25 Years Ago, Morrissey Ruined Bill Cosby’s Appearance on ‘The Tonight Show’
The singer made his American television debut, and his fans made the show a living hell.
Illustration by John Garrison
Illustration by John Garrison
Bill Cosby was capping off the prime of his career when he appeared on The Tonight Show on June 14, 1991. He had just wrapped up the seventh season of The Cosby Show, his Emmy-winning family comedy, one of only three shows in television history to hold the number one spot in the Nielsen ratings for five consecutive seasons. He was soon to release his 20th comedy album and his fourth book. Still decades before the darker side of his personal life would come to light, he was America’s comedian. There wasn’t a restaurant, club, or theater in the country he could’ve walked into and not instantly been recognized. On any other night, Cosby would’ve been a solid booking as a talk show guest. But on this evening, as he sat on the set’s armchair, trading jokes with host Johnny Carson, his celebrity was eclipsed by the presence of the man waiting backstage, a man who had never even appeared on American television. On this night, Bill Cosby stood in the shadow of Steven Patrick Morrissey.
Days before the show taped in Burbank, there was already a buzz in town about the man called Morrissey. Despite having ten years of professional music experience under his belt, beginning with his work in The Smiths, to most adults in America, including Cosby and Carson, the British singer’s name was largely unknown. After all, this was someone who had not only never performed on network television, but didn’t have any hit songs, and had never done a solo tour in the US. Even MTV, a channel meant to spotlight “alternative” artists, snubbed his videos.
"I always seem to be singing against the grain," Morrissey would tell the New York Times later that summer after a performance at Madison Square Garden, a show which set the Manhattan venue’s record for most merchandise sold. "Even though I've been reasonably well known for quite a long time, I still can't get a record on daytime radio or on MTV.”
He stated prophetically, “I know I will never have a hit single in America,” and when musing on why, offered that “it has to be censorship. I think there are unseen powers who don't want pop music to be anything other than glorified Madonnas."
"I do well despite the fact that nobody knows the record is released, despite the fact that there are no posters and nobody will play the songs," he told the paper. "But I'm sick to death of being successful despite all that's holding me back."
But while Morrissey struggled to catch on with mainstream America, he built a cult following with a despondent younger generation, one of the most internationally obsessive in music history. They were social outsiders, united by their devotion to an English icon. They knew Morrissey’s name, and they eagerly awaited his arrival.
Two weeks prior to his scheduled Tonight Show appearance, Morrissey touched down in the United States to embark on the six-week leg of a worldwide tour to promote his third solo release, Kill Uncle, after having just wrapped up a successful 11-show run of Europe. The Kill Uncle Tour kicked off in California, where there were six dates lined up: San Diego, Costa Mesa, Inglewood, Santa Barbara, Berkeley, and Sacramento. The shows sold out fast. The entire tour sold out fast, but the West Coast stretch sold out faster. Much of Morrissey’s popularity in the area could be attributed to heavy rotation from the area’s influential radio station, KROQ, one of the few outlets to lend support. 20,000 tickets to the show at the San Diego Sports Arena went in a flash, gone in less than an hour, faster than any predecessor, including Madonna and Michael Jackson. Tickets for The Forum in Inglewood went even quicker—18,000 in just 15 minutes.
The speed of the ticket sales was a precursor to the insanity of the tour itself. Mozmania hit the States in the summer of ‘91 the same way Beatlemania had done so almost 30 years earlier. His rabid fans wreaked havoc on unsuspecting arenas, who were drastically underprepared for the chaos. It was utter fucking pandemonium.
Fans showed up in hordes, creating a nightmare for venue security. Many tearful fans rushed the stage to indulge in the Morrissey concert tradition of throwing gifts towards him—flowers, cigarettes, or, very often, their own bodies.
In his book, Morrissey: Passion & Scandal, author David Bret described the scene at Berkeley’s Greek Theater on June 8: “[O]ne official, thinking he was acting in everyone’s interest, placed large cardboard boxes outside the venue labeled GIFTS FOR MORRISSEY. These were quickly filled with all manner of paraphernalia: volumes of Oscar Wilde, greeting cards, red (‘Our Frank’) pullovers, flowers, nude snaps of fans, along with dozens of packets of pork scratchings, underwear to which were attached the donors’ names and addresses in the hope that Morrissey would wear the items and send them back—and condoms, presumably with the same thought in mind.”
“I remember the screams more than anything,” recalls Liz Ohanesian, a Los Angeles-based music writer who attended the Costa Mesa date at the Pacific Amphitheatre as her first concert at 14 years old. “Everybody was dancing like crazy—even though it wasn’t dance music—just going nuts, hair flying and screaming. It was an insane moment where you knew everyone else in that packed theater was on the same page as you.”
