“Richard Pryor” (season one, episode 7; originally aired 12/13/1975)
It sometimes feels as if I’ve spent half my life watching and reading about Saturday Night Live, and the other half watching, listening to, and reading about Richard Pryor. And for years, I’ve been fascinated by the number of times I’ve heard someone refer to Pryor’s “appearances” on SNL in its early years, as if he was a familiar presence on the show, the way Buck Henry and Steve Martin came to be. Most recently, Bob Newhart does it in the Showtime documentary Richard Pryor: Omit The Logic. In fact, Pryor only appeared on Saturday Night once, which—to put things in perspective—is the same number of times he appeared on Donahue and Sammy Davis, Jr.’s infamous syndicated talk show Sammy And Company. It’s twice as many times as he appeared on The Midnight Special, whose pilot episode he hosted.
In their 1986 book Saturday Night, Doug Hill and Jeff Weingrad list Pryor and Lily Tomlin as two hosts especially coveted by Michaels, who had worked with both of them when he produced Tomlin’s TV specials. They represented, in Hill and Weingrad’s words, “the top of the hip comedy pantheon,” and it speaks well of Michaels’ connection to reality that he didn’t want to book them until he had a few shows under his belt, so that “he could ‘protect’ them adequately.” (By contrast, he could live with throwing George Carlin to the wolves.) It was a strategy that paid off in every way. Not only did Pryor and Tomlin automatically confer credibility on the show, not only did they step in when the show had been beaten into shape for them, but working with them, and doing right by them, did miracles for backstage morale. Hill and Weingrad note that, as much good as the Candice Bergen episode did for everyone’s morale, it was the Tomlin and Pryor shows that left the cast and writers “convinced they were good enough to hold their own with the best in the business.”
Not only did Pryor take the show to a new level, but his episode remains one of the strongest, truest examples of Richard Pryor in full blown ever captured. He does some stand-up material that also appears on his albums; it’s very physical stuff, acting out an acid trip and incarnating such characters as a wino and a junkie. The versions of these routines that appeared on his albums (and that are among the gems included in the new CD-and-DVD box set No Pryor Restraint) are classics, but to see Pryor throwing his whole body into them is to realize that an audio recording of Pryor at his best can only be a rough blueprint of what he could do onstage, even with the language toned down for TV. (The network famously put this “live” show on a seven-second delay, with a censor on duty in case the star went nuts and starting dishing out profanities. One word did get bleeped, when Pryor, playing a belligerent drunk in one of his monologues, yelled “I’ll kick your ass!” In the version of the show released on VHS and DVD and for streaming, the word is allowed to let stand, because, seriously, “ass”? Who gives a fuck?) If you’ve ever wondered how Pryor got away with some of the things he said onstage, seeing him here, in his prime, will clear it up. He’s so funny and alive that it’s as if he glows from the inside. He’s beautiful; he’s irresistible.
I wonder if there was any discussion of the use of the six-letter word beginning with “N” that Pryor included in the titles of a couple of his albums, before denouncing and forever swearing off the use of that word after his 1979 trip to Africa. He uses it a couple of times in his last monologue, in a dialogue between the junkie and the wino, who offers to take the younger man under his wing. (“You know what your problem is? You don’t know how to deal with the white man… I know how to deal with him. That’s why I’m in the position I’m in today.”) But the most shocking, and hilarious, moment in the show comes when Chevy Chase drops the word in the legendary “Word Association” sketch, in which a jerking-around exercise that’s part of a job interview turns ugly. (Chase: “Burrhead.” Pryor: “Cracker.” Chase: “Spearchucker.” Pryor: “White trash.” Chase: “Junglebunny.” Pryor: “Honky.” Chase: “Spade.” Pryor [briefly stymied]: “Honkey honky.” Chase [with smug finality]: “Nigger!” Pryor [seething]: “Dead honky!”)
That sketch was written by Paul Mooney, who Pryor brought along for purposes of supplying him with “special material.” Pryor—who, according to Rocco Urbischi, had a designated “nigger expert” installed in the writing room of his short-lived NBC series to counsel him on whether proposed material was “black enough”—agreed to do Saturday Night only if he could bring along Mooney, Gil Scott-Heron as musical guest, and his own backup crew of black actors: Thalmus Rasalula, who plays the older priest in the Exorcist parody, and Annazette Chase and Katherine McKee, who appear in the dinner-table sketch in which a white bigot (Dan Aykroyd) rants about how “they’re” taking over while his family literally turns black all around him.
I don’t know if this sketch was written by a staffer or if it was more “special material,” but it’s notable for the way the white family members surrounding Dad talk as if they were living in a TV commercial: When the son (John Belushi) spills some of his “fresh whole milk” all over the kitchen counter, Mom (Jane Curtin) asks, “The counter that I just cleaned and shined in one motion!?” The episode is remembered for the first appearance of Belushi’s Samurai (in the “Samurai Hotel” sketch) and the installation of Gilda Radner’s Emily Litella at the “Weekend Update” desk as the permanent Editorial Replier. Laraine Newman also has a classic Laraine Newman, freaky-chick role as the possessed little girl in “Exorcist II.” But on the whole, Pryor’s hosting gig was a bit of a windfall for Aykroyd and Curtin, because they were the regular cast members who were best suited to playing cartoons of stiff, clueless, left-over-from-the-‘50s-style white folks.
