Late comedian Richard Pryor once asked fellow comedian, Chevy Chase, why he didn’t tell Johnny Carson he was going to take over The Tonight Show — and he did it while both comedians were sitting with the host. What did Chase have to say? And how did Carson respond?
Chevy Chase: Named ‘the first real potential successor to Johnny Carson’ in 1975 New York Magazine
In 1975, Chase was on the fast-track to superstardom. This was thanks in large part to the first season of Saturday Night Live — then just called Saturday Night. One longstanding rumor is that the show was created for the purpose of getting Carson more time off without losing viewers.
Perhaps in response to work demands from Carson, Chase was almost advertised as a favorite with all the right people at NBC. And that’s where Carson had been hosting The Tonight Show for more than a decade.
“Industry sources report that network executives see in Chase ‘the first real potential successor to Johnny Carson when he gives up the Tonight Show,‘” a 1975 article from New York Magazine claimed. The writer also notes how Saturday Night was bringing in 2 million more viewers than Tonight Show reruns that previously held the spot.
But did that really make Chase was a viable replacement for Carson?
Richard Pryor: ‘Why didn’t you tell Johnny you was going to take over his show?’
On May 4, 1977, Chase and Pryor both went on The Tonight Show to promote TV specials that aired back-to-back on the network the night after their respective interviews.
When Pryor sat down and started his talk with Carson, Chase interjected numerous times — once referring to Pryor’s son’s talent for a school talent show as being a “hooker.”
Pryor asked Chase to repeat the insult — which he wouldn’t. “Hey, I didn’t say nothing, man,” Chased said innocently. “I didn’t say nothing.”
“I was going to ask you, why didn’t you tell Johnny you was going to take over his show?” Pryor asked Chase. He didn’t cite his source for the information, but he may have been referring to the New York Magazine article. Carson gave a chuckle and playfully tapped Pryor on the hand.
“I knew you’d bring that up and Johnny and I we’ve discussed it and neither of us cares,” Chase responded. Carson sat back in his chair and listened but didn’t throw Chase a lifeline after the statement.
“That monologue you were doing with the chair is a perfect replacement for Johnny,” Pryor dug in further, to which Chase replied, “A lot of chair falls.”
Carson concluded the back-and-forth by telling both comedians their TV specials better be big hits. And he stayed on as host of The Tonight Show until 1992.
Chevy Chase’s ‘flustered’ ‘Tonight Show’ presentation
Notably, Chase had departed from Saturday Night and was pursuing a solo career at that point. Carson asked him to demonstrate for the audience what made him famous, and he launched into a presentation on how to land a fall. Then, he showed them how to do it and tripped on his way back to his seat.
According to Salon, the audience was restless and the host was visibly joyful after the display. “Carson could barely conceal his glee over Chase’s painfully inept performance, as the comic actor, visibly flustered, stumbled over even the simplest questions groping for witty replies but coming up with none,” they wrote of his performance.
Though things may have been somewhat tense between them in the late ’70s, Carson invited Chase back to The Tonight Show. And notably, Chase was also part of Carson’s celebrity poker games, which he participated in until the end of his life.
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