Tag Archives: Don Altobell

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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“You had to be there.”

As I said in a prior post, my Pop was the funniest man I ever met—and a great storyteller to boot. And my Mother’s got both those bases covered, too. So it’s in my blood to want to tell funny stories. My schooling at their hands, however, was brutal at times.

For example, when I was five or six years old, my stories would go on and on (and on), and since I hadn’t lived much of a life yet, my stories would typically be descriptions of TV shows, say, episodes of Gilligan’s Island. And at a certain point—the point when they felt my quorum on the dinnertime conversation had run its course—they’d do one of two things:

Portrait of the blogger as a young bore.

-Start buzzing and moving their heads in a circular gesture, imitating the annoying, dull drone of a bee.

-They’d start saying, “And then…and then…and then…and then…” to remind me that my library of segue words (i.e. however, therefore, suddenly, but, next) was very limited. My stories really were single sentences, such as: “And then Gilligan broke the coconut, and then the Skipper said, ‘Gilligan!’ and then the professor had to fix the cocoanut and then…”

Now, this kind of bitchslapping when you’re six whips you into shape, believe me. By the time I was eight, I was a mini Spalding Gray.

Before you go on thinking my folks were a pair of tools, I should be clear: I’m very grateful they did this (I expect to behave similarly towards my own son); and I’ve never met two more enthusiastic listeners. They were supportive and responsive—but they were also a tough crowd.

As I got older, my Pop added a new ripple to his reactions: “You had to be there.” If I told a joke or story that sank like a rock, his immediate reaction was to say that to me. And he wasn’t saying, “F U. You just wasted my time.” He was saying, “We’ve all been there. Better luck next time.”

Later on, in my teens, I noticed that if he told a joke that tanked, he’d be the first to say, “Well, you had to be there.” He was his own toughest audience, and that was the next lesson he imparted: at any point in telling a story, if you realize you’re wasting everyone’s time, jump ship ASAP and save face with a good-natured, “You had to be there.”

Sadly, I don’t have any recorded examples of my Pop saying that to me, but here’s a quick example that caught my eye. It’s from a DVD collection of sketches from Your Show of Shows. In an interview, comedian Howard Morris talks about jazz dancer Jack Cole. It’s a dead-end of a story and a few sentences he salvages it with the five magic words—and, when I saw this, I laughed out loud and thought, “Wow. He used ‘You had to be there’ as a punchline. Brilliant.” Maybe you’ll agree, or…maybe you had to be there.

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Pop

My father, Don Altobell, will be a recurring character on this blog, so it makes sense to give him a post, just for reference. I’ll keep it brief. Some adjectives, a story or two, a few pictures.

My Pop was quite a character. A legend in his own mind, as his friends would kid him. Only child. Teenage bodybuilder. Bandstand dancer and heartthrob. Navyman. Artist. Early 60s Philly adman. Sinatra fan extraordinaire. Incredible optimist. Victim to MS. And the funniest man I ever met (and ever will meet).

He was an amazing storyteller and was most comfortable telling you about himself. Yet self-obsession has never been so likable and illuminating. By the time I was a young adult, his disease had left him nearly crippled and with a limited view of the contemporary world. You’d expect this would narrow his ability to relate to me, but that wasn’t the case. When I would tell him something about my life, he’d counter with a story from his past that let me know he knew where I was coming from.

For example, once I told him I was dating this wealthy girl and felt intimidated by her family’s pomp and circumstance. He immediately countered with: “When I was 14, I was getting close to this girl. Her family had some money, sorta hoidy toidy. She had the first TV in the neighborhood—which made her a local celebrity!–and when she invited me over, I was eager to see it. We were sitting her living room and I’m looking around, seeing if I could catch a glimpse of her TV. Finally, I couldn’t take it any more and asked her where it was. She stuck her nose up in the air and said, “Why it’s in the television room!’…Yeah, that didn’t last long.” That was Pop’s idea of advice, and it was on the money.

Sadly, the MS he had since ’63 finally inked the deal in 2006. As a testimony to my Pop’s charm, there were buddies at his funeral from every stage of his life, from childhood through to the end. How he kept those friendships alive over the decades, including the final decades where he could do little more than make phone calls from his bed, blew my mind. The older one gets, the harder it gets to keep these bonds, and, sadly, a lot of people let an illness like MS be an excuse to let a friendship die. But these guys really loved him and he them, and I know all of them would agree that they never met anyone like Don.

He and my Mother, or Piccina as he called her, were a darling couple for a dozen years or so and provided the groundwork for the man I am today. The first few years of their marriage, they’d celebrate their anniversaries by drinking some cheap champagne and tape-recording a summary of the prior year. In 1971, when I was one, my Pop had some MS-related problems that put him in the hospital, and this four minute mp3 is his description of that event, preserved on their anniversary tape.

I was 31 when I heard this for the first time (he’s 32 in the recording) and consider myself a solid storyteller—but, man, he sends me back to school with this. His timing, his humor, his laughter—just impeccable. (My Mom’s interjections and laughter are a great touch, too.) He’s self-deprecating but never self-pitying. I get the feeling that a few hours after this horrible event happened, he’d already translated it into an hysterical tale.

You may never hear a funnier catheter story.


Don Altobell’s Hospital Story (3:42, right-click to download)

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