If imitation really is the sincerest form of flattery, then Dave Coulier gave Johnny Carson highest accolades in his headlining act Friday night, performing some impersonations of the late-night television luminary.
Coulier was the headliner Friday night at the 12th annual Great American Comedy Festival at the Johnny Carson Theatre in Norfolk, with Nucor as the presenting sponsor. Other performers were host Brian Kiley, Kelsey Cook, Mike E. Winfield, Max Silvestri and Moses Storm.
Coulier, best known for his role as Uncle Joey on television’s “Full House” that aired from 1987-95, had the audience roaring with laughter with his mixture of impressions, sound effects and relatable material.
He solicited some “aww” reactions from the audience with a story about the time he met Johnny Carson when he performed on his show in 1987.
“I was 24 years old, and Doc Severinsen was the musical director that night. Back then, there were only three networks and Johnny Carson was the king of all those networks,” he said. “The goal in any young comedian’s career was to get on that stage because you knew that everybody — not just in showbiz — everyone in your family life was going to see you as a young comic coming out on ‘The Tonight Show.’ ”
As he set the scene, he made trumpet sound effects into the microphone to emulate “The Tonight Show” band’s cues for Coulier to go onstage, which he said was like “being shot out of a cannon in front of America.”
“That six minutes went by so fast,” he said. “The only thing a comedian wanted back then was the OK sign. I look, and (Carson) goes, ‘Thank you, Dave,’ and that was it,” he said, flashing an OK sign and imitating Carson’s voice.
While on stage Friday night, Coulier talked a bit about being recognized for his iconic role on “Full House” and what it’s been like reuniting the cast for “Fuller House,” which has four seasons on Netflix with a fifth coming in the fall.
“They should have called it ‘Full Circle’ — we’re all back there now,” he said.
Among the original cast members who returned for the spinoff were Candace Cameron Bure, Jodie Sweetin and Andrea Barber.
Coulier was far and away the audience favorite. Festival volunteer Linda Libengood said she appreciated his stories and sense of humor.
“David Coulier was wonderful. When he was getting ready for his colonoscopy … I was laughing so hard and the guy behind me was just rolling,” she said. “ … You could really relate to what he was saying. He’s a great guy.”
Other audience members interviewed afterward said they liked up-and-comer Cook’s more risqué set about sex and relationships. The only woman on stage Friday night, she pushed the boundaries with her humor and anecdotes.
One attendee said his favorite performer was Kiley, a comedian and longtime staff writer for Conan O’Brien. Among the six-time host’s jokes included a story about being asked to perform at a show for Nebraskan comedians after wearing a Husker sweatshirt he bought at an airport.
Silvestri, who recently guest-starred in the NBC show “AP Bio,” said it was his first time in Nebraska as he came onstage.
“Everyone’s been so welcoming, so kind, but I’m very intimidated by every single dude I have seen here,” he joked. “Very nice, but I just feel like you guys are all beef-fed Midwestern guys; like every single one of you could tear me apart limb from limb.”
Storm, who has appeared on late-night talk show “Conan,” shared stories about growing up poor. He joked that the government nutrition program SNAP sounded like an “off-off-broadway production of ‘STOMP.’ ”
Winfield, who recently starred in a movie called “Pimp,” connected with audiences by sharing his experiences with t-ball coaching and parenting.
“High schools have evolved… I don’t know the last time you were in a school — oh, this is a school,” Winfield said with a laugh in reference to Norfolk High’s Johnny Carson Theatre.
Each comedian brought something different to the stage, giving the over two-hour show a wide-ranging appeal. Longtime volunteer Libengood said that each year, more and more people turn out for the Carson-inspired comedy fest.
“Our crowds just keep getting bigger,” she said. “We like it. It’s gone through changes but it just keeps getting better and better.”
Coulier shared his appreciation for the venue and the event for keeping Carson’s legacy alive.
“Hats off to this entire venue for supporting comedy,” he said, “I’m sure Mr. Carson is looking down from somewhere saying, ‘That a’way.’ ”
Carson was someone all comedians looked up to when he reigned over late-night television, he said.
“He was the king and we all had such a respect for him back then,” he said. “I think he was a very underrated comedian, I think he was the best interviewer we’ve ever seen or will ever see … he had these wonderful sketches and you just knew he was a real guy from Nebraska. We’ll probably never see that again.”