By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
It says something about the enlightened times we live in that a lot of the material that did make it on the air back in 1977 probably wouldn’t get past today’s censors — not for language, but for content. Pryor must have distracted the combat-fatigued censors with so much other provocation that they let it go when a “Sieg, heil”–ing midget dressed as a Nazi storm trooper introduced a commercial break. They seemingly didn’t notice the giant phallus-shaped alien in the “Star Wars Bar” sketch — one of the earliest Star Wars parodies — with bartender Pryor grouchily pouring drinks for a menagerie of elaborate space creatures designed by special-effects wizard Rick Baker.
“I don’t think Lucas Films would give the rights these days for a parody using the phrase ‘Star Wars Bar,’” says Brownstein.
For a series that was so short-lived, it nonetheless influenced a generation of comics who freely plundered from skits like “The 40th President of the United States,” with Pryor as the first black president, giving a wide-ranging press conference that degenerates into a brawl when a reporter insults his mother. “Black Death” finds Pryor outrageously glammed out in a fantastic winged costume made of mirrors, lowered from the rafters and leading a Kiss/Black Sabbath–style band that cranks up a convincingly brainwashing hard-rock vamp that builds for several minutes before Pryor even begins singing. The monkish, hooded ghouls in the band — who resemble Neil Young’s Rust Never Sleeps roadies — enter the stage from vertical caskets that open up much like the troublesome pods from a similar scene seven years later in This Is Spinal Tap. It’s a gloriously pointless one-joke sketch — and a great song — with the group, in proper G.G. Allin tradition, fumigating and machine-gunning their delirious fans until everyone’s dead and the music stops. Pryor’s blank expression when he hazily surveys the carnage is priceless. “Far out,” he murmurs, only dimly aware why the band won’t be getting an encore.
As much as the series centered on Pryor and documented him at his peak, it really swung because of a presciently chosen ensemble of future comedy all-stars including Sandra Bernhard, Tim Reid, Marsha Warfield, Charlie Hill, Shirley Hemphill, Paul Mooney and a pre–Mork & Mindy Robin Williams. (“Just take a look at the big names we have here tonight,” Vic Dunlop says sarcastically during a mock roast for Pryor, gesturing at the then-anonymous comics on the dais.) This was a variety show with genuine variety, ranging from the overtly silly physical humor of “Separate Tables” — in which two strangers flirt with each other wordlessly across a restaurant, with suggestive winks and come-hither looks that escalate in absurd intensity until Pryor’s mashing a chicken drumstick erotically into his face — to the racially underpinned farce “Southern Justice” to poignant blue-mood set pieces like “Satin Doll” and “The Gun Shop.” The new release’s three-DVD version comes with an abundance of previously unseen bonuses: a ribald audience Q&A, improv segments, scripts from unfilmed skits, a 37-minute monologue with Pryor in his philosophical-wino Mudbone character, deleted scenes, and two bizarre animal-themed segments where he’s exchanging pillow talk with a camel and impatiently conducting a quartet of unruly monkeys. According to “raider of the lost archives” Brownstein, “We used every frame that could be found” — thanks in large part to the show’s original executive producer, Burt Sugarman, who recently dug up some outtakes on reels buried in his garage.
Perhaps Richard Pryor flew too close to the sun for his own good, but it made for unpredictable and cathartically exhilarating entertainment for the rest of us. And it’s not like he stopped moving creatively after the notorious self-immolation and tragic MS diagnosis in the ’80s: An upcoming DVD of new material is aptly titled The Richard Pryor “I Ain’t Dead Yet Motherfucker” Special. As the good “Reverend” David Banks admonishes at the end of the roast: “He who sits on the red-hot stove shall surely rise.”
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