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.
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).
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.