Today is the birthday of Richard Pryor (1940-2005). Here’s my infallible capsule assessment of Pryor: a histrionic genius at the art of storytelling on the stand-up stage, with a film career not nearly as distinguished. He’s far from alone there; there are many about whom that can be said…Steve Martin, Robin Williams, a long, long list. These comedians might sell tickets, but the movies ain’t too good. I think there’s probably an entire book in talking about why that’s so. And oh the powerful enemies I’d make! At any rate, when we say that Pryor was a genius — and he was a genius — the evidence comes not from his narrative films but from his record albums, and his concert films. And to a certain extent, his very short-lived comedy variety show.
I would say The Richard Pyor Show aired at the height of his fame, but his fame was to grow to even greater heights up until the mid 1980s, so it’s more accurate to say that his show happened when he first struck it really big. In the wake of several hit albums starting with That N–ger’s Crazy (1974) and his first hit film as star Silver Streak (1976), AND in the wake of the success of the controversial, risky satirical sketch program Saturday Night Live and Pryor’s own successful 1977 tv special, NBC decided to give him his own comedy variety series. The show was essentially stillborn, however. Ticked off by network interference coming out of the gate, Pryor eventually signed on for only four of the originally planned ten episodes. Rather than give him a late night slot (which would have made actual sense) they put him in prime time at 8pm, an apparent self-fulfilling act of self-destruction: his work was simultaneously bowdlerized (thus likely to alienate his hardcore fans), and also no doubt shunned by more conservative audience members.
The resulting product is a weird beast. It definitely pushes the envelope and busts through boundaries but often in a reckless, what-the-hell-we’re-cancelled-anyway fashion. Yes, the material is risky in ways that pioneer, presage and pave the way for later shows like In Living Color and Chapelle’s Show. But occasionally it’s less funny ha-ha than funny weird and self-indulgent. Yet it’s often screamingly hilarious in ways television seldom dares to be, and is genuinely satirical in ways that television NEVER is. As an added bonus, the show features numerous people who were about to strike it big but were still unknowns, among them Robin Williams, Sandra Bernhard, Marsha Warfield, Tim Reid and Paul Mooney. Last I checked, all four episodes were up on Youtube; I’ve stopped putting clips here because they always go dead. If you’re lucky, you’ll see what is probably the most notorious segment from the show, in which a rock act called the Black Death exterminates an audience of white teenagers with poisonous gas, and then machine guns the survivors. Humor? Genocide? Why make categories?
To find out more about show biz past and present (including tv variety) consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.