“Saturday Night Live” and Richard Pryor: The untold story behind “SNL’s” edgiest sketch ever

The amazing word-association sketch between Pryor and Chevy Chase capped a tense week -- here's the inside story VIDEO

Topics: Video, Books, TV, Television, Richard Pryor, Saturday Night Live, Lorne Michaels, Chevy Chase, Johnny Carson, Editor's Picks,

"Saturday Night Live" and Richard Pryor: The untold story behind "SNL's" edgiest sketch ever

Up until the mid-1970s, the networks had little interest in Saturday late-night shows. After the eleven o’clock news, the airwaves were a bone-yard for local affiliates, the final resting place for schlock movies from the 1950s and ’60s. NBC stations had the option of rerunning recent episodes of “The Tonight Show” to predictably tepid ratings, which did not please either the affiliates or Johnny Carson. When Carson pulled the weekend reruns, preferring to repackage them as “best of ” programs to air on weeknights so that he could enjoy some time off, NBC president Herbert Schlosser and vice president of late night programming Dick Ebersol tapped Lorne Michaels, a veteran of Rowan and Martin’s “Laugh-In,” to create something edgy and new.

Johnny Carson dismissed “Saturday Night” as crude and sophomoric. He was right. That he considered the jibe a debilitating argument against the show only underscores how out of step “the lonesome hero of middle America” (as a 1970 Life magazine cover proclaimed him) had become. Crude and sophomoric was exactly what Saturday Night’s demographic craved.

* * *

Conventional wisdom held that it would be ludicrous to expect the show’s target audience to sit at home watching TV at eleven thirty on a Saturday night. Michaels knew different. The audience he was after had grown up watching TV. Too much TV. It was their collective point of reference, the communal campfire around which they all gathered in the new global village. They lived and breathed TV with an ironic self-awareness that Michaels and his team used to frame the jokes within the Big Joke that would define the show and leave most Americans born before 1948 muttering to themselves and scratching their heads.

NBC’s “Saturday Night” was arguably the first television show about television. Then, as now, the show was dominated by ironic takedowns of commercials, newscasts, sitcoms, talk shows, PBS-styled cultural programming, punditry, and presidential debates. Even those skits that ventured beyond television’s domain would typically break through the fourth wall to skewer — or at least wink at — the familiar conventions of variety-show sketch comedy. Perhaps that’s why Richard’s turn as guest host proved such a sensation. His stand-up bits were a bracing blast of fresh air for a generation accustomed to peering out at the world through a peephole the size of a TV screen and snickering at what they saw. The characters Richard brought out during his solo spots that night bore little resemblance to television’s stock types. The decent guy who turns into a violent drunk on weekends, the Hennessy-quaffing cat who accepts a hit of acid at a party, the junkie-berating wino — all were renegades who rode into the medium’s gated community with news from the outside world.



That’s why Lorne Michaels had to have Richard Pryor. The show’s claims to hip edginess or even bare relevance would ring hollow without him. It’s no exaggeration to equate the back-to-back salvos of “That Nigger’s Crazy” (back in print on Warner Bros.’ Reprise label just a month earlier) and “… Is It Something I Said?” (released late in July) with Bob Dylan’s electric epiphanies of “Highway 61 Revisited” and “Blonde on Blonde.” Just as every folk singer circa 1966 scrambled to plug into that same arc welder, lower the dark glasses, and send off a wild mercurial spray of white sparks into the sky, now it seemed every club comic carried a ghetto-talking phrasebook in his back pocket, as if that were the secret to doing what Richard did. “That’s the difference between Pryor and the pretenders who use profanity just to get laughs instead of making it a part of the characters and scenes they are trying to create,” says David Brenner. “Pryor could take the same bits he did at the Comedy Store or the Improv, vacuum out all the shits and motherfuckers for TV, and be just as funny.”

With Richard as host, sufficient numbers of the alienated youth Michaels sought could be counted on to eject Pink Floyd from their eight-tracks, switch off the strobe lights, carry their bongs up from the basement, or switch over from their local UHF station’s ghoulish movie host just to see what Richard might do.

The trouble was, NBC flat-out refused to allow Richard Pryor anywhere near a live studio camera. Richard, everyone knew, was a wildly unpredictable, uncontrollable cokehead. (So was just about everyone else on the show, but Richard didn’t bother to hide it.) What was to stop him from letting loose a string of shits and motherfuckers on live TV, as he would sometimes do during rehearsal, just to mess with them?

Michaels resigned in protest. “I said, ‘I can’t do a contemporary comedy show without Richard Pryor.’ And so I walked off. There was a lot of me walking off in those days.” NBC finally relented on the condition that the broadcast be put on a ten-second delay. Michaels knew that Richard would never agree to that. It was insulting. After all, they’d let George Carlin go out live, as they had every other host (all six thus far). Richard would go apeshit if he found out they were treating him any differently. (He did and he did but not until later.) Michaels went back and forth with the network, finally agreeing to a five-second delay, as if the duration of the time lag had anything to do with it. Director Dave Wilson now says the show in fact was live. His crew couldn’t figure out how to work the delay.

Meanwhile, Michaels found just as much aggravation in closing the other end of the deal. As his scheduled week drew near, Richard was still playing hard to get. In an effort to negotiate, the producers made a junket to Miami where Richard was performing at a jai-alai arena.

