Just about everybody living in America had their own TV variety series at some point during the 1970s. Anyone remotely connected to the show-biz industry was given, at minimum, a summer-replacement slot to see if his or her talent as a grizzled lounge lizard, B-movie has-been or one-hit pop wonder translated into hosting a weekly revue. Most failed, and even the successful shows were vapid and instantly forgettable, barring exceptions by Jonathan Winters, Carol Burnett and Flip Wilson. In 1977, for reasons that still remain unclear, the suits at NBC suffered a temporary bout of good instincts and handed the reins and a big budget to comedian Richard Pryor. He dutifully delivered one of the most brilliant, controversial — and quickly canceled — series in television history. Only four of a planned 10 episodes of The Richard Pryor Show were filmed and aired, without reruns, in that lost era before VCRs. Adding to its mythic status, the series was offscreen for nearly three decades until its recent release on DVD.
“I think he snuck under the radar. It’s a miracle it ever got made,” says Pryor’s wife, Jennifer Lee Pryor, who compiled the augmented DVD with Image Entertainment’s Paul Brownstein. Perhaps NBC thought it was hiring the cuddly, defanged Richard Pryor from roles in popular, pleasant movies like Silver Streak — “It’s all right to say they were formulaic bullshit,” Jennifer says — projects in which he had little creative input. What the network got instead was closer to the profane divining and righteous political subversion of his standup persona. At its best, the show was as fearless as his undiluted comedy albums and concert movies, but blown up with a vividly trippy splendor that was closer in impact to his underrated, surreally ambitious self-directed 1986 autobio, Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling.
“You hire Richard Pryor, you get Richard Pryor,” Jennifer says. And NBC wasn’t naive or misled about his intentions. In May 1977, the network had aired The Richard Pryor Special?, the success of which pushed NBC to green-light the series, which debuted that September. The special was no less confrontational and/or tasteless than the series, from its opening skit with John Belushi as the whip-cracking captain of a ship filled with African slaves to Pryor’s Idi Amin addressing the American public (and firing off heavy denunciations of white oppression amid the expected cannibal jokes) to guest Maya Angelou’s (!) bittersweet soliloquy about the drunken husband passed out in front of her — the kind of disarmingly artful pure poetry that hasn’t been seen on prime time before or since.
Regardless of NBC’s true intentions, the series never had a chance. “Not only were we pitted against Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley, the two top-rated shows, but the network censors thwarted me from the git-go,” Pryor wrote in his 1995 autobiography, Pryor Convictions and Other Life Sentences. Instead of toning things down, Pryor made his battle with the censors an ongoing theme. In the infamous banned introduction to the first episode, an apparently nude Pryor directly addresses the censorship controversy, which had been building in the media for several weeks, vowing to never compromise. “I’m standing here naked. I’ve given up absolutely nothing,” he declares, as the camera pulls back to reveal that his genitals have been whited out. Another neon-lit SOS comes at the end of the show when he waves and says, “See you next week,” as a jail door slams shut behind him (tellingly, subsequent sign-offs have him menaced by a lion and running through the swamp to escape a chain gang).
Episode two’s intro finds Pryor playing himself, attempting to address the audience about the previous week’s incident, when the sound cuts out “due to technical difficulties.” A faux NBC spokesman overdubs the comedian’s monologue with help from “tonight’s network-approved script,” which includes statements like “Gosh, I’m just pleased as punch to be continuing on as part of the NBC family” and “I don’t mind the fact that NBC never aired the opening of my first show. I know they were just thinking of me” — as an increasingly agitated Pryor waves his arms angrily, soundlessly. This was nothing like the cutesy, self-referential, mock network-teasing of a David Letterman. This was a bold, bridge-burning act of defiance by one of the few celebrities who didn’t care if he was ever on the tube again.
Contrary to popular belief, NBC didn’t cancel The Richard Pryor Show. Pryor pulled the plug on himself rather than make further compromises. “Overall, it was a nightmare for Richard. The turning point was when they wanted to change the show from an hour to a half-hour,” says DVD producer Brownstein.
“He was a busy boy,” Jennifer says. “The same week he married Deborah [McGuire, with whom he had a chaotic relationship, culminating in the well-publicized incident in which he shot up her car with a gun], he quit the NBC show, and told the crowd at a Hollywood Bowl benefit to ‘kiss my black ass.’” Jennifer, who’s been married twice to Pryor, started working for him, coincidentally enough, in August 1977 as an assistant to Lucy Saroyan, who was decorating his house. “He would leave for work, conservative and nicely dressed, and then I would see him when he came home after the show, all undone . . . they were fucking with him too much.”
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.”