by Billy Ingram
In 1970, after several successful years as a nightclub comedian and frequent Ed Sullivan Show guest, Richard Pryor grew tired of doing what he called "white bread humor" and walked off the stage during a show at the Aladin Hotel in Las Vegas and away from a career that had been building for several years. The comic moved to Berkeley, California, where he discovered the writings of Malcolm X and began developing edgier material. He also developed a cocaine habit. He reflected on that time in the '70s: "I'd take the dope and pretend I was Miles Davis. But I couldn't have been a junkie because when I wanted to stop, I stopped on a dime." (We all know that didn't turn out to be true!)
A string of hit movies (Silver Streak, Greased Lightning) and comedy albums in the mid-'70s made Richard Pryor a superstar.
On May 5, 1977, Pryor hosted a brilliant special on NBC featuring guests LaWanda Page, John Belushi, The Pips (who performed a medley of their hits without any lead vocals), and a powerful dramatic performance by poet Maya Angelou. Pryor played his drunk "Willie" character, "Idi Amin Dada," and a money grubbing television evangelist "Reverend James L. White" who gets donation phones ringing off the hook when he announces they're collecting money for a "Back to Africa" campaign.
The segment with Maya Angelou may be one of the most profound moments in television history. Starting out as a very funny comedy skit with "Willie" getting into a drunken brawl in a bar, the piece suddenly takes a harrowing (and enlightening) turn when Willie stumbles home to his anguished wife (Angelou). This is something you have to see for yourself, truly one of those moments that remind you of the power television can have.
The special was a critical and ratings smash. Pryor's appearances on Saturday Night Live had been numeric gold for the network as well, so NBC programmers pondered the unthinkable—giving the most militant and sexually-suggestive comedian of the decade his own weekly television series.
NBC only gave the star a ten-week contract, in part because there hadn't been a successful variety show launched in over five years. For reasons only a network executive could divine, The Richard Pryor Show was scheduled on Tuesday nights at 8:00 p.m., opposite Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley. Why would NBC put their most controversial and adult star on during the "Family Hour" when they specifically promised the comic during negotiations that his show wouldn't start before 9:00 p.m.? You tell me.
Reduced to tears, the comedian told his new staff, "I don't want to be on TV. I'm in a trap. I can't do this." The dumbstruck writers tried to convince him that he could do something special on television and labored for days trying to convince him to change his mind and go forward. Pryor eventually agreed to do four shows but not the ten that he originally signed for.
A great roster of supporting players was assembled for the variety hour: Sandra Bernhardt, Robin Williams, Marsha Warfield, Victor DeLapp, Jimmy Martinez, Tim Reid, Paul Mooney, Argus Hamilton, and "Detroit" John Witherspoon. The show was produced by John Moffitt and Rocco Urbisci for Burt Sugarman Productions and there would be no major guest-stars.
TROUBLE STARTS FOR RICHARD PRYOR
Battles with the network censors began as soon as production started. Pryor was unnerved to find out, after signing his lucrative contract with the network, that he wouldn't be given free rein to do whatever he wanted.
"It's bullshit, there's no other word for it—and lots of it. I think they hire people, about six thousand of them, to do nothing but mess with people." The frustrated star told Ebony magazine in 1977, "The problem with censors is that they don't like for people to communicate. I think it is on purpose and very political. A lot of silly stuff went down about anything I tried to do. It was just frustrating."
To spoof the situation he found himself in, Richard Pryor appeared at the beginning of his first show stating firmly that he will never be compromised. When the camera pulled back, you saw he was naked (actually wearing a bodystocking) and his dick was missing. NBC ordered the "offensive" scene removed, so it ran instead on the evening news on all three networks. More people saw that "censored" clip on the news than ever saw The Richard Pryor Show itself. Another skit on the first episode that caused some flack had Pryor playing a flamboyant rock singer who machine guns his all-white audience to death.
The controversy didn't stop there. The second episode featured a long, slow sequence with a woman describing a lesbian experience in the park. One of the most revealing moments of the series came during the final show. Part of that episode was done like a "roast," only there were no guest celebrities to fling insults at the host, just the supporting cast. It was a long, tense television moment as the regulars either kissed Pryor's ass or burnt their bridges behind them. The pained host just gazed downward much of the time, rarely looking up or sincerely laughing. This did not appear to be a happy group.
After the four episodes were in the can, neither star nor network was willing to continue. The Richard Pryor Show was one of the lowest-rated shows of that year - Happy Days and Lavern and Shirley, on the other hand, were the number one and two rated shows in 1977. NBC and Richard Pryor announced that the remainder of the contract would be made up of six specials to be broadcast over the next three years.
Pryor promised, "I'm going to do them the way I want and then they can kiss my behind." The specials were never filmed.
Was Richard Pryor bitter about his television experience? No, not at all. He had this to say: "One week of truth on TV could just straighten out everything. One hundred and twenty-seven million people watch television every night; that's why they use it to sell stuff. They've misused it a long time so now it's just a business, that's all. They're not going to write shows about how to revolutionize America. The top-rated shows are for retarded people."