Richard insisted that they hire Paul Mooney as his writer. His ex-wife, Shelley, and his new girlfriend, Kathy McKee, both had to be on the show. And he wanted tickets. Lots and lots of tickets. Enough to pack the studio audience with friends and family. Associate producer Craig Kellem says, “Lorne loved Richard. He thought he was quote-unquote the funniest man on the planet.” But it was tough going. “As wonderful and as adorable as he was, it was also very tense being around him. It took so much work and effort to go through this process of booking him that Lorne, in a moment of extreme stress, sort of candidly looked around and said, ‘He better be funny.’ ”

Herb Sargent and Craig Kellem arrived at Richard’s Park Avenue hotel room the week of the show and found him in a foul mood. He was pissed because the network people had subjected Mooney to a condescending “job interview” — more like a parole-board hearing — before they would agree to hire him on for the show, which, of course, everyone knew they were going to do anyway because that’s what Richard wanted.

Richard had questions they couldn’t answer. Things got tense. Richard wanted to see a script. But there was no script. The staff was still in recovery mode from the previous week’s show. Richard threatened to walk, but Sargent beat him to it. Kellem watched speechless as Sargent hopped up and made for the door saying he’d just dash over to the office and get the script. He never came back.

* * *

When they weren’t working on the show, Richard and Kathy McKee enjoyed their time together in New York. They saw Aretha Franklin at the Apollo and visited Miles Davis in the hospital. (In his opening monologue, Richard dedicated the show to Miles.) But Richard never told Kathy that Shelley was going to be on the show, too. “I’m with Richard,” she says. “I’m his girlfriend, I’m traveling with him. You might think, when we got on the plane to New York, he would look over at me and say, ‘Oh, by the way, Kathy, Shelley’s going to be there.’ Nope. Not a word. I never found out until I got to rehearsal.

“Richard didn’t know how to manage his women the way Sammy [Davis Jr.] did,” McKee explains. “Sammy Davis was a master at bringing his women together. Richard didn’t know how to do that. He couldn’t swing. He couldn’t bring Deborah and me or Pam Grier together. It always ended up being trouble for him. So we were kept separate.”

It may have been that Richard still had feelings for Shelley and wanted to give her acting career a boost. Penelope Spheeris suggests the more likely scenario of a quid pro quo arrangement to make some of his child-support issues go away. Introduced as Shelley Pryor, she performed one of her poems, an interracial allegory of two differently colored carousel horses that brave society’s scorn when they fall in love.

* * *

Chevy Chase kept dogging Mooney all week to write something for him and Richard to do together. Just as Michaels needed Richard to establish his show’s bona fides, Chevy needed airtime with him. Everybody else had a skit with Richard. He and John Belushi faced off as samurai hotel clerks; Jane Curtin interviewed him as an author who lightened his skin to see what life is like for a white man; Laraine Newman, as the devil-possessed Regan in a take-off on “The Exorcist,” threw a bowl of pea soup in his face; Dan Aykroyd debriefed him as a special-ops major; Garrett Morris, claiming that he was acting on Richard’s request, did Chevy’s trademark pratfall to open the show; and Gilda Radner, in a running gag throughout the show, repeatedly picked him out of police lineups. But Chevy had nothing. He kept sending emissaries to Mooney asking, “Could you please write something for Chevy and Richard?”

Paul Mooney recalls the genesis of the skit that critics and viewers alike continue to rank among the best ever in the history of “Saturday Night Live:”

Toward the end of the week, as the Saturday show time approaches, he starts following me around himself, like a lamb after Bo Peep. “Richard hates me, doesn’t he?” Chevy asks me. “He doesn’t hate you,” I say, even though I know Richard does indeed despise Chevy.

Soon enough he’s back tugging on my sleeve. “Write something for us, will you?” he pleads. “I have to get some air time with Richard.”

Finally, in the early afternoon on Thursday, I hand Lorne a sheet of paper.

“What’s this?” “You’ve all been asking me to put Chevy and Richard together,” I say. After all the bullshit I’ve been put through to get here, the fucking cross-examination Lorne subjects me to, I decide to do a job interview of my own. Chevy’s the boss, interviewing Richard for a janitor’s job. The white personnel interviewer suggests they do some word association, so he can test if the black man’s fit to employ.

The first words are innocuous enough. Chase says “dog.” Richard says “tree.” Fast/slow, rain/snow, white/black, bean/pod, then:

Negro.
Whitey.

Tarbaby.
What’d you say?

Tarbaby.
Ofay.

Colored.
Redneck.

Junglebunny.
(bringing it) Peckerwood!

Burrhead.
Cracker.

Spearchucker.
White trash.

Junglebunny.
Honky.

Spade.
Honky honky!

Nigger!
Dead honky!

As they wait for the long wave of laughter and applause to subside, Richard’s face begins to spasm, his nose twitching like a maniacal rabbit. His character gets the job at three times the offered salary, plus two weeks’ vacation up front. “Just don’t hurt me,” Mooney has Chevy say.

“It’s like an H-bomb that Richard and I toss into America’s consciousness,” Mooney wrote. “All that shit going on behind closed doors is now out in the open. There’s no putting the genie back in the bottle. The N-word as a weapon, turned back against those who use it, has been born on national TV.”

It was, Mooney says, the easiest bit he ever wrote. All he had done was spell out what had been going on beneath the surface of his “job interview” with Lorne Michaels and the NBC execs.

Just as Michaels had hoped, Richard’s appearance lifted “Saturday Night” out of the programming ghetto and established it as a cultural phenomenon. Two weeks later, Chevy Chase made the cover of New York magazine, which dubbed him “the funniest man in America” and quoted an unnamed network executive championing him as “the first real potential successor to Johnny Carson,” and predicting he’d be guest-hosting Tonight within six months.

Carson, understandably, offered a less-than-glowing assessment of Chevy’s skills. “He couldn’t ad-lib a fart after a baked-bean dinner.”

Excerpted from “Furious Cool: Richard Pryor and the World That Made Him” by David Henry and Joe Henry. Published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. Copyright 2013 by the authors. All rights reserved.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

Loading Comments...