||THE RICHARD PRYOR SHOW
Stand-up comedy and variety.
4 shows of 60 minute duration. NBC 1977.
Before Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle, there was Richard Pryor. His uncompromising view of black America shocked many, but won him a legion of fans around the world. While he had success in film and concert, his short-lived 1977 variety show was a total flop. Not because it was bad—far from it. The problem was that NBC executives tried to make the edgy, raunchy Pryor a “family hour” institution, leading to only four episodes of The Richard Pryor Show. Fortunately, the programs are on DVD, so that a new generation of fans can appreciate Pryor’s contribution to comedy.
The son of a prostitute, Richard Pryor dropped out of school when he was 14 and eventually decided to become a comic. Pryor modeled himself on the Bill Cosby style of African-American comedy—avoiding race but taking slices of human life and making them funny to audiences of all ethnic backgrounds. Frustrated with repressing his true feelings, Pryor reinvented himself as an angry but funny black man, poking fun at all the injustices he had to deal with in a mostly white society. (He also spiraled into a world of drugs, alcohol and promiscuous sex.)
By 1976, Pryor was a comedy club staple; he had successes in such films as “Silver Streak” and “Greased Lightning” (he also co-wrote the now classic Mel Brooks Western comedy “Blazing Saddles”); and his occasional appearances on NBC’s late-night comedy revue “Saturday Night Live” were well-received by both audiences and critics. The “SNL” performances did not go unnoticed among NBC’s prime-time schedulers, who were battling to get the network out of third place.
In the spring of 1977, NBC aired a Richard Pryor special which featured strong guest performances from “SNL’s” John Belushi and poet Maya Angelou. Pryor was also in top form, portraying a money-hungry television evangelist and the Ugandan dictator Idi Amin. The high ratings for the special led NBC to work out a 10 episode deal with Pryor for a variety series in the fall of ’77.
But from the start, NBC executives undermined Richard Pryor’s brand of comedy. First, the network decided to slot “The Richard Pryor Show” from 8:00 to 9:00 PM—too early for the edgy humor Pryor was known for. Worse, NBC gave Pryor the thankless Tuesday night timeslot against ABC’s “Happy Days” and “Laverne & Shirley”—the two most popular shows on television.
It wasn’t long before Pryor was battling with NBC censors over the show’s content. At one point, Pryor broke down as his writing staff watched; the writers urged the comic to keep trying. Pryor agreed—but he would do only four episodes, not the 10 he had promised NBC.
The first Richard Pryor Show (which aired September 13th, 1977) featured a regular cast of comics that included such future TV stars as Sandra Bernhard, Tim Reid and Marsha Warfield. (The cast also included a very funny off-the cuff comic from San Francisco named Robin Williams—who would go on to his own successful sitcom, Mork and Mindy, the following season). NBC censors had cut out the opening sketch of the show, which featured Pryor telling the television audience he had lost nothing in his battles with the network “standards and practices” department. The camera then zoomed out to a seemingly naked Pryor, minus his genitalia. (He was actually wearing a body stocking). The skit did not air on the show, but it was shown on news reports—which in total probably drew more audiences than The Richard Pryor Show did. And that was the problem. Not even a jolt of controversy could get viewers away from ABC; Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley more than doubled Pryor’s audience. The humor was sometimes brilliant, sometimes pedestrian. But Pryor was not afraid of jolting his viewers when it came to racial or social issues. By the third episode, Pryor was knocking NBC on the air for its censorship policies; the fourth Pryor show (which aired October 20th, 1977) was a spoof of the celebrity “roasts”, with the show’s performing players taking shots at the star. (Pryor and NBC had agreed the comic would complete his contract by doing six more prime time specials; the shows were never produced.)
Pryor did try television again, but this time, with a Saturday morning kid’s show on CBS called Pryor’s Place. Produced by Sid and Marty Kroft of H.R. Puf’n’stuf fame, the comic starred with life-sized puppets and plenty of guest stars. Pryor’s Place lasted just one season.
In later years, Pryor’s cocaine use got out of hand, leading to a much-publicized suicide attempt in 1980 when he burned himself while “freebasing” the drug. He was later diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and suffered a heart attack.
It’s likely The Richard Pryor Show would have succeeded in a more diverse television world as a cable series. But as an artifact of a different time, featuring a legendary comic in his prime, it holds up quite well today. And if you don’t believe me, check out the three-volume DVD set available for the show on Imagine Entertainment.
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