Category Archives: Comedy

W.C. Fields Suffers the Weight of the World

Beginning tomorrow, Friday, April 22nd, New York City’s Film Forum, will have a 12-day W.C. Fields film festival, showing most of his films (all 35mm prints!). So it’s a perfect time to share some of my observations on Mr. Fields. I think most people nowadays—those unfamiliar with his films—would characterize his iconic persona as ‘a drunk who doesn’t like children.’ There’s a lot of truth to that interpretation, but there was much more, something that I became more attune to as I got older. The characters in his domestic comedies (i.e. The Man on a Flying Trapeze or The Bank Dick) endured a very deep suffering. The struggle of being a husband, a father, a provider is a theme I began to appreciate as I’ve moved on in years. Subsequently, my aching laughter when watching his films has evolved into empathy.

A case in point is It’s a Gift (1934), generally regarded as Fields’s masterpiece and the film that kicks off the Film Forum Festival this weekend. Fields plays Harold Bissonette, a family man and owner of a grocery store, who suffers endlessly at the hands of his wife, children, customers—even his neighbor’s children–all the while dreaming of buying an orange grove in California. Most scenes are set-pieces, isolated sketches, typical of comedies of the early 30s; for example, early on, in his store he concurrently battles an enraged customer demanding kumquats, an inept employee, and the blind, near-deaf, cane-swinging Mr. Muckle. It’s sisyphean comedy at its best. It’s not unlike scenes from his earlier shorts, i.e. “The Dentist,” but thanks to the context—a middle-aged man pursuing his dreams against tremendous odds—the pain in these scenes is all the more painful.


I think my point is shown best midway through the film. It’s nighttime and having already endured endless hen-pecking from his wife, Harold takes his pillow and blanket outside (A). Thus begins an 11-minute sequence, where he tries in vain to sleep on their apartment balcony (B). Although the clock says it’s 4:30am—when all the world should be asleep–he’s unknowingly moved into the eye of the storm.



In short order, he’s tormented by a falling cocoanut (1), a bottle-clanking milkman (2), an ice-pick-wielding toddler (3), and a continuation of his wife’s needling (4).


He’s even harassed by an insurance salesman…

In my teens, the funniest part of this scene was the prolonged spelling of the ridiculous name “LaFong,” however, as an adult/husband/father/freelancer trying to eke out a living, I’m struck by the sad, sad irony of trying to sleep while a man cheerfully tells you you’ll have to work every day until you’re 90. That’s when my laughter turns to fatigue. And fear. And bonding. If you listen closely, at the end of the clip, he emotes under his breath, “If I could only retire now.” No wonder at one point later in the scene, he looks at the camera—at us—as if to say, “See what I have to deal with?”…

The film is such an endless gagfest, it’s easy to miss its most subdued moment, its most poignant. Harold’s just used a recent inheritance to purchase an orange grove, much to his wife’s dismay. She badgers and bemoans, all of which he takes without rebuttal, like any beaten man would. However, at the end of the scene, he quietly tells her, as he’s leaving the room, that he’s sold their grocery store, a selfish act that will uproot his family. Her shock and outrage tells us he’s never done anything like this before.

But it’s Fields’s delivery that is so effective. There’s no fanfare, no argument, no “I’m putting my foot down!” outburst. He just says it. Because if Harold didn’t seize control, didn’t act impetuously, didn’t instigate change with his own hand, then all the other suffering would truly be unbearable. And so when he tells his wife that he’s irrevocably changed their lives, it’s the film’s Moment of Clarity, Harold’s quiet assertion of controlling his own destiny.
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For further reading I steer you to “Godfrey Daniel!”, an excellent piece by Ivan G. Shreve, Jr., on the blog Edward Copeland on Film. Shreve and I share a similar take on Fields’s film persona, and he astutely observes that his characters “suffer the slings and arrows…with a Zen-like stoicism that instantly puts the viewer in his corner.”

I also heartily recommend going to Film Forum and seeing any of Fields’s films with a packed house, which is how his films were meant to be seen. You shouldn’t take anything I’ve written here as an indication to look for something deeper, certainly not at the sake of laughing your pants off. But it’s there. It doesn’t make the films funnier; it just makes them more than funny.

