The severity of Richard Pryor’s influence on comedy—black comedy especially—cannot be quantified. The late comedian-actor shaped the art form with his uncanny ability to retain all the unique turmoil of his upbringing and disdain for institutional prejudice, and use it to tell amazing, gut-busting stories and jokes, all while sliding in biting social commentary along the way via platinum-selling, Grammy-winning albums like That Nigger’s Crazy and Bicentennial Nigger.
The problem with his influence is that most comics copy him on shallow levels, using profanity as a crutch, rather than in reality-based context. If one reads between the lines, Pryor’s output, both onstage and in films, was as politically damning as a Malcolm X speech and as delicately emotive as a Langston Hughes poem.
In 1977, Pryor had hit a creative stride. After writing and being a supporting actor in numerous projects like Blazing Saddles and Silver Streak, he got his first leading role in a dramatic film, Greased Lightning—the biopic about black stock-car racer Wendell Scott—and starred in Which Way Is Up?, a comedy in which he played three different characters, paving the way for Eddie Murphy a decade later. The culmination of his comedic and dramatic chops fused with The Richard Pryor Show.
Celebrating its 40th anniversary this week, the NBC program gave the risqué Pryor the shot to give millions of Americans a glimpse into hilarious sketch comedy of varying formats, sociopolitical criticism, prototypical improvisation and gorgeous, historical expressions of blackness once a week.
And he provided that ... but for only four weeks, after which he pulled the plug on his own show, fed up with content restrictions. The battle of maintaining unfiltered blackness with television regulations and paranoid powers-that-be didn’t start with Pryor. And while he helped other black vehicles get further along, he didn’t end these challenges altogether, either.
Television producer Burt Sugarman had been impressed with Pryor’s body of work throughout the early 1970s, leading him to approach Pryor about conceiving a variety special for NBC in early 1977.
“Variety shows were a big thing then,” Marsha Warfield, famed comedian and Richard Pryor Show cast member, told The Root.
Variety shows—a mixture of sketch comedy, acting and music—were to the 1970s what reality TV is to today’s time. Carol Burnett, Lily Tomlin and Flip Wilson were just a few of many who had either a series or specials in this format. Sugarman felt that a provocateur like Richard Pryor would thrive in a television setting.
Since the mid-1960s, Pryor’s stand-up skills had already earned him spots on The Ed Sullivan Show, The Tonight Show, The Mike Dougla Show and Saturday Night Live, so he was already adept regarding the small screen. However, after agreeing to do his own special, he was concerned about censorship. During a 1977 appearance on The Tonight Show days before the special aired, Pryor said, half jokingly, that NBC executives were “assholes” about restrictions: “Burt Sugarman made sure that nobody from NBC came down messed with us at all.”
As a result, the special aired in May 1977 to high ratings and critical acclaim. The special featured funny takes on money-hungry televangelists, and a hilarious impression of Ugandan President Idi Amin. But it also had depth that people weren’t prepared for, including a montage of luxurious black women embodying a narration of Langston Hughes’ poem “Harlem Sweeties,” kids singing Stevie Wonder’s song of racial unity, “Black Man,” and a poignant original monologue from Maya Angelou.
Pryor expressed to Johnny Carson in that same Tonight Show interview his willingness to do a longer-term program: “The energy was nice and the people worked good and felt proud with what we’d done collectively, and I’d like to do some more.”
Pryor, his lawyer David Franklin, and Sugarman agreed to a $2 million deal to produce a variety series to launch that fall. Pryor’s friend and main collaborator Paul Mooney was charged with being head writer and main enlister of the cast. He found young comics in Los Angeles’ the Comedy Store to fulfill his and Pryor’s vision.
Along with Warfield, 23 at the time, Mooney tapped Robin Williams, Sandra Bernhard, Tim Reid and John Witherspoon, all of whom were virtual unknowns in pop culture at the time.
“I totally panicked,” Warfield said about her first experience acting and working so closely with Pryor. “We were all just intimidated. He was a legend becoming an icon. He was already a superstar, but he had not yet, at that time, reached the heights that he was to reach. We were just little children sitting at the master’s feet.”
Pryor wanted to expand on the template of the May special, juxtaposing comedy with drama. All of his influences from his youth found a place in each episode. His fondness for Westerns and John Wayne films was everywhere, from high-noon gun standoffs to shooting contests. Slapstick comedy in the tradition of Benny Hill and Charlie Chaplin was evident in his “Mr. Fix-It” sketches.
One of the standout sketches from the first episode was Pryor portraying the first black U.S. president. The cynical take on his demeanor, interaction with black press members and outburst at a racist remark against his mother seemed to predict not only Barack Obama’s presidency but also Key & Peele’s popular take on Obama’s emotional outlets via an anger translator, in a way that proved so accurate, it’s frightening.
On the flip side, there was plenty of poignancy. One of the most serious and innovative sketches featured Pryor entering a gun shop to purchase a weapon and each gun spoke its backstory to him, from shooting a kid to being in warfare, frightening him out of the store.
“There were some things like the Maya Angelou piece and the one with [the] woman talking to the psychiatrist that the laughs weren’t the focus,” Warfield said, speaking of the dramatic sketches. “This was pretty much a departure from what people expected and what people expected of a variety show.”
The original deal called for 10 episodes to premiere the second week of September 1977. Being added to NBC’s Tuesday-night lineup of Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley at an 8 p.m. time slot would put Richard Pryor—the profane, cutting-edge stand-up comic—right in the heart of an American prime-time audience. All hell would break loose, but it was from Pryor and before the show even aired.
The first episode was finished and scheduled, but was altered before going to air. The show’s cold open featured a close-up of Pryor addressing the audience about having a show and the worries of compromising his work to be on television. “Look at me, I’m standing here naked. I’ve given up absolutely nothing,”he said.
