Richard Pryor & George Carlin Appear Together on a Classic Episode of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson

George Car­lin and Richard Pry­or nev­er got to star in a film togeth­er, so this appear­ance of the two on this 1981 Tonight Show clip is a great, rare chance to see two giants togeth­er. Actu­al­ly, make that three, because host John­ny Car­son shows why he set the stan­dard in that very Amer­i­can genre, the late night talk show. It’s also an oppor­tu­ni­ty to see how much has changed in the world of late night.

Late night talk shows are almost exclu­sive­ly a polit­i­cal affair these days. For many Amer­i­cans, this is the place to get their satir­i­cal take on the news in the open­ing mono­logue, pos­si­bly their only take. Some nights you can watch the three main net­works and sev­er­al pre­mi­um cable/streaming chan­nels and find the same news item, riffed on a dozen dif­fer­ent ways.

The Tonight Show with John­ny Carson wasn’t a “sim­pler time,” but it was very dif­fer­ent. More casu­al, def­i­nite­ly, and more per­son­able. I think that’s what comes across in this clip. Car­son knows both Car­lin and Pry­or and their par­tic­u­lar tal­ents.

Carlin’s rou­tine is pure­ly obser­va­tion­al. Cur­rent­ly he is a meme on many a boomer’s feed, but always late-stage Car­lin, the angry, nihilis­tic polit­i­cal come­di­an. (That’s not a bad thing, and inter­est­ing that he’s being claimed these days by both the Left and the Right). Here he’s still Class Clown Car­lin, with an elas­tic face, deliv­er­ing a ver­sion of his “stuff vs. crap” rou­tine, capped off with an out-of-nowhere abor­tion joke. It’s polit­i­cal in the vaguest sense.

His sit down with Car­son is more of a chance to riff on char­i­ty orga­ni­za­tion names, and Car­son lets him at it.

Pry­or is on to pro­mote Bustin’ Loose, his odd­ly sen­ti­men­tal 1981 com­e­dy. But all that’s on Carson’s and the audience’s mind is the after­math of the free­bas­ing inci­dent, where he doused him­self with rum and set him­self on fire while high on cocaine. He near­ly died.

The del­i­cate inter­change between Carson—who legit­i­mate­ly wants to know how Pry­or is doing—and Pry­or, who both mocks him­self, admits too much, and retreats behind a wall of humor, makes this essen­tial view­ing. Pry­or rem­i­nisces about his father and his time com­ing up through standup with Car­lin at Green­wich Village’s Cafe au Go-Go. He even admits, because why not, to lift­ing his ear­ly jokes as a com­ic from Bill Cos­by and Dick Gre­go­ry. The lat­ter “used to have stuff in Jet Mag­a­zine, you know, and that’s how I start­ed, read­ing his mate­r­i­al. I’d do it on stage. And that was my first break­through. I got a lot of laughs with his mate­r­i­al.”

Pry­or rides that line between telling on your­self and telling a fib.

And that last fas­ci­nat­ing shot: cred­its rolling over Car­son, the guests, and Ed McMa­hon, stand­ing around, hav­ing a chat, as if they’re wait­ing for the coat check atten­dant in the lob­by.

Ram­sey Ess, who wrote about the whole episode—includ­ing Carson’s decid­ed­ly non-polit­i­cal mono­logue— on Vul­ture in 2012, not­ed about the Pry­or inter­view:

When John­ny asks Richard about his dreams, you for­get about the audi­ence, you for­get about George Car­lin sit­ting over there and you sud­den­ly are brought into a place where this is an impor­tant ques­tion and you need to hear that answer, even though you nev­er would have thought to won­der about such a thing on your own. This inti­ma­cy, for me, is what made Car­son dif­fer­ent.

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Relat­ed Con­tent:

George Carlin’s “Mod­ern Man” Rap

New Dig­i­tal Archive, “Richard Pryor’s Peo­ria,” Takes You Inside the Dark, Live­ly World That Shaped the Pio­neer­ing Come­di­an

George Car­lin Per­forms His “Sev­en Dirty Words” Rou­tine: His­toric and Com­plete­ly NSFW

Carl Sagan Tells John­ny Car­son What’s Wrong with Star Wars: “They’re All White” & There’s a “Large Amount of Human Chau­vin­ism in It” (1978)

Ted Mills is a free­lance writer on the arts who cur­rent­ly hosts the Notes from the Shed pod­cast and is the pro­duc­er of KCR­W’s Curi­ous Coast. You can also fol­low him on Twit­ter at @tedmills, and/or watch his films here.

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