July 21, 1978

Ok, first thing, before I forget: What, in your thinking, is the best thing you have ever seen on television? Ever?

I am no Platonist, so I will not hold you to any choice you make. To my thinking, I could ask you this question a dozen times and get at least a handful of answers that are all true. I could ask you in different contexts, and if you didn’t change your answer with context I’d have to worry about you.

I probably have at least a score of “best moment on TV ever, of all time” nominees, and any choice of just one among this population would be forced, artificial, and false at times, while true at others. Carol Burnett’s entrance in the “Gone With The Wind” skit, her dress made of curtains, “I saw it in the window and I just couldn’t resist it”. Walter Cronkite crying. The first time I heard Kermitt the Frog singing “It’s not easy being green”. I didn’t get to see the Beatles, or the moon landing, so those aren’t in my list.


One show has made that list countless times. I may have only seen it once, and it may be very different from how I remember it. It was the Tonight Show, with Johnny Carson, July 21, 1978. The musical guests were Dave Brubeck and sons, which I don’t actually remember, but which actually makes the 90 minute show even better than I do remember. And here’s the meat of my post–I have not been able to locate any video of that show, and I really really *really* want to see it again.

The first guest was Richard Pryor. At this point in his career, he had made the switch to a rather … bluer sort of comedy. He was known (at least, I knew him, as a midwestern white kid) as a raunchy, dirty comic. Johnny Carson must have (and clearly did) know better. As I recall it, Pryor was hilarious, without coming close to overstepping any boundaries. I know now, the man was a genius; then, I was surprised.

The second guest was conservative journalist Dorothy Fuldheim. Well known in Cleveland, somewhat less well known nationally, she was the voice of the establishment. It is only in hindsight that I suspect Johnny Carson (and/or his staff) knew exactly what he (they) was (were) doing.

The expectation (yes, to me, as a high school kid) was that Pryor would either leave before Fuldheim was introduced, or that he would stay silent, or that he would explode. Frankly, the first two options were suckers bets; the assumption was that Pryor would unleash his formidable chops on this poor woman–swearing, cursing, blaspheming–until his fans were ashamed, and hers were vindicated in their views of those liberal black people.

And (as memory goes)… Richard Pryor was as polite as could possibly be. Fuldheim made outrageous claims about the absence of poverty, the absence of racism, the absence of pretty much anything bad in the perfect USA… and Pryor interjected “excuse me, ma’am…”, pointing out inequity, hunger, bias, and more. Fuldheim tried to brush him aside, but his politeness (so unexpected, so perfect) made her look like a monster.

It was… perfect.

I watched it, live. With my dad. I was in high school; he would have been in his late 40’s. I was astonished. So was he. I don’t know that he had heard of Pryor before; it didn’t matter. He knew Fuldheim. He knew Carson. I think this was the first time I saw my dad completely blown away by the same thing that blew me away. It was amazing.

And, near as I can tell, it doesn’t exist. I mean… *everything* has an afterlife on the web. But I have not been able to find this. I have found other people looking for this. But I have not found this.

It is entirely possible (likely, even) that my recollection is at serious odds with the actual video of the show. But damn, if that is the case, I want to know!

So… two things.

1) can we maybe find this tape? Anyone? Anyone know anyone know anyone?

2) What is the best thing you have ever seen on TV? Ever? Cos if it’s better than this, I *really* want to see it!

No verse today–this thing is eating away at my brain enough, I don’t need to feed it rhyme.

Also… no, I won’t tell you what brought on this post.


  1. coragyps says

    The first moon landing was mighty good. The LSD helped some, I guess.

    LBJ announcing he would not run for Pres in 1968 was fairly awesome, too – but didn’t turn out all that well.

  2. chigau (違う) says

    I saw the Beatles on Ed, I saw the first moon landing.
    I also saw Carol Burnett and the curtain rod.
    I really hope someone can find the Pryor tape.
    I have a memory tickling the back of my brain … I’ll sleep on it.

  3. says

    Not good:
    I was at the Smithsonian Air & Space museum with a friend, when the Challenger blew up, live.
    I didn’t see the moon landing because my parents were afraid I’d see something like that.

    I think my favorite moment on TV has to be when Jon Stewart went on Crossfire.
    But that’s probably because I don’t watch much TV and hate the medium, so seeing it deconstructed was special.