The Kill Uncle Tour in Dallas, Texas, 1991.
The Dallas date of the tour, one of its craziest, would have to be cut short before the second encore when the intensity of the 11,000 in attendance escalated to near-riot levels. Midway through “Everyday Is Like Sunday,” Morrissey was overtaken by a sea of bodies being launched from every direction. They stomped onto and off of the stage, which was almost entirely green from trampled flowers. Although he generally encouraged the participation, when dozens rushed towards him, grabbing at his limbs and hair, kissing his neck, and tearing off his shirt, it became overwhelming. He escaped through the side curtain to safety, leaving his bewildered band to finish the song without him. Fans remained in the venue for as long as they were allowed, chanting their hero’s name for a return that never came.
Not taking any chances after that, Morrissey’s management outright canceled his show the following night in Austin, feeling the venue’s security detail—37 members and 20 more on call—was insufficient, despite being double what they had hired for a recent Slayer concert.
"The hysteria of the tour is like Beatlemania, and they (Morrissey's management) just felt that with the configuration of the room they feared for the fans' safety and Morrissey's safety," Mario Lehmann of BFD Concerts, promoters of the Austin show, said at the time.
The Austin American-Statesman’s Don McLeese later wrote that disgruntled Austin fans should direct their ire not towards the venue, the promoter, or management, but squarely at Moz himself, saying that “the wimp-of-the-year mantle rests easily on Morrissey's shoulders.”
It wasn’t just the fans’ fervor that was unprecedented, but their diversity. Fanbases of male musical phenomenons had historically leaned heavily female, conjuring images of seas of swooning “fangirls.” This was the standard since the 1950s, when parents got so worked up about what Elvis’ gyrating hips were doing to their daughters that CBS decreed that the singer must be filmed from the waist up while performing on The Ed Sullivan Show. And, at the time of the Kill Uncle Tour, New Kids on the Block were the male heartthrobs du jour, enjoying superstardom following the triple platinum success of their 1990 album, Step by Step, and the throngs of young women they sang its songs to.
But because of Morrissey’s ambiguous sexuality and refusal to conform to the male frontman stereotype, eschewing the norms of traditional rock stars, the crowds he drew were a motley crew of genders, sexualities, sizes, and ethnicities, all connected by their devout belief in a God they called Moz.
“What happens during my shows is extraordinary,” Morrissey told the Los Angeles Times that June. “Most of the people who jump onstage and kiss me are male and they're not all young—they're grown, very big men. I can't think of another incident in pop history where men jumped on a stage and kissed a male artist. As to what it is in me or my music that evokes this response, I think the arena environment has something to do with it—people are allowed to be a little bit looser in big concert halls—but that doesn't fully explain it. I think perhaps I touch on a different passion in people. It's not simply the passion of rock 'n' roll rebellion—it's more romantic than sexual. This isn't something I tried to achieve, by the way—you can't consciously work on getting a lot of people to want to kiss you.”
The tour left the destruction of the West Coast in its wake. After all six California dates were completed, naturally, fans wanted one more chance to gaze upon their Mozziah, and there was only one place in the area left to do so: NBC Studios on West Alameda Avenue.
Morrissey Fever caught on early the day of Morrissey’s scheduled Tonight Show performance, as fans lined up outside the TV studio, hoping to be admitted. But this wasn’t a stadium or arena which held thousands. Only a couple hundred lucky people would make it in.
Los Angeles’ KNBC, which was also based out of NBC Studios, ran a taped segment on the evening news, previewing the episode of The Tonight Show that was to air in just a few minutes. Their camera crew had interviewed fans standing on the line that stretched around the studio earlier that afternoon. They called him “a lyrical genius,” an “incredible guy,” and “deep.”
“We came to see Johnny!” said one poor older woman in line who had never heard of Morrissey. She answered questions into the interviewer’s microphone as fans hammed it up for the camera in the background, waving CDs and t-shirts around her. When asked what she made of the Moz-mob, she remarked, “Well... it’s quite a thing!”
When the segment threw back to the studio, the anchors were at a loss for words, struggling to wrap their brains around the immense popularity of a person they’d never heard of.
“I almost ran into about ten of his fans coming to work,” said an incredulous Fritz Coleman, a newscaster on the show.
“Purple hair and stuff, yeah,” one of his co-anchors added.
“It’s awful, these kids, really, when you think about it,” Coleman joked.
Fans weren’t the only ones excited about the appearance. For Morrissey, it was a fantasy being fulfilled. "I see the Letterman show and I see Nina Hagen as a guest," he told the Los Angeles Times in 1986. "I see the Carson show and I see Belinda Carlisle. I have nothing against these people and I'm not bragging but I know I could be on those shows and be more interesting than those two."