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(By the way, I may not make it to Film Forum this weekend, where It’s a Gift is sharing a bill with “The Dentist.” If anyone does, please tell me which print of the latter they use. For further explanation of the various prints of the film that exist, check out my post W.C. Fields and the Musical Laughtrack.)

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Marc Maron and the Stalker Guilt Syndrome

Comedian Marc Maron’s podcast WTF is all the rage nowadays. For 17 months he’s been building a steady, loyal audience, eager to hear him rant, rave, opine and hangout with friends, enemies, and frenemies, most of whom are fellow comedians he’s known over his two decades in the Business. Thanks to recent articles in the New York Times and Rolling Stone, he has more listeners than ever—and frankly, with coverage like that, I hesitated to write this post. I wasn’t sure I had anything to add to those accolades, but I’ll give it a shot.

First, some history and context…

In 1998, my very good friend Jonah Kaplan (who I quoted in my last post) was making a short film, with the working title “It’s Not What You Think.” It’s a simple notion—a guy walking to his girlfriend’s house—and the complications that arise because he’s neurotic. Being very narration-intensive, Johah shrewdly decided to cast a stand-up comic in the lead, hoping an expressive voice would overcome any inexperience acting in front of a camera. He made several visits to NYC comedy clubs and set his sites on Marc Maron, whose energy bore some resemblance to his own. (Jonah’s very emotional, observant, and one of the funniest people I’ve ever met.)

Since I had already done some sound editing for Jonah on a prior project, he brought me on-board in the early stages, which made me privy to his creative process. I recorded most of the narration sessions, which is when Jonah and Marc worked together the most intimately. There were several sessions, all progressively shorter than the last. In the end, there was almost 10 hours of studio time for a mere 10 minutes of  voice over.

Although Jonah’s script was in great shape, there was room for Marc to bring his personal touch. This process of personalizing the voice over was intense to behold: Jonah, a neurotic Jew in his late 20s, paying $150 an hour for studio time, struggled before the neurotic-but-intimidating Jewish comic. Marc was critical of some of the dialog and didn’t spare Jonah’s feelings. A couple of times he raised his voice, barking, “What do want me to say?! Huh? You want me to say this…” and he would spontaneously say something so incredibly funny and perfect for the film that Jonah would begin laughing through his fear and say, “Yes! That’s perfect!”

In six years of engineering similar sessions, this was definitely the most collaborative one I’d ever seen, with results that genuinely improved the finished film. (Marc got a well-earned “additional dialogue” credit.)

The end result was named “Stalker Gulit Syndrome,” and it played well on the festival circuit. I was lucky enough to see it at in Austin and NYC, and the same thing happened both times: the reaction to the film’s first line (which is only 3 words) was overwhelming. Every man in the audience said to himself, “That’s me alright,” and every woman said, “I knew it! I knew that’s what they’re thinking!” It was fascinating how quickly Jonah put us IN THE FILM. Mere seconds. (Naturally, I have a link for it at the end of the post.)

Time marched on. Jonah and I remained friends, and I knew Marc was still on the comedy club circuit. A few weeks ago, I heard about is podcast, WTF. I was immediately drawn to it because comedy analysis amazes me (i.e. Steve Martin’s autobiography, Born Standing Up; the documentary Comedian with Jerry Seinfeld; The Aristocrats). Why we laugh; why we need to laugh; what power does laughter have over our emotions, our thinking, our bodies; and so on.

But I quickly noticed that Marc’s brand of existential rap (i.e. in the podcast’s opening he yells out, “What’s wrong with me?!”), as well as the turf covered by his guests, sounded uncannily like…me. Marc’s 47 and I’m six years younger, and being in your 40s which carries its own brand of crazy, one that’s new to me. It dawned on me that as someone who doesn’t indulge talk shows or talk radio, there isn’t anyone in the media I listen to that I can identify with. There isn’t any public figure out there that says things that make me respond, “That’s me alright.”

Marc and his guests are expressing my fears, my anxieties. For example, Paul Provezna discussed his career-crippling stage fright a few years ago, which he finally realized was a reaction to no longer being a young comedian. And Louis C.K. and Marc dissected the ups and downs of their 20 year friendship, one peppered with love, jealousy and regret. And many humorously vent about the conditions of their bodies as they enter the “other side” of their lifespan. And in all of these instances I’m nodding my head in agreement or shaking my head in relief or wondering how the Hell did they climb into my head and pilfer my thoughts and feelings.

Does this mean the podcast doesn’t have value for others, for those that don’t fit that demographic? Obviously not since it’s drawing huge numbers. Does this kind of probing make it any less entertaining? Probably a little. But comedy has been entertaining me my whole life, and it’s always nice when it cuts deeper.

So, check out WTF, if you haven’t already. And if you drop Marc a line (he responded to my fan e-mail within a day), be sure to ask him about “Stalker Guilt Syndrome.” I’d love to hear him talk about it on the podcast.

And speaking of Jonah Kaplan’s film, here ‘tis, all 11 minutes of it. And play it LOUD—it sounds great!

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If you like what  you see and want more, check out Jonah’s interview with director Spike Jonze. Good stuff, good stuff.

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A Very Barney Christmas to You All!

A couple of days ago, in my mini-tribute to the late Steve Landesberg, I posted a clip from an episode of Barney Miller Tracking down that scene—scanning through the three seasons that are available on DVD—brought me so much joy, I’ve strung together many, many more clips. It’s 9 minutes and by no means complete. (Hell, there’s no Inspector Luger and no clips from the legendary hash brownie episode. Sorry!)



You can see how much of a Jack Soo junkie I am. Jesus, that guy was funny. Gratefully, the show’s writers occasionally gave him a chance to show his range. My favorite example was the Season 3 Christmas episode, which aired December 23, 1976. His character, Nick, gets a date with a Japanese mugging victim (Nobu McCarthy), not knowing she’s a hooker. I’ve edited that plotline into a single 7 minute clip. It’s funny, it’s sweet, it makes me wish Soo had done more straight-forward acting.


Happy Holidays!!


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In Praise of Barney Miller

A few days ago, we lost another one. Comedian and actor Steve Landesburg passed away. Sadly underused and underrated, he made his most lasting impact as the fact-filled Lt. Arthur Dietrich on ABC’s Barney Miller, the great sitcom of the 70s.

I’ve always had a special affection for that show. When it originally aired, I was too young to “get” its droll sensibilities. So much of its comedy was derived from pondering, pauses and outright silence, that I hadn’t a clue what could be inspiring so much laughter from the studio audience. Still, I faithfully watched it by my Pop’s side (it was one of his favorites). He’d sit there laughing and laughing, and I’d be saying in my pipsqueak voice, “What’s so funny? I don’t get it? There’s nothing going on! They’re not even talking! Why are you laughing?!” I started to catch on when I was around 11 (aka Barney Miller’s 7th season).

I could go on and on about show’s many accomplishments/merits:
        -its depiction of bankrupt New York City in the 70s and the impact that had on crime and the city’s mentality
        -its theme song, arguably the most-sung bassline of all time, giving air-bassists a weekly workout


-its principle cast (don’t get me started!)





        -its supporting cast, a rotation of character actors, which made the show virtually a weekly Preston Sturges film; creators Danny Arnold and Theodore Flicker fearlessly reused actors season and season, always in different roles, like a stock company. (For example, the crumpled Phil Leeds appeared 7 times in 8 seasons, each time playing a different victim or perpetrator.)


But that praise will have to come another time. Until then, here’s a clip that sums up the show’s strengths. It’s the conclusion of season 3’s 4th episode (“Bus Stop”), which aired October 14, 1976, but that’s all irrelevant. Lt. Dietrich is doing what he usually does—espousing fact after fact—to his fellow detectives, Phil Fish (Abe Vigoda) and Nick Yemana (Jack Soo). It’s a beautiful example of comic timing.

Who could imagine so much laughter could be derived by simply watching two homely men chew doughnuts?