Richard Pryor made a return to series TV in 1984 - as the star of a Saturday Morning children's show called 'Pryor's Place'. The one season, award-winning series was set on an urban street corner and produced by Sid and Marty Krofft.
TV Guide's Richard Pryor Show Page, with TV Listings, Photos, Videos, Exclusive News and More.
Please consider a donation
so we can continue this work!
Local Kid Shows / Movie Stars on TV / Saturday Morning Shows / Video Vault / TV Goodbyes / Fabulous Fifties / Unseen Scenes / Game Shows / Requested Forgotten TV Shows / The Super Sixties / More Modern TV Shows / The New * * Shows / 1980's Wrestling / TV Blog
|TV's Embarrassing Moments / Action Shows of the Sixties / TVparty Mysteries and Scandals / Variety Shows of the 1970s / The Eighties / The Laugh Track / 1970's Hit Shows / Response to TVparty / Search the Site / Add Your Comments|
Variety Shows of the 1970s: The Carol Burnett Shows / Summer Season Shows of the 70s / The Golddiggers / Joey and Dad / Lola Falana / Van Dyke and Company / 1970s TV Shows / David Bowie on TV / Hudson Brothers / Jackie Gleason / Hollywood Squares / Match Game / Bob Keeshan / Gumby / The Smothers Brothers Show / The Flip Wilson Show / The Sonny and Cher Shows / Glen Campbell / Goodtime Hour / The New Bill Cosby / The Bobby Darin Show / The Cher Show / The Redd Foxx Comedy Hour / The Richard Pryor Show / Sound clips / George Burns / Jack Paar's Goodbyes / Pat Paulsen's Half a Comedy Hour / Pink Lady and Jeff
|Classic TV Commercials / 1950's TV / 1960's TV / Punk Book / / 1970's TV / Groucho vs William F Buckley / / TV Games / Honey Boo Boo / Lucy Shows / Classic Cars / John Wayne / Gene Roddenberry / Rockford Files / Sea Hunt / Superman on DVD / Toy Gun Ads / Flip Wilson Show / Big Blue Marble / Monty Hall / Carrascolendas / Mr. Dressup / Major Mudd / Chief Halftown / Baby Daphne / Sheriff John / Winchell & Mahoney / Fireball X-L5 / Mr. Wizard / Captain Noah / Thanksgiving Day Specials / Disney's First Christmas Special / Saturday Morning Cartoons / The Magic Garden / Amahl & the Night Visitors / Holiday Toy Commercials / Lucy & Desi's Last Christmas Show / Joey Heatherton / Fat Albert / The Virginian / Bewitched / Death of John Wayne / 1974 Saturday Mornings / Chuck McCann / Rudolph Collectables / Shrimpenstein / Local Popeye Shows / New Treasure Hunt / 1966 ABC TV Shows / 1967 TV Shows / 1968 TV Shows / Ric Flair, Dusty Rhodes & Baby Doll / Fridays / TV Moms / Red Skelton / Star Wars / KISS / Lancelot Link / Saturday Morning Cartoons / The Magic Garden / Wonder Woman / Classic Comic Books / Andy Griffith / Cher / TV Shows on DVD / Outtakes & Bloopers / 1967 TV Shows / Romper Room / ABC Movie of the Week / The Goldbergs / Daws Butler Commercials / Saturday Morning Commercials / Captain Kangaroo / Chicago Local Kiddie Shows / Boston Local TV / Philly Local TV / NYC Local Kid Shows / Amos 'n' Andy / Electric Company / Bette Davis / Judy Garland / Christmas Specials / Redd Foxx / Good Times / Sitcom Houses / What's Happening! / Winky Dink & You / Sonny & Cher / Smothers Brothers / Commercial Icons of the 1960s / Soupy Sales / The Carpenters / Route 66 / Bozo / The Carpenters Christmas Specials / Local Kid Shows / Death of TV's Superman / Wonderama / Sesame Street / Bob Hope Specials / Little Rascals / 1980's Retro Gay T-Shirts / 1980's TV Wrestling / Fess Parker / Howdy Doody / TV Blog / Lost In Space / Pinky Lee / 1980's LA Punk Rock / Alex Toth Book / TV Terrorists / Irwin Allen / The Untouchables / Carol Burnett Show / Batman TV Show / Green Hornet / Today Show History / Our Gang / Doris Day Show / 1970's Commercials For Women / Bill Cosby in the 1970s / The Golddiggers / Lola Falana / 1970s TV Shows / David Bowie on TV / Hudson Brothers / Jackie Gleason / Hollywood Squares / Match Game / Bob Keeshan / Gumby / The Flip Wilson Show / Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour / The Bobby Darin Show / The Richard Pryor Show / George Burns / Lucy's Lost Christmas Special / Classic Christmas Toy Commercials / Cricket On The Hearth / 1950's Holiday Shows / Amahl and the Night Visitors / A Christmas Carol on TV / The Yule Log / Celebrity Commercials / Rudolph / Movie Posters & More!|
for is right here: