September 13, 1977 - October 20, 1977 by Billy Ingram
to Richard Pryor
first episode of
In 1970, after several successful years as a nightclub comedian and frequent 'Ed Sullivan Show' guest, Richard Pryor grew tired of doing what he called "white bread humor" and walked off the stage during a show at the Alladin Hotel in Las Vegas and away from a career that had been growing for several years. The comic moved to Berkeley, California where he discovered the writings of Malcolm X and began developing edgier material. He also developed a cocaine habit. "I'd take the dope and pretend I was Miles Davis. But I couldn't have been a junkie because when I wanted to stop I stopped on a dime." (We all know that didn't turn out to be true!)
A string of hit movies in the mid-Seventies ('Silver Streak', 'Greased Lightning') made Richard Pryor a big star. On May 5, 1977 Pryor hosted a brilliant special on NBC featuring guests LaWanda Page, John Belushi, The Pips (who performed a medley of their hits without any lead vocals) and a powerful dramatic performance by poet Maya Angelou. Pryor plays his drunk "Willie" character, "Iddi Amin Dada", and a money grubbing television evangelist "Reverend James L. White" who gets the phones ringing off the hook when he announces he's collecting money for a 'back to Africa' campaign.
The segment with Maya Angelou is, in my opinion, one of the most profound moments in television history. Starting out as a comedy skit with "Willie" getting into a drunken brawl in a bar, the piece suddenly takes a harrowing (and enlightening) turn when Willie gets home to his wife (Angelou). It's something you have to see for yourself, truly one of those moments that remind you of the power that television can have.
The special was a critical and ratings smash. Richard Pryor's appearances on 'Saturday Night' Live over the last few years had been numeric gold for the network as well, so programmers started thinking the unthinkable - giving the most militant and sexually-suggestive comedian of the Seventies his own weekly television series.
The network only gave the star a ten-week contract, in part because there hadn't been a successful variety show launched in half a decade. For reasons only a network executive could divine, 'The Richard Pryor Show' was scheduled on Tuesday nights at 8:00 pm, opposite 'Happy Days' and 'LaVerne and Shirley'. Why would network executives put their most controversial and adult star on during the newly designated 'Family Hour' at 8:00 when they specifically promised the star that his show wouldn't start before 9:00pm? You tell me.
This move caused Richard Pryor to have second thoughts about doing a series right from the start and he reportedly broke down in an early writer's meeting, confessing: "I bit off more than I can chew" Reduced to tears, the comedian told his new staff, "I don't want to be on TV. I'm in a trap. I can't do this." The writers tried to convince him that he could do something special on television, and labored for days trying to convince the comedian to change his mind and go forward with the show. Finally Pryor relented, but only to do four shows, not the ten that he originally signed for.
A great roster of supporting players was assembled for the variety hour: Sandra Bernhardt, Robin Williams, Marsha Warfeild, Victor DeLapp, Jimmy Martinez, Tim Reid, Paul Mooney, Argus Hamilton and 'Detroit' John Witherspoon. There would be no major guest-stars. The show was produced by John Moffitt and Rocco Urbisci for Burt Sugarman Productions.
Battles with the network censors started as soon as the show went into production. Pryor was shocked to find out that he wouldn't be given free rein to do whatever he wanted after signing a lucrative contract with the network. "It's bullshit - there's no other word for it - and lots of it. I think they hire people, about six thousand of them, to do nothing but mess with people." The frustrated star told Ebony Magazine at the time, "The problem with censors is that they don't like for people to communicate. I think it is on purpose and very political. A lot of silly stuff went down about anything I tried to do. It was just frustrating."
To spoof the situation he found himself in, Richard Pryor appeared at the top of his first show with a statement about how he will never be compromised. When the camera pulls back, you see he is naked (actually wearing a bodystocking) and his dick is missing. NBC ordered the scene removed, so it ran instead on the evening news on all three networks. More people saw that 'censored' clip on the news than ever saw the show itself. Another skit on the first episode that caused some flack had Pryor as a flamboyant rock singer who machine guns his all-white audience to death.
One of the most revealing moments of the series came during the fourth show. Part of the episode was done like a 'roast'. Only there were no celebrities to roast the host, just the supporting cast. It was a long, tense television moment as the regulars either kissed the host's ass or burnt their bridges. Pryor just looked down much of the time, acting like he was writing something down, rarely looking up or sincerely laughing. This did not appear to be a happy group.
After the four episodes were filmed, neither the star or the network was willing to continue - 'The Richard Pryor Show' was one of the lowest-rated shows of that year. 'Happy Days' and 'LaVerne and Shirley' on the other hand, were the number one and two rated shows in 1977. They were unbeatable and Richard Pryor failed to lure viewers away from the comfortable Cunninghams.
NBC and Richard Pryor announced that the remainder of the contract would be made up of a series of six specials to be broadcast over the next three years. Pryor promised, "I'm going to do them the way I want and then they can kiss my behind." The specials were never filmed.
Was Richard Pryor bitter about his television 'career'? No, not at all: "One week of truth on TV could just straighten out everything. One hundred and twenty-seven million people watch television every night; that's why they use it to sell stuff. They've misused it a long time so now it's just a business, that's all. They're not going to write shows about how to revolutionize America. The top rated shows are for retarded people."
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