But it was an odd time in the show’s history to finally make his fateful debut. Johnny Carson was still in top form as a host, but the 65-year-old was falling out of touch with the times. He had already announced his departure from the show and was running out the clock on his contract, the home stretch of a legendary 30-year run. By that time the following year, Jay Leno would be sitting in Carson’s seat, and Carson would be enjoying retirement. The night Morrissey appeared on his show would make him wish he had retired sooner.
Right off the bat, it became obvious that it would not be a typical episode. At the top of the show, sidekick Ed McMahon, before delivering his iconic “Heeeeeeere’s Johnny” line, announced the show’s guests: “Bill Cosby, Beau Bridges... and the songs of Morrissey.” The many fans in the studio erupted at the delivery of Morrissey’s name. It was a milestone in his career, and they celebrated bearing witness to it.
Carson was a seasoned host. He had done over 2,000 monologues—not all of them perfect. He certainly knew what it was like to die on stage. Maybe this monologue wasn’t his all-time worst bomb, but it was certainly up there.
“The President is out here, did you know that?” he asked, setting up his opening joke. Silence. “...Do you care?” It just got worse from there.
Carson tried to do his usual topical jokes about celebrities, news, and politics, but the audience kicked his comedic rhythm straight up the ass.
“The debt is bad here in Beverly Hills,” he started, before someone shouted out the hacky response, “How bad is it?!” The joke was dead in the water after that. “I want to thank you, sir, for that good sense of timing,” Carson said. His typically affable personality was veiling the frustration underneath. Then, after the next joke, the man did it again. “Oh shut up!” Carson responded. He then shrugged at McMahon and said, “Eh, what do I care? I’m leaving.”
At the end of the monologue, he segued to a commercial by repeating his guests, and, once again, the place exploded upon the mere sound of Carson saying “Morrissey,” so much so that he took a giant leap back from the volume. “That man is barking like a dog!” he pointed to a whooping man in the audience. “Go on the paper!”
The show’s sketch fared even worse than the monologue. Carson read made-up lines to romance novels, a bit that was met with tepid applause. One man in the audience—likely the same one as before—shouted in a sarcastic monotone, “Stop, you’re killing me.” Carson’s response came quick and dark: “Yeah, that’s a thought.”
Carson kept smiling at McMahon, sharing looks of pure, internal suffering. At one point, he leaned in and said, “I wish I was out of show business this very minute.”
Bill Cosby must have been watching all of this unfold backstage, because when it was his time to entertain the crowd, he came prepared. After being introduced, he entered the set, carrying his own folding chair, and sat down in front of the audience. “Please, please,” he said over their applause, “we have to get on because Morrissey is coming.” Finally, this was their kind of comedy, and they laughed genuinely for the first time since the show started.
“I was talking to Morrissey, and he said that he loved my work, and he said for you guys to pay attention to what I say,” Cosby continued, putting an emphasis on the singer’s name, trying to win the crowd’s favor by speaking their language. “Morrissey said you didn’t pay attention to Mr. Carson and your patience ran very thin, and Morrissey felt that you all were disrespectful. So Morrissey wants you to apologize to Mr. Carson.”
Cosby then tried shifting to his normal routine about Father’s Day, which was that weekend, but the audience didn’t care for these Morrissey-free jokes. So Cosby continued to pepper them in, ending punchlines with: “You know what I’m saying? ...Morrissey did!” He used the name like a punchline, and after each rise out of the audience, he did his trademark Cosbian lip-puckered, head-shaking smile, occasionally smirking back to Carson, as if to say: These fucking kids. The two had turned the show into one, big inside joke at the expense of their young audience.
After Cosby’s disastrous set, the show returned from commercial break, and Carson couldn’t resist one last poke at the audience which was chomping at the bit for the musical guest to be introduced at long last. “Morrissey had to leave but we do have Jerry Vale for you,” he teased. The crowd swiftly returned his playfulness with uproarious boos. “Alright, alright,” he conceded, and finally began his introduction: “This is a very popular—” but the crowd’s shouting and outbursts wouldn’t die. One man’s voice loudly carried something unintelligible but decidedly unkind over everyone. “Fine, anytime, right,” Carson grumbled.
“He sold out the Forum here in Los Angeles,” Carson read from his card, prompting more loud shrieks. “Now they’re cheering structures. Actually cheering buildings,” he said to Cosby, who was enjoying a good chuckle at Carson’s inability to contain his audience.
“Okay, here’s his latest album,” he continued, holding up a copy of Kill Uncle. “Would you welcome…” But the room was too loud to finish the sentence. Morrissey had emerged from behind the curtain and stepped onto the stage. Whatever courtesies the audience had been paying Carson all night burned up in the face of their idol. Unable to compete with the volume, Carson simply pointed to his left, directing his camera operator to give the damn kids what they came for.
