An edited version of this article appeared on Groovyhistory.com
In the '70s and '80s, no comedian owned the title of "Comic's comic" more than Richard Pryor. The foul-mouthed, in-your-face Pryor trampled the clean-cut Bill Cosby style with comedy albums titled "That Nigger's Crazy" and "Bicentennial Nigger." Those two comedy albums went gold and won Grammys in back to back years. Despite an insanely difficult childhood where he was raised by his grandmother in a brothel, Pryor found success creating a comedic style that was never seen before or since.
Even in the face of his expletive-laden, can't-believe-what-he-just-said style, NBC decided they should give the wildly successful comedian his own network show. In '77 a short but legendary four-episode run of "The Richard Pryor Show” shocked the world.
An Inauspicious Opening
If NBC needed any hints as to how Pryor would run his own television show, the cold open answered any and all questions. The introduction that never aired depicted a buck naked Richard Pryor with his genitalia removed like a Ken doll. Perhaps the legendarily transparent Pryor was trying to tell audiences something about the behind the scenes negotiations over content.
"Look at me, I'm standing here naked. I've given up absolutely nothing," a testicle-less Pryor exclaimed, answering people's concerns that network television would compromise his artistic genius. It's also worth mentioning that Pryor chose "For The Love Of Money" as the theme song. Maybe after seeing his preferred opening, NBC began questioning their decision to slot a twig and berry-less Pryor in the middle of "family hour" on Tuesdays.
A Rock Star Cast
Thanks to Pryor's larger than life status, especially in comedy circles, the show attracted a hall of fame lineup of funny people. Robin Williams, Marsha Warfield, Sandra Bernhard, John Witherspoon, Paul Mooney, John Belushi, Maya Angelou, Edie McClurg, and Alan Thicke formed a who's who of the funniest people alive.
However, they all quaked in the presence of Pryor. "I totally panicked," said Warfield about working with Pryor. "We were all just intimidated. He was a legend becoming an icon. He was already a superstar, but he had not yet, at that time, reached the heights that he was to reach. We were just little children sitting at the master's feet."
The Most Influential Comedian, Maybe Ever
Finding a few of the old Richard Pryor Show sketches on youtube isn't hard. What is difficult to believe is how forward-thinking and influential those sketches became. Pryor essentially created the "Dave Chappelle Show" and "Key & Peele" 35 years before they came about. Chapelle himself considers Pryor one of his heroes, "You know those, like, evolution charts of man? He was the dude walking upright. Richard was the highest evolution of comedy."
Ahead Of His Time
One of the most famous sketches from the show portrayed Pryor as the President, answering questions from the media. After taking questions on the Middle East and unemployment, Pryor takes a question from "Brother Bell" of Ebony Magazine. "Brother, about blacks in the labor force," Bell says, "I wanna know what you gonna do about having more black brothers as quarterbacks in the National Football Honky League."
As only Pryor could, he answered, "I plan not only to have lots of black quarterbacks, but we gon' have black coaches and black owners of teams. As long as it's gon' be football, it's gon' be some black in it somewhere!" It's been decades since "The Richard Pryor Show," and we are still seriously talking about things that Pryor was lampooning over three decades ago.
According to Warfield, Pryor's comedy influenced an entire generation, "That was the comedy that Richard did," Warfield said. "That was the kind of comedy I was learning how to do. You do stuff you care about and you bring issues to the forefront. And punch up at sacred cows."
An Ignominious End To The Amazing Richard Pryor Show
When Pryor found out the producers were replacing his naked opening, lampooning his fight with censors, he quit. Ultimately, they talked him back into the fold but that fight set the tone. Actor Tim Reid remembers the reaction from NBC producers, "You'd think we were building nuclear fusion equipment," said Reid, laughing. "They were so afraid of us because they knew what we were doing was so counter to the system of TV."
Some sketches that turned the squares in bunches depicted a rock star killing all his white fans with a machine gun and a lesbian describing her first sexual experience in a park. However, the show also possessed a soul. In one episode, Maya Angelou delivered an original monologue, detailing the pain black women face from the traumas initiated by black men.
In another, Pryor goes to buy a gun and each weapon tells its history from shooting a kid to fighting in wars. NBC producers pulled their hair out over the show's four-episode run but the people who found it and the New York Times approved, "If there are any problems about content, the time slot should go but Mr. Pryor should definitely stay. Television can use his originality." Pryor called it quits after four episodes, unable to deal with the censorship or his growing drug problems.