  4. carlie says

    Final episode of MASH
    Final episode of St. Elsewhere

    on Challenger: I watched it live on tv in school. It’s seared into my head, but I didn’t understand what was going on for too long – I didn’t know that wasn’t how a launch was supposed to look, and couldn’t get it through my head what an awful thing was happening for a couple of minutes.

    Real life: i doubt it will be in my top 5 for life, but the Bill Clinton speech during the last dem. convention – I was so desperate for anything good, anyone telling me to hope for something better and make me believe it, I almost cried, he was so upbeat and positive.

  5. Johnny Vector says

    Richard Pryor’s interview sketch on SNL is certainly on my top ten list (which, as you note, contains more than ten items).

    “Junglebunny” “Honky”
    “Spearchucker” “Honky honky”
    “Nigger” “Dead honky”

    Not as good as what you saw, though. Nor is it the best Carson I got to see, which was the one where he ruined everything for Uri Geller.

  6. jagwired says

    Sorry, Cuttlefish, I don’t have a link to your show, but I do find it interesting that it would only take a scant four months after that Carson episode (November 17, 1978) for us to find the worst show to ever be aired on television… purposely.

    If you’re tempted to click on the above link, DO NOT! It will undermine your childhood and leave you a scarred, empty, shell of a person. The commercials were pretty interesting though.

  7. says

    All of the old Johnny Carson Tonight Shows are digitized, though not all are publicly available. His estate runs a web site for journalists, documentarians and researchers to dig through the old shows and license clips for use. Every show is fully digitized (including the national ads!) and there are transcripts which are full-text searchable. The transcripts even sync up to the video and the shows are conveniently broken into segments.

    If you are willing to jump through a couple hoops to request an account, you can get in there and view it again. I asked them for an account and they gave me one, but I do have an association with the JREF – to which Carson’s foundation still donates money, so that may have helped in my case.

    If you want to give it a try the site is at https://licensing.johnnycarson.com/

  8. Martin_z says

    I watched the moon landing – that was just amazing. But it was something like 3am UK time, and I was fourteen – I can barely remember it, I was so tired.

    Watching the 1997 General Election was pretty awesome – after eighteen years of Tory rule, Labour got in by a landslide; Government ministers losing their seats left, right and centre. It was wonderful.

    Then Blair, with a mandate to do something really wonderful, just…well…fucked it all up. Sigh.

  9. says

    I wonder if anyone else remembers a holiday station-identification thingy from the late 1970s or early 1980s television, when Star Wars was the latest thing. It starts with a starry sky, then the crescent of a beautiful blue-green planet comes into view. The words “Peace On Earth” appear, then fade. A spaceship zooms past, and as it recedes into the distance, the words “… and wherever we may travel” appear.

    I’d love to see that again, and to have a copy.

  10. naturalcynic says

    Lou Grant to Mary Richards: Mary, you’ve got spunk. And I hate spunk.
    For one year MTM was part of CBS’ greatest night of TV evvvaaarrh!. Saturdays in ’73 {?}All in the Family, MASH, MTM, Newhart anf Burnett.
    How about floor wax and a whipped topping.

  11. says

    I have a David Letterman show that I’d like to find but can’t. His guest was Rush Limbaugh just after he had lost a lot of weight. Dave asked him a question it started off with Dave saying that “you say some pretty extreme things on your show… Do you really believe half the stuff you say on your show?

    The audience laughed and Rush gave a big smile and a long pause then said. “Dave, I’m an entertainer, just like you.”

    Everyone laughed. I’d love to have that clip today. That was a memorable show.

    And other memories was seeing Oswald shot on live TV as well as the moon landing.
    And the Oswald clip was actually live at the time it happened. Not seeing the live clip later on.

  12. David Rushing says

    Hi, I was just watching an American Masters episode about Carson, and I was thinking back on the time I saw his show in person. I googled Richard Pryor on Carson but no luck. But I saw your blog and want to tell you that this was the show that I was at on July21st, 1978. It was awesome and- you do remember it well.
    The other highlight to Pryor’s reaction to Fuldheim’s statement about poverty was that when he rebutted her she then retorted back and Pryor exclaimed “Watch out!” to her in mock alarm. He was perfect in his funny responses. If you happen to find a copy of this show please let me know how I can get it. I am 55 years old now and would like to re-live the moments. Cheers! Dave.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *