Richard Pryor (AP)

"Saturday Night Live's" edgiest night: The inside story of Richard Pryor's brilliant evening

Lorne Michaels battled to bring Pryor to "SNL." That night produced classic bits, and long-simmering racial tension


Scott Saul
December 15, 2014 12:30AM (UTC)
Excerpted from "Becoming Richard Pryor"

Between 1973 and 1975, Richard Pryor managed the ambiguously impressive feat of sowing different forms of havoc across the three major TV networks. In 1973, while working on Lily Tomlin’s two specials, he maddened CBS executive with his adlibbed obscenities, his arrival on set in cornrows, and his refusal to play scenes for laughs. In March 1974 he riled ABC when, as emcee of a Redd Foxx roast that was to be televised, he was completely blotto— “so far out,” said comic Steve Allen, “as to be close to totally noncommunicative.”

Then, in February 1975, Richard completed his trifecta of TV mayhem when, as a guest on a Flip Wilson special for NBC, he precipitated a chaotic meltdown on set. The debacle began innocently enough: in a lull between taping, Richard performed an uncensored part of his stage act—as a gift, with no cameras rolling—for the studio audience. Fellow guest star McLean Stevenson did not take kindly to the gift; he fumed “I won’t be on the same stage as that man” and walked off the set. A street-fighting mood fell over Richard. When an NBC page refused to let him open a fire door—Richard had some family at the taping and wanted to let them through the door to where their car was parked—Richard swung at him, and pandemonium erupted on the set. Fellow guest star Cher fled to her dressing room and locked herself in. Richard was restrained in a bear hug, but not before causing enough harm, mental and physical, for the NBC page to win thousands of dollars in an ensuing legal settlement.

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Remarkably, Richard’s track record did not scare off NBC executive Dick Ebersol and producer Lorne Michaels, who in early 1975 were putting together, for the fall, a new Saturday late-night program to replace reruns of Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show. A mere twenty-seven years old and in line to become the youngest vice president in NBC history, Ebersol wanted to target his new show—what became Saturday Night Live—at the under-thirty demographic, and thought Richard would give the show “credibility”; Michaels knew Richard from the Lily Tomlin specials and considered him “the funniest man on the planet.” Ebersol and Michaels needed to fight a battle on two fronts if they wanted to land Richard as a guest host for their program.

On one side, they would have to budge the NBC higher-ups who were vehemently against Richard hosting the show in its first months on air: even the late-night slot, the execs thought, was too early for such a radioactive performer. On the other side, they would have to soften Richard, who felt, along with his new manager, David Franklin, that network TV was no match for his talents as a comic.

As summer passed into fall, Lorne Michaels broke NBC’s resistance by playing hardball: he said, “I can’t do a contemporary comedy show without Richard Pryor” and resigned, only to be wooed back when NBC caved. With Richard, Michaels needed a gentler strategy. He flew out to Miami and visited Richard backstage at a jai alai fronton where he was performing. Richard laid out his conditions for committing to the show: Paul Mooney would come on as a writer; Richard’s friend Thalmus Rasulala would be hired as an actor; the soul-jazz griot Gil Scott-Heron would be the musical guest; Richard’s ex-wife Shelley, who had started to take the stage again, would be allowed to deliver a monologue; and he would be given a great number of tickets—so many that he would be in control of more than half the studio audience. Michaels agreed in the moment, though not without some queasiness. “He’d better be funny,” he said on the plane back to New York.

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The negotiations stand as a parable for how, after “That Nigger’s Crazy,” Richard leveraged his growing stardom. From one angle, he was being “difficult.” But from another, he was exhibiting a greater mindfulness about the worlds he was now navigating and, even, doing his part to desegregate American culture. He knew that his success as a performer had been driven by a core audience of black fans, and so now he was forcibly integrating Saturday Night’s audience, under the reasonable assumption that it would skew white. He knew that he’d felt at home on The Mike Douglas Show because, as co-host, he had altered the complexion of the ensemble onstage until he was no longer a token presence, and he was committed to do the same with the actors on Saturday Night. Last, he knew that a writers’ room was the incubator of all sketch ideas, so he wanted Paul Mooney as an ally in it. The audience, the stage, the SNL writers’ room—all needed more than a little color if they were to swing away from the educated lunacy of National Lampoon and toward Richard’s sensibility. He would become, on December 13, 1975, the host of the show’s seventh, and unforgettable, episode.

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The show itself was a nervy experiment in cultural cross-breeding, one that forced the still-tender, and overwhelmingly white, creative team behind the show to reckon with Richard’s decidedly black and working-class sensibility. In the run-up to his guest appearance, the mood around the set was tight with worry. Members of Richard’s entourage, it was said, were carrying guns; Richard himself was viewed as combustible in the extreme. Michael O’Donoghue, the show’s head writer, visited Richard in his hotel room and ran a joke by him, one written for the Weekend Update sketch: “A man should not be judged by the color of his skin, but by the size of his nostrils.”

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Richard bristled and started to object; O’Donoghue cut him off in midsentence. Richard lifted up a cognac bottle and offered, with a burst of laughter that was hard to read, to brain O’Donoghue with it. For the rest of the week, Saturday Night’s head writer took a leave from his own show rather than tangle with its host.

Meanwhile, Lorne Michaels was feeling heat from NBC executives, who argued that the show needed a five-second delay so that any expletives could be bleeped. Michaels acceded to the request, unwilling to bet his show’s future on Richard’s ability to restrain himself. But he did so under conditions of the utmost secrecy. All the clocks in the studio were synchronized to the five-second delay, and the staff who knew of it vowed not to let the secret slip. Michaels feared that his host would walk off if he learned of the delay—an utterly justified concern. In his memoir, Richard said, “If I’d known, I never would’ve shown up.”

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The show that Richard delivered did shake up Saturday Night, though not in the way NBC execs had feared. (Richard said “ass” twice, but stayed clear of four-letter territory.) With his demands in Miami, Richard had already integrated the show—from the writers’ room to the stage to the audience. Now he made the show his own—and race conscious as never before. In a small but symbolic move, he even took control of the photo stills that served as “bumpers” between sketches and commercial breaks, supplying photos of his grandmother, uncle, and children to replace the usual images of New York City street life.

Aptly, the episode began with a staged dispute over the whiteness of Saturday Night’s comic formula. Richard and his friend Paul Mooney had noticed that black actor Garrett Morris was often the odd man out, the trouper with no role to play, and they took their frustration public, getting the writers’ room to generate a sketch in which Morris stands his ground and Chevy Chase—already emerging as the show’s breakout star—plays up his sense of privilege.

“Richard Pryor’s here tonight,” Morris tells Chase in the sketch, “and I thought I would open the show. I mean, do the fall.”

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Chase glares and returns, “I always open the show. Is it understood?”

In the spirit of comedy, the show settles the argument by splitting the difference. Chase offers to teach Morris how to execute the pratfall and so steals the scene from him, but then, because the fall has ostensibly knocked Chase unconscious, it’s Morris who announces the opening of the show. “Live from New York—it’s Saturday Night!” he says with relish, grinning over Chase’s lifeless body.

Most of Richard’s Saturday Night program toyed with that gap—or was it a chasm?—between how whites and blacks perceived the world and traveled through it. In his opening monologue, Richard put the white half of the studio audience on alert, delivering a version of “Acid” that played off the great distance between Richard’s drug-induced panic (“I can’t breathe!”) and the blithe indifference of his white friend (“Told you it was far out!”). In “Samurai Hotel,” John Belushi and Richard were samurai bellhops who duel over which one of them should carry a traveler’s suitcase upstairs. After a bit of posturing with their swords, Belushi’s samurai yells, “Your mama-san!” at Richard’s.

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The insult is a miscalculation: Richard’s samurai is sent into such a rage that he slices the front desk in two—at which point Belushi’s samurai concedes the duel. “I can dig where you’re coming from,” he says, in the only bit of English his character ever spoke. Another running gag featured Richard in an ever-evolving police lineup. In the first bit, he’s placed, handcuffed in a bathrobe, alongside a Boy Scout, doctor, and businessman; in the second, alongside a refrigerator, a goose, and a nun; in the last, alongside three policemen, all of whom point an accusing finger in his direction. After every lineup, he appears more battered and bandaged.

The most provocative sketch opened onto a job interview at a desk in a drab office. Richard’s Mr. Wilson, in a dress shirt and tie, is apprehensive and obliging, while Chase’s interviewer leads him through the beginning of a word association test. “Tree,” “dog”; “fast,” “slow”; “rain,” “snow.” Then the interview takes a curious turn, as an ostensibly objective test is revealed to be anything but:

INTERVIEWER: Negro.

MR. WILSON [meekly]: Whitey.

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INTERVIEWER [blandly]: Tar baby.

MR. WILSON [doing a double take]: What’d you say?

INTERVIEWER: Tar baby.

MR. WILSON [testing what’s possible]: Ofay.

INTERVIEWER: Colored.

MR. WILSON [no longer meek]: Redneck.

The tension ratchets up; both interviewer and applicant lose their composure, and the mental game of a “word-association test” degenerates into a slashing duel of insults:

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INTERVIEWER [raising his voice]: Jungle bunny.

MR. WILSON [leaning in, agitated ]: Honky!

INTERVIEWER [accusingly]: Spade.

MR. WILSON [hollering]: Honky honky!

INTERVIEWER [confident, as if playing a trump card]: Nigger.

MR. WILSON [grimly serious]: Dead honky.

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In a tour de force of physical comedy, Richard then seems to be dismantled by his rage. His nose wrinkles and twitches with a nervous tic that reaches up to his eyebrows; his mouth hangs open, frozen.

When Chase’s interviewer fumbles, in a conciliatory tone, “I think you’re qualified for the job—how about a starting salary of five thousand dollars?” Richard’s Mr. Wilson can’t arrest the momentum of his anger, even as he looks more aggrieved than incensed.

“Yo’ mama! Yo’ grandmama!” he shouts, his voice catching and his eyes moistening. The sketch ends with a fantastic act of reparations: Chase’s interviewer rewarding Mr. Wilson for his trials with an offer to work, at an annual salary of fifteen thousand dollars, as “the highest-paid janitor in America.”

“Word Association Test” was the episode’s edgiest and most memorable sketch. It suggested that beneath the crust of much American life there was magma boiling; that for many white Americans—and not just pot-bellied sheriffs with thick southern drawls—words like spade and nigger tripped off their tongues with the same ease as tree and rain. But it also took this point and drove it home in a way that was witty and unpredictable. Richard’s character begins the interview at a disadvantage—the humble applicant trying hard to ingratiate himself and caught off guard by the series of epithets flung at him by his interviewer. He turns the tables not by coming up with more stinging epithets for white people but by refusing to play by the rules dictated to him. “Dead honky” defeats the “nigger” trump card as no single word could do; it transforms the word association test from a language game into a contest of wills, in which righteous courage is bound to prevail. Chase’s character crumbles; he is game master no longer.

The sketch—a Saturday Night Live classic—has something of a fraught backstory. Both Paul Mooney and Chevy Chase have claimed to have conceptualized the sketch; neither of them has given credit to the other, and the two have gleaned quite different lessons from it.

According to Mooney, the sketch was his response to how Lorne Michaels cross-examined him—How long have you been writing? How long have you been doing comedy?—when Richard first insisted that Michaels hire Mooney. “Easiest sketch I ever write,” Mooney remembered. “All I do is bring out what is going on beneath the surface of that interview with Lorne and the NBC execs in the jai alai greenroom.”

For Mooney, the sketch was an act of aggression against NBC, one that also allowed Richard to channel the ill will he felt toward his costar: “Chevy Chase was the doll-baby . . . the darling of the discotheque with straight teeth, and Richard wanted to knock them out.”

Once it was performed, the sketch assumed for Mooney a power that was more than personal, too. It was, he judged, “like an H-bomb that Richard and I toss[ed] into America’s consciousness. . . . The N-word as a weapon, turned back against those who use it, ha[d] been born on national TV.”

For his part, Chase downplayed any enmity between him and Richard. In his memory, the sketch came about through a meeting of comic minds: “Richard’s attitude to it and my attitude toward it were one and the same.” And the final product spoke to a dimension in Richard and his art that Mooney didn’t mention: his essential generosity. While writing the sketch, Chase recalled “asking Richard for as many slang words for white people as he could come up with. [Richard] hesitated and then realized that there were many more for African Americans than he could think of for ‘whities.’ This is reflected in the sketch, and it was reflective of the lack of bigotry in the man.”

It’s a conundrum: Mooney saw Richard as an artist who weaponized comedy to an unprecedented degree, while Chase saw him as an artist who, by nature, did not reach for arms. Could they both have been right—if not about who wrote the sketch, then about the Richard they loved and appreciated? The evidence of the job interview sketch suggests as much. As the slurs pile up, Richard’s Mr. Wilson throws off the awkward formality of the interview and comes to speak from a place of genuine, white-hot anger. He seems, as Mooney suggests, energized by his rage.

But it’s too simple to see the righteously angry Richard as the one and only true Richard. At the opening of the sketch, his character can’t believe that the race card is being played, and even his most aggressive gestures are complicated by an internal debate that plays out in the quick ripple of his facial expressions. He’s undone by his anger as much as he finds himself through it. Richard’s performance might inspire a militant like Mooney, for whom Richard was an apostle of rage, and it might appeal to a writer-actor like Chase, for whom Richard was, at his core, a generous soul. The different fractions of Richard’s audience could come together at the crossroads where Richard stood, even if they couldn’t agree on where to travel afterward.

Excerpted from "Becoming Richard Pryor." Copyright © 2014 by Scott Saul. Excerpted by permission of Harper Books, a division of HarperCollins Publishers. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.


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