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She Could Turn the World on with Her…

Did you ever notice that Mary Richards (the heroine of The Mary Tyler Moore Show) rarely dated a man for more than a single episode? Oh, sure, that’s the way TV was back then in the 70s, with self-contained episodes, before sitcoms and dramas had on-going storylines, but still, you had to wonder…Just how loose was Mary? Was she a heartbreaker? Afraid of commitment?

I feel neither qualified nor compelled to write at length about the depiction of feminism on The Mary Tyler Moore Show—it’s also too broad and important a topic to shortchange in a blog post. However, while watching on DVD the first three seasons of the show, I became sensitive to this recurring motif (we see how her relationships begin but rarely how they end) and wondered if all involved were subversively telling me something. Finally I saw a moment—a single joke—where all my suspicions were addressed.

I’ve always known that The Mary Tyler Moore Show, which aired from 1970-77, was classic TV, even when I was watching them as first run episodes. (Of course, as a kid, I would have been happier if it were simply The Ted Baxter Show.) As an adult, without having re-watched many episodes in syndication, I would have assessed the show as such:

The Mary Tyler Moore Show was more progressive than its immediate predecessor, Marlo Thomas’s That Girl (1966-71), where the central character’s independence was hampered by her inbred sense of settling down and marrying her boyfriend Donald; and the show was definitely the beginning of career-focused women in TV, paving the way for the likes of Murphy Brown, Carrie Bradshaw and Liz Lemon.

While recently watching the show on DVD, I found that my assessment wasn’t that far off. But it was Mary Richards’s sex life that I hadn’t considered. I guess I thought she had one but didn’t know the show implied it so strongly.

I would have assumed any episode dealing Mary’s sex life would have been clichéd TV: a lengthy set up and an extended scene or two of soul searching on Mary’s part, with a touch of humor here and there. (You know the kind of sitcom episodes I’m talking about, right? The anti-drug episode of Diff’rent Stokes comes to mind. Also, when Edith Bunker enters menopause on All in the Family. Big problems, moral dilemmas, laugh-track free scenes—stuff like that. When I was a kid, you’d always know when these episodes were coming because they’d get a “Close Up” in the TV Guide.)

But, in the hands of Mary Tyler Moore and creators Allan Burns and James L. Brooks, the issue of Mary Richards’s sex life is quite the contrary. There’s a complete lack of judgment or concern. It’s presented matter-of-factly.

A crucial episode of season 3 has Mary’s retired parents moving to Minneapolis, to be near their daughter (“Just Around the Corner,” airdate October 28, 1972). This puts them in direct contact with her day-to-day life, with her mother being overly inquisitive about Mary’s dating habits. We see Mary dressing for a date one night, and the next scene begins the following day, with her entering her apartment—dressed as she was the night before. (I made a genuine WTF?! face when I realized what she was wearing. Nothing like this had ever happened in the show before.)

And that pretty much sums up the attitude. Later, when confronted by her parents, Mary never apologizes for her behavior nor says where she was all night.

But that isn’t the moment I’m referring to. The moment that inspired this post happens a few episodes later and also involves her parents (“You’ve Got a Friend,” airdate November 25, 1972). Here’s the set up, though it’s incidental, trust me: Mary and her father have a difficult, strained relationship, and Mary’s compelled to face him head-on, inviting him to dinner and asking her mother to leave them alone. Since her mother dotes on both of them and acts as perpetual mediator, it’s disarming that Mary asks her to leave.


Not being an expert on early 70s TV, I don’t know how scandalous dialog like this was, but the audience’s reaction is an indication that it was uncommon. What’s key here is that the reveal that Mary is on the Pill not only passes without judgment, it also passes without verbal comment. What I expected would have been the source of a whole episode—Will Mary take the Pill? What does that mean about her loose morals? Is she ready for this?—is simply a joke. And the brilliance of the joke—it’s timing, the performances, its ability to address everything I’ve just written about and still be funny—is what makes this Perfect TV. Perfect.

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While it’s somewhat off-topic, this is the best place to show the impact The Mary Tyler Moore Show’s has had on my life:



-A lifelong dream of mine is to have a job where my name will be on the door, Lou Grant-style!




-My wife and I wanted to put our son’s initials on his bedroom door, but I refused to until I could find the right font. (And there’s only one font that will suffice for a wooden initial.)


-As long as I’ve been food shopping, I always put my meat in the cart like this:

Doesn’t everyone?

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Goodbye, Farewell and Reinvention

The folks behind 30 Rock know their core audience is obsessed with popular culture and has been (clearly) raised on TV. Their Trivial Pursuit-like references test the intelligence of even the geekiest of fans, and the May, 2009, episode “Kidney Now!” has one of the best. NBC page Kenneth is helping Tracey Jordan though the trauma he experienced in a high school science class, and they are interrupted by Jack Donaghy’s father, played by Alan Alda…

Alda’s line about a “chicken and a baby” is an explicit reference to a crucial scene in the series finale of M*A*S*H, “Goodbye, Farewell & Amen,” which aired in 1983. For those who need a reminder, here’s 90 second clip, edited down to its bare essentials. Hawkeye Pierce, played by Alda, is in an army psychiatric hospital recovering from a nervous breakdown. He’s telling his doctor (Allan Arbus  1)about the experience that triggered it: He, his fellow soldiers and some Korean refugees were in bus hiding from an enemy patrol, and a woman’s chicken wouldn’t keep quiet…


I loved the joke on 30 Rock (the “It was a baby!” moment has been a touchstone with my crowd for years), but my wife missed it. In fact, most of the people I asked—peers, mind you, also in their early 40s—missed it. But certainly they had all seen it. Everyone did. The finale to M*A*S*H is one of the most watched events on TV (let me be clear here: the series finale of The Sopranos was watched by 12 million people, whereas the M*A*S*H finale had 121 million viewers), and yet today one of its most memorable moments (good or bad) might as well be an in-joke.

Naturally, this is due in part to its age: the M*A*S*H finale aired 26 years before the 30 Rock season finale. But that’s not the only reason most people missed that joke, as far as I can see. M*A*S*H the Series must be one of the biggest examples of a cultural phenomenon that has an incredibly weak lasting impact. Incredibly weak.

M*A*S*H was a massive media machine its last few seasons, with non-stop press, awards, books, calendars, clothing, etc. My God, it was sick. (Who wouldn’t want their kid to be Max Klinger for Halloween?) And I’ll freely admit that I drank that (Un)Kool Aid. Sure, I preferred the older episodes (and continue to have a soft spot for the first few seasons), ones I could see 10 times a week in syndication, but I was thrilled to be watching the new episodes, being a part of truly popular culture. And, yes, I was psyched for that finale, having my own M*A*S*H party (everybody did) and proud it received such ginormous ratings, beating the record set in 1980 by Dallas’s “Who Shot J.R.?” episode (screw you, Larry Hagman!)

But, wow, did that show become yesterday’s news fast. And revisiting it (for the sake of this post) it’s not hard to see why. Jesus, what a self-important mess. Plodding, pompous, preachy (the 3 P’s of Bad Television). Unfunny to the nth degree, too. And Mike Farrell’s mustache may be the worst TV has ever seen.

Mind you, in the 80s, there were several critics who said exactly what I just did. They were right on the money in their contemporary assessment (but I ignored them a bunch of naysayers). None were more astute than the Usual Gang of Idiots at MAD Magazine. In October, 1982, they brilliantly skewered the show’s de-evolution from situation comedy to sanctimonious pulpit. It includes one of my all-time favorite MAD panels:

And that laugh-out-loud piece of business brings us back to Alan Alda, the actor who in the last seasons became the show’s driving force (he was a frequent writer and director). Presumably, the show’s holier-than-thou, War-is-Hell attitude was an extension of his own beliefs, and in the wake of the show, he laid low for a few years. He graciously gave us all a break, perhaps because of burn-out, perhaps hiding from the unavoidable backlash in the wake of such tremendous success.

