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Tuesday, August 19th, 2014

What's So Special About 'The Richard Pryor Special'?

showbusinessThere's a famous story about The Richard Pryor Show — as Richard Pryor's star was rising in Hollywood in the 1970s, NBC commissioned the man to make a 10-episode sketch program to be broadcast in prime time. Family-friendly viewing not being Pryor's first priority, he clashed with the censors again and again until finally they let him off with only four episodes. These four episodes are still credited with an enormous influence over the genre of TV sketch comedy — directly cited by future blockbusters such as In Living Color and Chapelle's Show — and launching the careers of several performers, including the late Robin Williams in one of his first-ever roles.

But in all the fuss people make about Pryor's show, no one ever talks about the 45-minute special Pryor produced for NBC as a pilot for his series. Everything unique that the show did was done better and more concisely in The Richard Pryor Special?, broadcast in May 1977. It says all you need to know about Pryor that this special features a heartbreaking monologue written and performed by Maya Angelou and it still gets overshadowed by his other work.

The Richard Pryor Special? deserves a more prominent place in the hearts and minds of fans of the man generally regarded as the greatest standup comedian of all time. Let's look at all of the reasons why.

The special opens on a slave ship, one of the most salient images with which to start a story about centuries of Blackness in America. John Belushi, playing the vicious boss, needs a victim to perform some unnamed awful task and, finding no volunteers, picks Pryor, who pleads for mercy. It is to no avail. He is dragged above deck, screaming while Belushi hisses, “You're going to NBC!  You're going to do your own special!” “No, no!”

It's short and gets to the point. Not the most agreeable way to open a variety show, but Mr. Pryor was not known for doing the most agreeable kind of comedy in the first place.

When you watch the special, you should keep in mind that Richard Pryor's work was always intensely autobiographical. This is a man who bounced back from the burn ward by writing and starring in Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling, a movie about a stand-up comedian who set himself on fire.

Second, by this time Pryor had become a household name — “the next big Black superstar of our time,” as one character in the special calls him — the entire special is steeped with an ambivalence about his prominence. This was something that he struggled with through his career.

jameslwhiteRemember, before he wrote anything resembling the material he became famous for, Pryor made it to Las Vegas with a very clean act, before his first public meltdown. Then he spent a few years in Oakland absorbing Malcolm X and rubbing elbows with Huey Newton, co-founder of the Black Panther Party. He came out with a whole new act, centering the African-American experience. He was not the first comedian to do this, but he reached a new height with it, and with that came all the burdens that being a prominent representative of a minority group brings.

That's why opening with the sketch on the ship is important. He knows he's being paid by white men to do a show whose success will be decided by white men. The whole special is preoccupied with Black visibility, Black representation, Black celebrities, and self-presentation, as was much of Pryor's work, but the medium of sketch comedy gives it a more intentional tone than the casual chat-over-beers patter of his standup.

The frame story for the special is Mr. Pryor, in his tuxedo, hurrying through the NBC backlot to his show, only to get distracted or to be offered unsolicited ideas for what to do on his show. The frame makes it a more personal, paced, and grounded program than the show NBC ended up commissioning, which took a looser attitude to structure and subject matter.

Pryor frontloads the most traditionally funny sketches, and true to form, they're killers. The rhinestone-studded Reverend James L. White hosts a telecast where he mentions God maybe twice and money every single sentence. It's particularly cathartic to hear a televangelist character say, upfront, lines like, “Some of you say, 'Why don't you just sell some of your boats? Some of your big fabulous hotels?' … And that's easy for you to say, because you have none of these things.” It's a great character, and one who rightly decorates the front of the DVD set.

While you're still warm from that sketch, you get one of my personal favorite gags of all time. Pryor wasn't going to do anything conventional for his show's musical guest.

That one joke would justify Pryor's fame even if he never wrote another word.

The show goes on like that, I don't want to spoil everything for you. There's a sketch where he runs into a security guard and a man looting the set of Wheel of Fortune, which could go in a college lecture about W.E.B. Du Bois's idea of double consciousness, seeing oneself through the eyes of an oppressor. In this special, however, it's barely a blip on the radar — there and gone before you realize it's funny.

mudboneFor one sketch, Pryor does an impression of Idi Amin Dada, contributing the only part of the show that drags to watch in the modern day. John and Dennis Williams, who wrote the staggeringly comprehensive Pryor analysis If I Stop I'll Die, can only describe it as “a bomb.” But it's quick and introduces a change of pace, at least.

The wino sketch. In any other show, this would be a normal, five-minute piece about a drunk, he'd stagger home, end of story. But there's a darkness to it. It's hard to enjoy any of this, the staging is unnerving — they're in half a bar floating in a black void — and everyone is visibly unhappy. This is the sketch that uses the wino character Mr. Pryor would keep coming back to, in a much more pathetic state than the triumphant savant he usually is. The sketch passes uncomfortably.

Then, the wino staggers home. He makes it to the living room and passes out in front of his wife, Maya Angelou, who then delivers a soliluquy about alcoholism, racism, hopelessness, and love that no human being can watch without needing a hug. It's another moment that could redeem a lesser program, but this show is made almost entirely of such moments.

Toward the end, a group of children appear to show Pryor a song they've put together, about different accomplishments that all sorts of different races have made. It's couched in extremely 70s terminology (“the red man” and so forth) but it's the only part of the show that isn't a little dark, a little perverse. It's not amazing, but it's absolutely adorable to see the warmth Pryor had working with children (see also: Pryor's Place).

It's a long run from Maya Angelou's piece through this song with no real laughs, but if you didn't get it, the kids sum up Pryor's thoughts on the show directly: “How about something educational?  Something socially relevant?” “You have a unique vehicle, Mr. Pryor, and we think you should use it as a forum for meaningful expression.” (They're very eloquent kids.)

After this he's dragged into the writers' room by straw-Black Panthers, commanding him, by threatening his dogs, to do a sketch where he beats up white people. The sketch is weird because, as mentioned above, Pryor knew Black Panther Party co-founder Huey Newton, and was no stranger to these philosophies, but he caricatured them all the same. (Sandra Bernhard also turns up and, in five seconds, pretty much performs the way I feel as a white girl trying to explain why this special is so good.)

Longtime Pryor collaborator Paul Mooney gave the opinion in his memoir Black is the New White that a lot of Pryor's stress came from knowing he stood as a visible Black man in a country that would use any reason to hate his race. Mooney saw reflections of this in another comedian he worked with extensively, Dave Chapelle, who gave a similar reason for why he ended his show — there were too many people who didn't “get” play with stereotypes, and just wanted an excuse to say racial slurs.

Richard Pryor was always conflicted about the way his work affected people, and even late in his life had a lot to say about it — he even publicly spoke out against aspects of his own earlier work. But there is a point where you can agonize too much over these things, and sometimes you have to do something flawed or else you’ll never get anything done. That’s the heart of The Richard Pryor Special? and I think it makes for a pretty cute punchline, too.

This article would not have been possible without Paul Mooney's memoir Black is the New White or the extremely insightful Pryor biography If I Stop I'll Die by John A. and Dennis A. Williams.

Many thanks to Pittsburgh stand-up comedian Norlex Belma (link: https://twitter.com/NorlexSaid ) for pointing me in the direction of Mooney's book.

Abby Denton is a Pittsburgh comic who tweets, wrestles, and plays a lot of Pokemon.