Having established his reputation delivering uncompromising and often profanity-laden monologues addressing racial, political and other topical social issues, the late Richard Pryor was probably not the first person most people would expect to be given his own prime-time comedy/variety program, especially given the safe American television landscape of the mid-1970s, when feel-good sitcoms like Happy Days and brainless action escapism such as Charlie’s Angels and The Six Million Dollar Man dominated the airwaves, providing viewers with a welcome alternative to the harsh realities which waited for them outside their front doors (and often within their own four walls).
Still, Pryor had written scripts for episodes of Sanford and Son, The Flip Wilson Show and a Lily Tomlin special (for which he shared an Emmy), and was also a guest host on the first season of Saturday Night Live, so his transition to television star may not have seemed all that far-fetched. Unfortunately, the resultant show only served to highlight just how difficult it was to try and take Pryor’s raw, often incendiary, comedic talents and harness it enough so that it would be accepted by middle-class America without losing its edge or diluting its potency.
The Richard Pryor Show debuted on the NBC network on Tuesday, September 13, 1977 in the 8pm timeslot. It lasted a mere four episodes, a victim of network interference, poor ratings, and Pryor’s refusal to continue working on the show unless it was moved to its originally agreed-upon timeslot of 9pm. What remains over thirty years later is a patchy series which runs out of enthusiasm and steam even before its four episodes were up. Still, there are some traces of Pryor’s genius peppered throughout, as well as enough humorous sketches and up-and-coming faces (Robin Williams and Sandra Bernhard among them) to make it worth mining through.
Episode 1 (13/9/77): In the debut episode, Pryor takes aim at Clint Eastwood’s The Man With No Name spaghetti western anti-hero, as well as the then-new phenomenon of Star Wars, with a send-up of the cantina sequence where Pryor is the bartender to a host of oddball aliens (many wearing Rick Baker make-up and old tunics from Planet of the Apes). Pryor tells one grotesque alien that he looks “just like a nigger from Detroit I know”. A more provocative sketch has Pryor as America’s first black president holding a press conference (and becoming violent when a white southerner enquires about the possibility of hiring the President’s mother to wash his windows).
Episode 2 (20/9/77): This episode starts off pretty well, with a great, cutting sketch set in a 1926 Mississippi courtroom, where a young black man is being prosecuted for having relations with a white woman. Dressed as a white Colonel Sanders-type, Pryor as the Prosecutor is overshadowed by Robin William playing the defence lawyer, who gets his client off by establishing that the woman is of easy virtue (and is then subsequently lynched because he managed to prove a black man innocent). The only other moment of real creative note appears at the end, where Pryor comes out as the bat-winged singer of the rock group Black Death – a hybrid of KISS/Black Sabbath/Parliament and pre-Spinal Tap lunacy – and tops off his act by destroying the set and killing his audience of adoring fans with a bizarre fog ray gun.
Episode 3 (27/9/77): A very laboured episode, by now Pryor’s disinterest in the format and material was clear, with a joke about script censoring leading to a series of vague and half-developed skits about cavemen and inept car repairmen. Only real memorable moments are a B&W sequence where a woman describes her first lesbian experience, and a lengthy improv set in a surreal circus, which nicely highlights Pryor’s sentimental side.
Episode 4 (4/10/77): Thankfully, The Richard Pryor Show managed to finish on something of a high, with an episode which, while lacking any truly great moments, is at least consistently amusing, with sketches that send-up the shower scene from Psycho, Zorro (Pryor is a vigilante known as El Negro), the Titanic (Pryor as a lone occupant on a life raft who drags rich survivors aboard then proceeds to rob them) and Taxi Driver (with Robin Williams providing the voice of a pistol in a gun shop). Other moments of fun include a Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde bit, and an appearance by American Indian comic Charlie Hill, who of course sets his sights on the early settlers (“Pilgrims came to this country 400 years ago – as illegal aliens”).
Punchline’s three-disc release of The Richard Pryor Show certainly gives fans everything they could possibly want, with extras running the gamut from outtakes and deleted scenes to the original May 1977 NBC Special which eventually led to the series getting the go-ahead. There is also a booklet containing the scripts for unfilmed sketches and, the highlight, the complete uncut 44 minute ‘Roast’ segment from the final episode, where Pryor mostly sits with his head down, nervously puffing a cigarette as – in a send-up of the famed celebrity roasts hosted by Dean martin – the regular guest stars on the show get up and heap praise or ridicule at his expense.
Ultimately, The Richard Pryor Show captures the star at neither his angry best nor his drugged-out worst – like so much of American television, it is for the most part mediocre stuff, and no doubt suffered because of Pryor’s limited involvement in the writing (he is credited only as a writer of ‘additional material’). Still, it stands as an interesting misfire, a rare nugget of Seventies US television trying to go against the grain, and needless to say an absolute must for lovers of its star.
- Deleted Scenes
- Q&A Segment
- Complete 44 Minute ‘Roast’ Segment
- ‘Mudbone’ Monologue
Available on R4 DVD from Punchline.