But beginning in 1989, he stole scenes as Lester in Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors (“If it bends, it’s funny…”) and reinvented himself as a character actor with a knack for playing assholes, liars and egomaniacs. And the Band Played On, The Aviator, Flash of Genius  2, and ER all benefited from his contributions. (Full disclosure: I’ve never seen him The West Wing.) In 2005, he played Shelly Levene in a Broadway revival of Glengarry Glen Ross, and, man, it was something to behold. (This was Jack Lemmon’s role in the film version, and Alda made it his own.)

(Besides the plethora of memorable supporting roles, there’s an oft-told story that endeared Alda to me as well: Sometime in the last decade he attended an dinner ceremony for Queen Elizabeth II and while standing in the reception line, he realized he was next to Donald Sutherland, who originated the role of Hawkeye Peirce in the film version of M*A*S*H. Alda leaned over to Sutherland and whispered, “Thank you for my life.” I love that story.)

I can’t imagine what Alan Alda means to someone who didn’t live through the 70s and 80s. I suppose to the young’un’s who care, he’s exactly as I described: a superlative character actor who tends to play a jerk. (The IMDB lists his acting trademark as “often plays ambitious authority figures that are corrupt and unethical.”) But 30 years ago he was so much more: actor, writer, director, activist, male feminist, peace-loving TV preacher, and possibly one of America’s first metrosexuals. Honestly, he did not come across as someone with a sense of humor about himself, much less an actor who’d go on a show and poke fun at his precious M*A*S*H.

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Frankly, this whole post began because of Seinfeld. I’ve been re-watching seasons 4 though 7 and marveling at the abundance of references to ancient or arcane pop culture. For example, in one episode (“The Hamptons”), in a matter of minutes, there are references to The Graduate; Johnny Carson’s mannerisms; Tang and the Space Program; and the theme song to the Bea Arthur series Maude. I saw an episode last night where a punchline was “Hey, it’s better than Dondi”!

And so stay tuned for a future post: the Seinfeld Pop Culture Literacy Test!

(By the way, he M*A*S*H memorabilia photos came from the wonderful and thorough blog AfterM*A*S*H, by Rob Kelly. If you’d like to see someone intelligently pay tribute to the show and put it in perspective, pay him a visit.)

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BACK TO POST 1 Yes, Diane Arbus’s ex-husband. How weird is that?

BACK TO POST 2 Flash of Genius (2008) is a film about the inventor of the intermittent windshield wiper, wonderfully played by Greg Kinnear. Alda, playing a lawyer, has only a few scenes, but he’s great. Frankly, whenever I hear he’s in a film I’m about to see, I say, “Fuckin’ A!”

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Richard Pryor, Live and in Your Living Room!

PREFACE: 1980
My friend and I are huddled around a turntable, listening to the new Cheech & Chong LP, Let’s Make A New Dope Deal, particularly one very vulgar bit called “17th American Tour” where the comedy duo say the F-word 41 times in under 3 minutes. Somewhere around our fifth straight tear-filled listening, my father suddenly yells from the first floor, “Stephen! Get down here! And bring that record!”

He’s furious. He berates me for listening to such offensive garbage. As he does this, he tries in vain to break the LP in half (his MS no doubt an impediment), yelling at one point, “Damn unbreakable records! 78s used to break when you dropped them on the floor!” And then a moment later, out of breath, “…Get the scissors.”

I’m crying at this point (my father never yells at me this way so I’m terrified). I get the scissors and he has me stand there while he does sloppy White Man Hip Hop to both sides of the LP (such a sound!). I’m ashamed of myself, with the same sentence playing over and over in my head: “$7.98 plus tax…$7.98 plus tax…[sob]…$7.98 plus tax…”

Now I told you that story to prove the depths of my father’s disdain for profane humor. Here’s another…

THREE YEARS EARLIER
My family loved comedy and comedy records, and for Christmas, 1977, my mother gave us an unusual and wonderful treat: a triple LP set called 25 Years of Recorded Comedy. It had samples—one “bit” each—from the likes of Stan Freberg, Nichols and May, Alan Sherman and so on, and we all sat in the living room, listening and laughing. (One of the happiest memories of my childhood.)