The pounding drum intro to “Sing Your Life” fired up and the camera panned over to a band that looked straight out of the movie Grease. They played hollow body guitars and upright basses—five guys with cuffed jeans, slicked up pompadours, and low-cut shirts. But the man in the middle was unquestionably their ringleader. His jeans were cuffed the farthest from his boots, his hair was teased so high that it handily doubled the length of his face, and the neck of his shiny, loose chemise scooped almost all the way down to his navel. He had just turned 32 three weeks prior, but easily looked ten years younger.
“Sing your life, any fool can think of words that rhyme,” he crooned, injecting feelings of optimistic existentialism into his signature retro style as the audience noise finally began to lull. “And make no mistake, my friend, your pointless life will end.”
Morrissey shimmied his way through the song, whirling the microphone cord over his head in wide, circular motions like a gymnast doing a ribbon dance routine. His brown mane bounced around, snapping back into place in the brief moments where he stood still.
After the performance of a second, even more melancholic song, “There’s a Place in Hell for Me and My Friends,” the show, for some inexplicable reason, segued to an interview with Beau Bridges. The actor was promoting something or other, a movie, perhaps—it didn’t matter; no one was paying attention. Bridges’ post-Morrissey appearance elicited the excitement of an opening act following the headliner, the poor bastard.
The show concluded in comically awkward fashion. Carson signed off by thanking his guests: Bill Cosby, Beau Bridges… and that was it. No mention of the other guy.
“And, mercifully, we say goodnight, folks,” Carson said into the camera.
McMahon piped up from the couch to point out the glaring omission: “And Morrissey!” Carson heard it, but he didn’t acknowledge it. He just smiled with empty eyes and waved. A deliberate snub. The audience, realizing Carson’s forgetfulness was intentional, started to boo. The APPLAUSE sign lit up, but it instead elicited jeers and heckles. As the house band played and the credits rolled, Carson walked off the stage, leaving his guests behind to shake each other’s hands. The show ended just as bizarrely as it started.
Morrissey, true to his prediction, couldn’t even produce a hit song off the momentum of the Kill Uncle Tour. Despite making a prime-time network television appearance, breaking ticket sales records, and having a loyal army of diehard fans, neither “Sing Your Life” nor “There’s a Place in Hell...” nor any of Morrissey’s songs landed on the Billboard chart in America that year. Or the next. Or the one after that. It wouldn’t be until 1994, that “The More You Ignore Me, the Closer I Get” would become the lone American charting single of his solo career. 1991 instead belonged to a combination of love ballads, R&B tracks, and future Jock Jams, with the year’s top three songs being Bryan Adams’ “(Everything I Do) I Do It for You,” Color Me Badd’s “I Wanna Sex You Up,” and C+C Music Factory’s “Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now).” Other solo artists like Mariah Carey, Paula Abdul, and Michael Bolton dominated the year. Even R.E.M. was able to sneak their mock feel-good hit, “Shiny Happy People,” in at number 100, but there was simply no room for Morrissey’s self-effacing, bleak worldview.
The next year, Nirvana would come along and kick the door open with a Doc Marten, making it socially acceptable for all music fans—from the jocks to the freaks—to identify as a weirdo, or, at least, to dress like one. The Seattle grunge craze would wash over any rising success unconventional British artists like Morrissey were enjoying in the States. It was a changing of the guards—at once both an ending and a beginning for eras of alternative music.
Morrissey returned to The Tonight Show in November of 1992, this time introduced by Jay Leno. Over two decades later, in 2015, he came back again when the show was under the reign of Jimmy Fallon. Moz wasn’t as wiry as he once was during his Kill Uncle days. Sagging jowls had stolen the edge from his once razor-sharp jawline, and his pompadour was grayer and not nearly as tall as the one Fritz Coleman once joked that “elves were doing bungee jumps off of.” But he still had an audience, though even they had learned to contain their enthusiasm a bit since the 90s.
Cosby returned as well, appearing dozens of times over the years, but will never again be invited back to perform for a talk show audience after the atrocities of his rampant sexual assault recently became public. As the last embers of his relevance burn to nothing in his remaining years, he has things of a graver nature to reflect on these days—charges of rape and abuse, the sting of a forever tarnished legacy, and the haunting guilt that weighs on his eternal soul. But maybe in the occasional moments between the darkest memories that plague his mind at night, he thinks back to that Tonight Show appearance in June of 1991. He remembers Johnny, and Ed, and the audience, and how he used their fandom for cheap laughs. And he curses that fucking name: Morrissey.
Dan Ozzi is on Twitter - @danozzi