in front of me with the bright red light on the top. All of a sudden, I got shaky and froze. Joey's hand squeezed my shoulder. He squeezed it again, harder. Nothing. I couldn't manage even a squeak. Joey turned to the audience and said, "Look, he's so excited to be here, he's all choked up." Another laugh.
I went off the stage, thinking about making a grand fool of myself in front of my friends and countless millions of Americans. Was it possible to change schools? Will I ever recover from this humiliation? As my self-pity reached its apex, Regis Philbin came over to me.
"You know, the way you did it was much better." He told me it got a much bigger laugh than had I said it the right way.
Three decades later, I was backstage at his show in New York and went up to him. "You may not remember this, but I just want to tell you what an incredible thing you did for me," I said. He stood for a second and looked me in the eyes. "Of course, I remember it exactly. Right after your spot, Joey introduced all those chimpanzees as his writers."
As I stood there with him, I felt no differently than I had as the bespectacled young teen. What a great guy!