The camera then zoomed out, showing his naked body and his genitals removed, in the form of a Ken doll. It was a satirical statement of his struggles with censorship. NBC replaced the sketch with a more tamed piece in which Pryor was the bartender of the Star Wars cantina. When show producer Rocco Urbisci informed Pryor of the change, “there was a shit storm, and he quit.”
Pryor was so disgusted, he attempted to pull out altogether, but legally, he was obligated to do the show. As a result, Pryor reduced the episode number from 10 to four.
“We had censors back then and they were very active, very precise,” Warfield recalled about Pryor and Mooney’s constant tug-of-war with the executives on the content. “And watching them battle it out for every sketch was quite an education.”
Pryor had an inkling that the censorship came from a place that went beyond Federal Communications Commission standards and practices. He was addressing African origins of culture in the world through a comic scope, which may have scared some of the suits.
In a sketch called “The Come-From Man,” when Pryor was a African overpricing African artifacts for tourists and researching their ancestry, it was proceeded by nearly five minutes of authentic West African singing and dancing.
In another sketch, “Egypt 1909,” Pryor discovered a Book of Life that proved Africans invented mathematics and architecture inside an ancient tomb, only to be unknowingly locked inside by his fellow white excavators, afraid of the information getting to the public.
This skit, while funny and brief, was quite scathing beneath the surface, representing the edict of Pryor’s mission not only with the show but also as an artist. He felt that the NBC executives knew his mission, as well, which led to so much censorship. He touched on this in an interview with Bill Boggs in the show’s immediate aftermath.
When asked what Pryor thought the NBC execs were afraid the show would do to white America, Pryor replied, “Stop some racism,” feeling that what he was creating would expose how racism is a tactic of capitalism. He added: “When people don’t hate each [other], and people start talking to each other, they find out who’s the problem: greedy people.”
Pryor resented the idea of being owned, to the point that he ended each episode with him being imprisoned, chased by slave catchers and trapped by a lion, commenting on the network’s desire to keep him from leaving the show, as well as shackling his penchant to think freely.
Another factor in the show’s undoing was Pryor’s notorious demons. Mooney stated in a 2008 interview with Tavis Smiley that the censors weren’t the only thing driving Pryor away from the show.
“It was a lot of pressure for Richard,” Mooney explained. “He was doing drugs and he was cornered. The creativity part of it was fun. But the pressure of being brilliant was a lot of pressure.”
Pryor was known as much for his cocaine and alcohol abuse as he was for his groundbreaking jokes. While he always did a great job policing the content level when the lights were on, the drugs never stopped being an issue when he wasn’t onstage, even if it was during the creative process.
“If you’re high 24 hours, that’s a hard thing to do, and then to have to come to work and be at work every day,” Mooney said.
On Oct. 4, 1977, the fourth and final episode of The Richard Pryor Show aired. It included a memorable roast of Pryor by Mooney and the cast. In it, Mooney ended it on a sincere note: “Richard is really like a child. He’s very innocent in a lot of ways; in other ways, he’s not so innocent. I love him dearly, and I’m glad we did this.”
The last image is of Pryor thanking “people,” regarding the viewers and consumers of his work. He was pleased with the feedback and the love from his audience, which remained the true target of his artistry. No matter what NBC didn’t allow him to do, what did make it through was enough to have an impact on the viewers, and he could be proud of the final result when it was all said and done.
“We knew that the show was not going to, for lack of a better word, ‘tame’ Richard,” Warfield expressed. “He was not going to sell out. He remained who he was.”
The Richard Pryor Show’s melding of comedy and drama, extended sketch time lengths and thinly veiled social indictments paved the way for shows like In Living Color and Chappelle’s Show. It also reveals how much things haven’t really changed since the 1970s.
Black visual-entertainment creatives had to make the best of their opportunities, which at the time were mostly sitcoms and blaxploitation films. Shows like Sanford and Son and Good Times were getting high ratings, but still put blacks in stereotypical settings and locations. By 1977, innovative programs like PBS’ Soul! and The Flip Wilson Show were gone because their creators (Ellis Haizlip for Soul! and Flip Wilson for his show) had fought over content control.
The censorship battles Pryor faced that led to The Richard Pryor Show being criminally abbreviated foreshadowed the ultimate demise of provocative black programs like Chappelle’s Show, The Carmichael Show and The Boondocks.
Currently, black representation on television has witnessed what could be a renaissance of creativity.
The presence of FX’s Atlanta and HBO’s Insecure has been a testament to thoughtful, visionary writing and conception from their creators, Donald Glover and Issa Rae, respectively. Each comes from a comedy background and has birthed award-winning programs that not only are insanely hilarious but also offer a glimpse of a highbrow intelligence, surrealism and pathos not usually associated with contemporary black comedy.
Much of today’s comedies, while well-meaning, are either overt farces, surface-level social commentary, and/or devoid of true introspection and emotion. The monolithic myth of black American culture and art has chiefly been perpetuated by entertainment outlets—television, radio, film—and while shows like Atlanta and Insecure are being praised by critics and audiences alike, they’re the exception and not the rule.
And despite their existence, the burden of illustrating the versatility of black culture often falls on comedy. Comedy Central’s Chappelle’s Show and Fox’s In Living Color, for example, moved the needle during their runs and exposed all of the country to the all manner of ways in which people of color express themselves with a full range of emotions.
When you think about all the trailblazing black variety and sketch-comedy shows that followed The Richard Pryor Show, however, it’s amazing what Pryor was able to jam-pack into one month.
“We were breaking all the rules and we knew it,” Mooney continued. “We kicked the door in and we enjoyed it.”