In a Rare Early Performance, Richard Pryor Sings and George Carlin Gets in Character
The Paley Center for Media, which has locations in both New York and LA, dedicates itself to the preservation of television and radio history. Inside their vast archives of more than 150,000 television shows, commercials, and radio programs, there are thousands of important and funny programs waiting to be rediscovered by comedy nerds like you and me. Each week, this column will highlight a new gem waiting for you at the Paley Library to quietly laugh at. (Seriously, it’s a library, so keep it down.)
When I write an article that reaches pretty deep into the archives, I might spend a lot of time giving some context: talking about how different tastes were, or what you were or were not allowed to do on television. Well, the subject of today’s piece is an incredibly strange one. A TV show so odd, that I can’t accurately tell you who this was made for. It’s an episode of Kraft Summer Music Hall, which ran on television for 13 years (38 if you count the radio version), from 1958 to 1971. The show was a blend of up-tempo musical performances, short comedy interstitials, and commercials for Kraft products. Based on the mostly bland choices in music, this seems geared more to adults than say, American Bandstand, but who cares. But there is a reason that we’re talking about it today. On the August 8, 1966 installment of the program, in between ads for Miracle Whip and Cracker Barrel cheese spread came two of the most unexpected comedy guest stars: George Carlin and Richard Pryor.
Now if you were a regular viewer of Kraft Summer Music Hall, Carlin’s appearance wouldn’t have been that surprising actually. It turns out that Carlin was the show’s only writer (but before you feel too bad for him having to ride solo, don’t worry. As you’ll see, for a 60 minute show there wasn’t that much writing to do) and made regular appearances on the show. Now, it’s important to remember that 1960s George Carlin is much different from 1970s-2000s Carlin. While he’s most well known for his honest, social commentary pieces, such as his “seven dirty words” bit, he had a much more clean-cut, personality in the beginning stages of his career, and that’s the Carlin that came to the Kraft Summer Music Hall.
On this episode, Carlin interacts with the show’s host, John Davidson, as a variation of one of his most famous characters, the Hippy Dippy Mailman. (You can see a clip of him as basically the same character in weatherman format here.) Al Pouch, the Hippy Dippy Mailman enters with his mailbag, asking “What’s happening? Que pasa? Que pasa? Que pasa?” and frequently begins scatting, apropos of nothing. When the flustered host asks him if he has to fool around every time he comes on, Al responds: “No, I could do it every other time. Or every third time. I could conceivably fool around every 263th time.” He then goes through the mail with the audience which includes a “best wishes for the new year” letter from the IRS, and a letter marked “personal” which he had opened. When the host scolds him, saying that opening personal mail could put his job in jeopardy, Al doesn’t seem worried. “Great, man. I don’t like it in the mailroom. Jeopardy, that’s a great show. I’d go there.” Before shuffling off (while scatting) Al informs his boss that there won’t be any mail next week for the holiday: Dave Brubeck’s birthday, which, for you, a reader in the 2010s, is either a fine capper to a bit, or a fun name for you to Google.
Also appearing on this episode is the great Richard Pryor, whose career followed a very similar trajectory as Carlin’s. With regards to his early years, Wikipedia uses a term that was new to me: middlebrow, which, as it sounds, describes that area right between highbrow and lowbrow and refers to easily accessible art. Like Carlin, Pryor in the 1960s was peddling mostly inoffensive stuff. In fact, just slightly a year after this episode aired, Pryor had what he called an “epiphany” when he walked on stage in Las Vegas in front of a sold-out crowd, looked them over, and then shouted “What the fuck am I doing here!?”, and then walked off, which led to the much harder edged comedian who made his way into the mainstream.
This earlier incarnation of Pryor enters wearing a sweater and speaks for six minutes about performing in a play in kindergarten in his hometown of Peoria, Illinois. “You might have read the reviews in 1946 or so.” The majority of Pryor’s act in this episode is comprised of him actually performing the play, portraying each of the kindergarteners playing their roles to varying degrees of success. Unfortunately for you, a lot of the humor lies in Pryor’s ability to transform himself physically and vocally and do some pretty entertaining impressions of kindergartners. There is a particularly wonderful moment in which the little boy playing Rumplestiltskin repeats “I’m Rumplestiltskin and I’m a meanie!” three times, each time with lessening confidence, before glancing off-stage, mouthing the word “what?” off stage, then giving the perfect I-don’t-know-the-line look and repeating the one he does remember again, that I don’t think I can get into words.
While this chunk is significantly different from the persona he would later become famous for, there are a few moments of subversiveness that managed to creep into his act. Later in the show, Pryor returns for a moment to showcase a couple of his impressions. These include the first man to walk on the sun, (he hops around holding his burning feet), a Japanese robot/karate expert (he does some karate chops in a robotic way. I’m pretty sure this is long before people were dancing the robot, so this was a bit more novel), and a cowboy attempting to ride a horse that doesn’t want to be ridden. Not exactly the type of impression most audiences would’ve expected at this time. In fact, this bit reminded me a lot of one that would later be done by Louis CK in the early stages of his stand-up career in which he did a series of similarly esoteric, conceptual impressions.
My favorite move Pryor made on the show was incredibly subtle and seemed to have been lost on the live audience watching him. Following his first set, the host joined him on stage, handed him a piece of paper and told him that he was to read it out loud. I’m going to ruin the surprise right now and tell you that this was the copy that would launch the show into it’s second Kraft commercial of the night. I’m sure Pryor knew this, and he decided to take his sweet time getting to it. First he began reading it “glib, blag, glab…” paused for a moment, then turned the paper right side up. This gets the slight chuckle from the audience that it deserved. Then he reads it straight: “And now we pause for a message from our friends at KRAFT.” The first part of that sentence is read jovially. But once he hits the name Kraft, his voice drops suddenly and becomes deep and imposing, with intense gravitas. As the camera slowly pushes in to transition into the commercial, Pryor stares it down, refusing to break, just making eye contact the entire time, forcing the home viewer to blink first as the image fades to black. It was the move of someone who didn’t want to make waves but also didn’t want to read a commercial on TV. It was a great, odd little moment.
Odder still was Pryor’s last appearance in this episode. As you might guess from the title of the program, there’s a lot of music. The performers that week include Jimmy Boyd, Mimi Dillard, a vocal quartet of all blonde singers called the Five King Cousins, and Jackie and Gayle, a female vocal group. They all get a couple of songs on the show, and eventually, they all got fast-forwarded through by me. However, in the big finale, a medley of songs about rivers (“Moon River,” “Down by the Riverside,” etc), suddenly Richard Pryor jumps into frame, sings a verse, does a wacky, flailing dance, sings another verse and then jumps away. Based on his enthusiasm I can’t tell if he was forced to do it or if he requested it. Either way, hearing Richard Pryor sing was the last thing I expected from the Kraft Music Hour.
There’s no show like the Kraft Music Hour anymore, which is sort of a shame. Not because I need an hour of vocal groups giving me bland, watered-down covers of Top 40 hits, but for a way to showcase comedy to a national audience in this way. With television as fractalized as it is today, there’s no big showcase that hits such a huge population all at once. Even though both Carlin and Pryor still had a long way to go in their development as comedians, clearly having a little bit of national exposure in their careers at that stage didn’t hurt them any. Plus, I got to hear one of them sing “River Stay ‘Way From My Door.”