But there was one track that my Pop forbade my brother and I from listening to: Richard Pryor’s “Just Us.” With little group discussion—and, obviously, no House Vote—it was decided that Richard Pryor was an Evil Comic who Spewed Obscenities. And my father wanted to keep Pryor’s influence from our home, ears and impressionable brains. His solution was clever and memorable: a thin stream of Elmer’s glue over only Pryor’s track. 1

That fall of 1977, my poor dad must have felt his civilized world was crumbling around him since that was when Richard Pryor entered (white) middle American households via his variety series The Richard Pryor Show.

THE SHOW
For the uninitiated, here’s some background. (Much has been written about this show; the Wiki entry is good, the TV Party article is better.) By mid-1977, Richard Pryor had crossed over into the mainstream thanks to some very successful comedy records (…Is It Something I Said?) and some very successful films (Silver Streak), and TV was the next frontier. His one-hour TV special (which aired May, 1977) was a critical and commercial success, and NBC gave him a variety show for that fall.

Besides his growing demographic, I strongly suspect that NBC chose to do this because of the enormous success of Saturday Night Live. Those my age will remember the hugeness of that show; its impact was straight across the board. It was a money-generating blast of counter-culture, and I imagine NBC (which was failing miserably in primetime) thought they could spread their success/luck: “Let’s put an envelope-pushing, controversial black comic on primetime! We’ve got nothing to lose!”

The contract’s ink wasn’t dry before all involved—on both sides of the deal—realized they’d made a terrible mistake. Pryor admitted his was in over his head and put his best foot forward, trying his damnedest to squeeze some genuine, thought-=provoking ideas into a format that had been stagnant since The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour was cancelled in 1969.

Immediately, NBC treated the production to equal parts meddling and indifference (think of that: they fucked with it and ignored it, like beating someone up and forgetting you’re doing it at the same time).

The TV Guide ad

As far as their meddling goes, NBC did things like airing it at 8pm Tuesdays, opposite ABC’s biggest hits, Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley—which is as counter-productive as you can get.

As for the indifference, there’s no other way to explain how the show’s content aired. It’s fascinating. Each episode is a head-scratching mix of out-and-out variety show-style sketches (they wouldn’t be out of place on a Donny & Marie episode); bits of social commentary; and bona fide weirdness, stretches that can be best described as performance art. The shifts are schizophrenic (I believe the cliché is “coke-fueled”), and you spend half the time feeling bad for Richard Pryor, who’s being attacked incessantly by the white-sounding laugh track, and the other half of the time saying, “How did this get onto primetime TV?!”

The show was cancelled within a month. Only four were episodes were produced and to NBC’s credit, all were aired. Within that month, some of the sketches inexplicably leaked into America’s living rooms included:

-Pryor as the first black president holding his initial press conference. Its pace is completely at odds with conventional comedy television writing (where each line should be a set-up or a punchline), and the studio audience laughs through the first half of the sketch even though it’s not intended be funny.

-A construction worker inexplicably breaks into song (“I Gotta Be Me”) and strips down to a bikini.

A guy walks into a gun shop, bumps into Travis Bickle, and “overhears” the guns talking to him, urging him to buy them. It’s really unsettling.

-“New Talent,” definitely one of the strangest things I’ve seen on TV. Within the show, this “sketch” has no context or explanation, and may be the best example of NBC’s indifference (how could they have OK’ed this?).


It’s one thing to expect Richard Pryor and his associates, knowing they were on a sinking ship, to do anything they wanted (“Hey, you can only cancel us once!”), but what was going on in at NBC to think Richard Pryor could ever be packaged for mainstream TV? Were they that desperate? Did his appeal seem that broad? Was the impact of Saturday Night Live so strong that they thought something similar could be unleashed on a school night?

The Richard Pryor Show came out on DVD in 2004. It includes all four episodes (plus the TV special that got him into this mess in the first place). There’s wonderful bonus material, too. It’s really top-notch package, and I strongly recommend it as an excellent example of TV at its strangest and most daring, an incredibly brief moment when the stars lined up and gave a brilliant man and progressive thinker the keys to America’s living rooms. It was a failure, true, but a fascinating one nevertheless.

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BACK TO POST 1  A few years ago, my brother blogged about this in more detail, after Richard Pryor passed away.

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