Looking Back at Richard Pryor’s Return to the Tonight Show

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On June 9th, 1980, in the midst of filming the movie Bustin’ Loose, Richard Pryor set himself on fire while freebasing cocaine as the result of a drug-induced psychosis. Half of his body covered in burns, Pryor spent six weeks in recovery at a California burn center where he slowly healed. A little less than a year later, Bustin’ Loose was ready to be released, and Richard Pryor was ready to make his first appearance on The Tonight Show following the incident, appearing alongside friend and fellow comedian George Carlin.

I don’t think I’m breaking any ground when I say that there’s a certain mystical reverence that is held for Johnny Carson’s iteration of The Tonight Show. Jay Leno, David Letterman, and Conan O’Brien have all publically fought to gain control over it. Books like William Knoedelseder’s I’m Dying Up Here mythologize the ability of a five-minute set to launch a stand-up’s career. Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show was a star maker, and for many Americans, was the first and last spot for comedy.

I say all of this not to add to the mythology, but instead to acknowledge this legacy, despite the fact that I do not have the same experience. Unfortunately, in this article I will not be judging Carson’s legacy as a whole, instead I will be looking at this one specific episode: a mere blip in a long, thirty-year legacy.

Before we talk about the show as a whole, let’s look at Richard Pryor’s appearance. He’s the final guest of the night, and he’s greeted with some very enthusiastic applause form the audience. Throughout the interview, Carson seems a little uncomfortable. It’s clear that he wants to talk about the incident, because he knows his audience wants to know more, but he seems hesitant to press the issue. He starts with a tentative “I’m afraid to ask, but, how’s it going?” and receives an enthusiastic “I’m great!” Pryor says that the therapy is going well and that every morning he gets up and sets himself on fire to see how fast he can put it out. There is a thoughtful pause, and Carson seems hesitant to ask his next question, shyly saying that it’s “a stupid question” before asking “Do you ever dream about the fire when you’re sleeping?” Pryor says that it doesn’t really affect him, but that he did have one dream about a fire in which he was driving a jeep with a soldier who was sitting in the back, through a forest fire, before stopping at a lake.

The thing that struck me about the interview with Pryor (and the earlier one with Carlin, which we’ll get to) is how unproduced it seems. If Johnny has those blue cards we see the modern late night host with, he doesn’t use them. It doesn’t feel like Pryor is there to plug his new movie, although that’s probably the main reason he was booked. It feels like we’re peeking in on a legitimate conversation between two friends. They show a clip and they talk a little bit about that, but Johnny’s follow up question about the movie is: “In the movie you play a thief. Did you ever steal anything when you were younger?” which allows Pryor to launch into a story about his father catching him stealing coffee as a kid. Can you imagine Jay asking a guest that? Would a modern guest’s publicist even let the host ask that, for fear that they aren’t plugging the movie enough? 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.

The structure of The Tonight Show was basically the same in 1981 as it was when Steve Allen started it and as Jay Leno does it today. The band plays Carson out (question for those who know: was “Doc” Severinsen always kind of weird, or was he just in a strange mood for this episode?) and Johnny does a few monologue jokes. What was interesting to me, however, is when I think of a late night show’s monologue the jokes are always 100% topical, and connected to current events. This is not true of Carson’s show. He talks about going to the gas station earlier that day and dealing with a dimwitted attendant who, for instance, when asked to check the oil says, “I just did. We’ve got lots of it.” There are still some topical jokes mixed in, but significantly less than a modern Tonight Show viewer would expect.

From there, Johnny goes to his desk, banters with his sidekick, does a comedy piece then brings out George Carlin who first does a bit of stand-up before doing some panel. Then he brings out “Richie” Pryor, they talk, they show a clip from Bustin’ Loose, and they say goodnight. Same structure as always.

While the structure of the show is the same, the tone and pace are definitely different.

There isn’t a constant pressure to get laughs every single minute. For example, as Johnny and Ed McMahon banter at the desk, they talk about how the previous night they had discussed what effect a full moon has on people, and discuss a (lengthy) telegram written to them about the science behind it. They also received some mail about a discussion the previous week in which they tried to determine if the plastic part at the end of a shoelace had a name. It turns out that it does. Then Johnny goes on for a full 3 minutes reading a list of things that you may not have realized have names, such as the leafy part of a carrot, or the visor of a knight’s helmet. There are no laughs here. It’s simply a list of interesting facts, and the audience listens. This was probably not an issue in 1981 when you basically had three other options for television channels, and The Tonight Show was the only talk show. You couldn’t just flip over to Letterman and see if he’s doing anything better. Carson was the only game in town.

Ramsey Ess is a freelance writer for television, the head writer of his website, a podcaster and a guy on Twitter.

Looking Back at Richard Pryor’s Return to the Tonight […]