Great Black TV Moments #8 – The Richard Pryor Show debuts
Though only existing for four episodes, The Richard Pryor Show debuted on September 13, 1977 and changed Black variety and sketch shows from their past display of mostly weak performances and cornball skits into satirical, hip & relevant, and even at times dramatic comedy that lead to the birth of such shows as In Living Color and Pryor’s love-child show Chappelle’s Show, which had obvious nods to its predecessor.
Starring mega-comedian Pryor, who ruled the 1970’s with his trademark honest and sometimes subjectively vulgar humor, all of which lead to varied movie performances in fare like Lady Sings The Blues, Car Wash and Silver Streak, among the most popular, The Richard Pryor Show would not be complimentary to his non-television successes.
From the beginning NBC guaranteed that this show would not be a success. Born out of a highly successful special that Pryor did for the network in May 1977, they knew what to expect but perhaps felt Pryor could not top himself and would revert to variety shows of the past. So one can imagine that once they saw the first crop of episodes they knew that the controversial comedian had something for them that would change the face of television – if they allowed it to. His contact stated that The Richard Pryor Show would air at 9pm, well clear of family hour. Yet NBC moved it to 8pm, opposite bonafide family hits Laverne & Shirley and Happy Days, both mega hits on ABC, know that very little of the Nielsen houses would watch a ‘potty-mouth’ artist at that time and around their children even if they wanted to.
According to multiple sources, including Donald Bogle and the show’s WikiPedia page, the sensors at NBC were on to Pryor from the beginning. In what was to be the opening of the original episode, Pryor showed himself full-body in a nude body stocking without genitals - which was to make him appear naked – in order to show that the network could only deal with him if he was emasculated – they threw a blurred out circle on top of his groin. The removed it from the episode.
Also according to WikiPedia” “Pryor was ready to quit before production even began because of network intervention, indifference, and incompetence during the development stage. He was eventually wooed back, agreeing to do four episodes of the show instead of the ten originally required by his contract. The four episodes were produced, and they aired in consecutive weeks, but the network interference that almost canceled the show before it began returned when the first episode’s introductory bit was cut just before air. The Richard Pryor Show did not do well in the ratings while the programs that preceded it and followed it were highly rated. After Pryor fulfilled his contractual obligations, neither he nor the network pursued any further episodes or specials.”
There were other controversies as well. A skit in which Pryor appeared as a machine gun-toting rocker who kills all of his white fans also caused a stir. The second episode also featured a controversial skit that showed a woman in a park describing what her first lesbian experience was like. The most revealing moments of the show came during the final episode of the show in which a roast sketch was given similar to the popular Friars Club roasts hosted by Dean Martin at the time. The cast roasted Pryor, who sat with his head down laughing mildly while regulars on the show either had kind remarks or very scornful ones until his moment came at the end to tell people about themselves, including the network.
But as mentioned, the show left its mark on comedy on a whole. While Pryor was in every skit his cast members that helped the comedy along…and what a cast they were. Though he was the competition, Happy Days creator Garry Marshall must have been watching Pryor’s show because he hired cast member Robin Williams later that year to appear on his show and then cast Williams in his own vehicle, Mork & Mindy, which lead to mega-stardom for Williams, to say the least.
The next year Tim Reid would also gain success as DJ Venus Flytrap on WKRP in Cincinatti, the popularity of which lead to Reid starring in TV dramas and sitcoms like Simon & Simon and Sister, Sister as well as devising and executive producing original shows like Frank’s Place and Lincs. Reid had a talent of portraying smart characters with an urban understanding and relevance that he also brought to his producing projects.
Paul Mooney would take his comedy to high success being the most honest comedian to talk about race for decades to come, as well as being a writer for In Living Color and Chappelle’s Show, natural fits for his brand of humor.
Sandra Bernhard’s comedy style would put her even higher on the comedy circuit, as well as to co-star in movies like The King of Comedy and television shows like Rosanne.
Though it took him longer to be a household name, comedian John Witherspoon would always be seen in television in one guest spot or another, most memorably on Robert Townsend’s HBO sketch comedy specials, but was more recognized for hilarious cameos in films like House Party (‘Who would want a Public Enema?’) and Boomerang, the latter of which propelled him to stardom. This lead to him co-starring in The Wayans Brothers show on the WB Network in January 1995, christening him as ‘Pops,’ as he played their father on the show and making him the go-to goofy dad/old man type, cemented in April of that year as he played Ice Cube’s dad in the hit comedy film Friday.
And of course Marsha Warfield would become a well-known comedian in her own right and into the 1980’s would co-star on Night Court as tough-as-nails bailiff Roz from 1986-1992, and Edie McClurg would go onto be a character actor and voice-over artist of note as well as co-star of Valerie’s Family.
So despite being in such disarray, The Richard Pryor Show did indeed cement a legacy for the comedian, his players, and American comedy itself. Watch the first episode in its entirety above. Special thanks to handhanh for loading up various episodes on YouTube!