The seventh annual Great American Comedy Festival’s final performance Saturday night began as it should — with a video tribute to Johnny Carson.
After all, the festival was created to pay tribute to the legacy of Carson, who grew up in Norfolk and went on to host NBC’s “The Tonight Show” for 30 years.
That’s why the rainbow-colored lights created stripes on the Johnny Carson Theatre’s normally red curtain — just like the multi-colored curtain on “The Tonight Show” when Carson hosted it. Several large photographs of Carson lined the stage, and the set of the show was re-created on the theater stage.
Memories of Carson were a frequent theme throughout the 2½ hour performance that attracted a crowd of more than 1,000 despite the evening’s threatening weather.
David Steinberg, for example, entertained the audience with stories of his association with Carson.
“My career, to me, was the ‘Tonight Show with Johnny Carson,’ ” Steinberg said. “Once you made Johnny laugh, it was everything.”
But the recipient of this year’s Johnny Carson Comedy Legend award made more than Carson laugh in his career — entertaining audiences as a stand-up comedian, writer, actor and, more recently, an acclaimed director and producer.
He made 140 appearances on “The Tonight Show,” which is second only to Bob Hope, and also was the youngest person to serve as a guest host on the show.
When he came on the stage and again as he exited it, he was honored with a standing ovation. In between, he was interviewed by Eddie Brill, the festival’s artistic director. Steinberg’s award was presented by Dirk Petersen, general manager of Nucor Steel, the festival’s presenting sponsor.
Another highlight of the evening was the finals of the festival’s stand-up competition. Eight comedians advanced from shows earlier in the week to compete for the top prize that was won by Brian Kiley of Las Angeles, who is a writer for the Conan O’Brien late-night show.
“I’m just blown away that I won because this was such an impressive group of comedians,” Kiley said.
While on stage, Kiley’s routine involved jokes about his baldness, his wife and the pool boy for a pool he doesn’t have.
Joe Zimmerman of New York City, who tied for third with Mark Pitta of San Francisco, said he was excited to see Kiley win.
“It was a great show and a lot of fun,” Zimmerman said. “I felt good about my routine when I left the stage.”
Michael Somerville of New York City finished second.
Earlier Saturday, the festival hosted the finals of an amateur stand-up competition, which was won by Kris Covi, an attorney from Omaha.
The evening show was topped off by a final stand-up performance from Jim Breuer, who first came to fame as a member of the cast of “Saturday Night Live.”
Breuer said he enjoyed being part of the festival and that it was a great way to honor Carson.
“I watch Johnny Carson reruns almost every night with my parents,” he said. “This festival was awesome, and I would love to come back if they ask me to.”