As I mentioned last week, it was not a windfall for Garrett Morris. Morris appears in the cold opening, informing Chevy Chase that, in deference to Pryor’s sense of racial solidarity, he is going to do the fall and deliver Chase’s “Live from New York…” catch phrase this week. The ironic thing is, that’s the last we see of Morris, except for his usual gig doing “News For The Hard Of Hearing” and his appearance in a repeat of a pre-filmed commercial parody. Apparently, Pryor’s sense of racial solidarity did not immediately extend beyond the people he had personally checked out and deemed worthy of his patronage. Maybe Morris didn’t believe in sticking around where he had been made to feel unwanted, because he isn’t visible during the closing goodnights. Everyone else looks happy to be there, though, and with good reason: They’d just been a part of one of the first two or three hours of television from the 1970s that a person of sense would nominate to stick in a capsule and shoot into space if the planet were about to blow up.
Which does raise the question: Why didn’t Richard Pryor ever appear on Saturday Night Live again? It’s easy to understand the common delusion that he must have been on multiple times, given the impact of this one episode, but why wasn’t he on more than once? When Michaels received Pryor’s list of conditions for hosting the show, he’s said to have agreed, only muttering in response, “He’d better be funny.” So, based on the final product, everybody should be happy, right? But Pryor made those conditions, and Michaels agreed to them, because at that time, Michaels needed Pryor more than Pryor needed Saturday Night. That’s not true of Buck Henry, who wasn’t primarily known as a performer when he first hosted, or of Steve Martin, who was still virtually unknown. Maybe Lorne Michaels is a lot more comfortable with people he once did a favor for than he’ll ever be with someone who was once in a position to take his shoes and wallet and tell him he was doing him a favor. Even if that person’s a genius.
- Curtin and Pryor do a “Looks At Books” talk-show sketch that’s basically a rewrite of the “Black Perspective” sketch from the Candice Bergen show; this time, it’s Pryor who has gone undercover as a white man to write about his experiences on the other side of the color line. Holding up a photo of Pryor disguised as a white man—he looks as if he’s spent the afternoon clapping chalkboard erasers together—Curtin confesses she doesn’t find his look all that convincing, and asks if any other white folks caught on to his charade. “Not a one,” says Pryor. “Dumb honkies out there!”
- The first “Weekend Update” joke about George Wallace to zero in on his racism at the expense of making fun of his wheelchair is also one joke that even Pryor reportedly found tasteless. Wallace, Chase reports, has said that he doesn’t judge a man by the color of his skin, “I judge him by how well you can see him in the dark when he smiles.” Michael O’Donoghue wrote it, of course.
- Another “Weekend Update” joke may represent the beginning of a long, ultimately fruitless effort to undercut Ronald Reagan’s long campaign for the presidency, not by satirizing his ideas, but by reminding the electorate that he had “once starred in a film called Bedtime For Bonzo.”
- In the next-to-last of Albert Brooks’ films, Albert checks in from his sickbed, where he takes a call from his personal physician, who tells him he’s been doing the work of 30 men and advises him not to further exert himself. There’s also an appearance by a delivery boy, who helps Brooks plug his comedy album, A Star Is Bought. (“Why don’t more people know about it?” asks the kid. “Why doesn’t your record company take out some ads? What do they do, spend all their money promoting the Eagles?”) Incidentally, every time Brooks or the delivery boy mention the title of the album, or recite its catalog number, it is bleeped out. I have no idea whether this is a joke or a sign that Lorne Michaels had so had it with Brooks that he balked at the idea of letting him use his segments to do commercials for himself.
- The Muppets expose the evils of overindulging in the demon rum. Not since Sarah T.– Portrait Of A Teenage Alcoholic…
- Tom Schiller, a staff writer who would later become better known for directing the “Schiller’s Reel” short films, plays the man who rushes up on stage to shout that there were two shooters at Dallas in 1963, before being gunned down at Pryor’s feet. (Pryor: “Dick Gregory started this. I don’t care who killed who!”)
- In the fulfillment of the last of Pryor’s Very Special Contractual Stipulations for doing the show, Shelley Pryor—one of the host’s many ex-wives and the mother of his daughter, the actress Rain Pryor, takes the stage, waves her very long, red fingernails and even longer blonde hair around, and narrates a Beat-poetry-style fable about forbidden love between two merry-go-round horses, one of whom still goes up and down, while the other has a broken spring—“Or, was it that he lived on the other side of town/ And that she was white, and he was brown/ Well, you know, it’s really very funny that even to this day/ Some carousel horse, and ponies that rock/ And you know, some people too, are still in shock?”
- The photographs that, in the network broadcast, were used to transition from the commercials back to the program were Pryor’s own old family photos. Which makes Michaels’ bewildering decision to leave most of those transitional photos out of the versions of these episodes preserved on DVD especially regrettable.
- When the camera comes back to find Pryor surrounded by the cast for the goodnights, Jane Curtin is looking at him with great seriousness and holding up what looks like a sandwich from a vending machine, and Laraine Newman, who is grinning, is holding up a small green object—I can’t tell if it’s a feather, a pickle, or what. Sadly, I suspect that it is too late in the history of the planet to find out for sure what that was all about.
- The sweetest goodnight address in SNL history: “If you didn’t watch the show, we hope you made love. Good night!”