The Exact Moment Richard Pryor and George Carlin Changed Forever
Rolling Stone has them ranked 1-2 on its list of the best stand-up comics of all time. Their careers ran eerily parallel paths, performing in the Village at the Café Au Go Go in the early 1960s, sharing the stage on the corny Kraft Summer Music Hall variety show, and writing for Flip Wilson’s TV program.
But there’s one jaw-dropping thing that truly unites Richard Pryor and George Carlin -- both comics abruptly shifted gears after finding mainstream success, flipping almost overnight from amiable, family-friendly comedians to profanity-spewing, controversy-courting jesters. Comedians grow and change over the years, but Pryor and Carlin are unique for the suddenness of the shift, for the moment you can say “There! He’s a new guy now!” Let’s take a look at two seismic junctures that changed comedy.
I Was Turning Into Plastic
Pryor, the Peoria-born high school dropout who grew up in a brothel, was an unlikely candidate for clean-cut comedy. But he was a gifted mimic, allowing him to emulate another young comic who was finding success in the early 1960s -- Bill Cosby. (Cos was well aware of the ‘tribute’ -- he’d monitor young Pryor’s talk show appearances to see if Rich was stealing his stuff.)
Pryor’s career was ascending but something felt wrong, especially as the latter part of the 1960s heightened Richard’s (and everyone’s) civil rights awareness. On the one hand, Pryor earned big bucks performing with the likes of Bobby Darin, Steve Lawrence, and Eydie Gormé. On the other hand, his squeaky-clean act performed in front of mostly white audiences made Pryor feel increasingly inauthentic as a performer and as a person.
That inner conflict combusted one September 1967 night at the Aladdin in Las Vegas. Despite a lucrative contract to headline the club, Pryor stopped his routine during his second show on opening night, only seven minutes into the act.
“I was doing material that was not funny to me,” he said later, looking back on the night. “I saw how I was going to end up. I was false. I was turning into plastic.”
In Pryor’s memoir, he remembers looking out at a sea of faces--including crooner Dean Martin. “Who was Dean looking at?” Richard wondered. “I imagined what I looked like and got disgusted.”
So he turned to the crowd and asked, “What the f*** am I doing here?” He left the stage, threw some clothes into his ‘65 Mustang, and headed home to Los Angeles.
“Daddy was fired after that night,” remembers Richard’s daughter, Rain. “It might have been the best thing that could have happened to his comedy.”
The firing didn't seem so great at first. Thanks to his adios on the big Vegas stage, bookers were less interested in hiring Pryor. And with his newfound commitment to speaking about the realities of his life, places like The Mike Douglas Show held no appeal to Pryor. So he began playing college towns and small urban clubs, peppering his routines with profuse profanity at a time when that could still get you arrested. He also dove into more character-driven work that represented his experiences in the Black community. One review of his new persona noted that “Pryor exudes the essence of every street-corner gang comedian who ever did his schtick while keeping one eye out for a prowl car.”
Black audiences in particular tuned in, sending his new albums to the top of Billboard’s R&B charts. The records startled with their use of graphic street language, as well as for their autobiographical focus on the harsh details of his life. It was a potent combination that Pryor would use to win multiple Grammys and become one of the biggest box-office draws of the 1970s.
A Leap Into The Unknown
The suit-and-tie version of George Carlin, like Pryor, got himself fired on a Vegas stage. Unlike Pryor, Carlin didn’t walk off -- he got thrown out.
Carlin had a regular gig at the Frontier, a job that paid him the handsome sum of $12,500 a week. (That’s about 95 grand weekly in 2022 dollars). But, like Pryor, Carlin was dismayed about routines that no longer felt authentic. “I was a victim of my own success and here’s what I was missing,” he says. “I was missing who I was.”
So on one night in 1970, he began his Frontier set with a little number on the different ways to say “shit.” At this point, the audience was only silent. When he started in on the Vietnam war and American business ethics, some angry men had to be restrained from bum-rushing the stage. He was canned that night.
The real-life incident became part of his new counterculture comedy routine.
I got fired in Las Vegas for saying “shit” in a town where the big game is called “craps.”
While both comics’ transformations came from a place of artistic dissatisfaction, Carlin’s in particular was fueled by mind-altering substances. “I was a traitor and I was living a real lie because I wanted to say so many different things,” he says. “What happened that changed everything was acid.”
The specific incident was one that Carlin’s daughter Kelly never forgot. She and George’s wife Brenda found him tripping in his bedroom. He’d taken several publicity pictures of himself and “smashed his fist into them to the point where he had made his hands bleed, and there was blood everywhere.” The two sat with the comic for nearly an hour before he fell asleep.
“Really, very, very scary,” Kelly says. “He was having a real battle within himself. Which George is gonna win?”
Bette Milder opened for Carlin at a Playboy Club in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, soon after the incident. He had a whole new set of material to try. “I guess he had been working up to this,” says Midler. “He wanted to be a different George Carlin.’
The anti-Vietnam war material went over even worse this time, with club management warning George that they couldn’t guarantee his safety and that he should leave quickly.
“It felt,” says Bette, “like a leap into the unknown.”
Carlin realized that he was in the middle of a generation war. “I was entertaining people in nightclubs who were 40, and they were at war with their kids who were 20. So I had to come to terms with what I really wanted to do and who I was.”
That meant abandoning the well-paying Vegas casinos and Playboy Clubs and essentially starting his career all over again. Like Pryor, he toured small clubs as he re-established an audience, this time one more in line with his counterculture sensibilities. In time, his fame exploded as he and Pryor became the faces of 1970s comedy.
In the mind of comic Patton Oswalt, Carlin’s evolution wasn’t a transformation at all. “The clean-shaven guy was a persona that the industry expected of him,” says Oswalt. “It was like he de-transformed into who he actually was.”
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Top image: Apatow Productions