A joke went around in the early seventies that the continental United States had tilted slightly to the southwest and everything loose started rolling toward L.A. After watching so many of his top comics pick up and go west, Budd Friedman, owner of the New York Improvisation decided in 1975 that the time had come to get in on the action.
For Mitzi Shore, the opening of the L.A. Improv in West Hollywood was a declaration of war. Comics who played the Improv, she decreed, were no longer welcome at the Store. (She allowed a few exceptions, one of them being Jay Leno. He saw no reason to deny himself the prestige and exposure the Improv could offer, and he was too valuable for Shore to shut him out.) The L.A. Improv was just one among a rash of new comedy clubs to spring up within a mile radius of the Store. As well, existing clubs had begun adding comedy to their musical lineups. Against this onslaught, Mitzi had one weapon no other club could match: Richard Pryor.
The Comedy Store became the workshop where Richard would develop material for his heaviest LPs, from 1974’s That Nigger’s Crazy through 1978’s Wanted: Richard Pryor Live in Concert. Anytime Richard wanted to woodshed new material, all he had to do was let Mitzi know and she would clear the decks for as many nights or weeks as he wanted. His name on the marquee guaranteed sold-out shows every night, and his appearances, William Knoedelseder writes, “had the frenzied feel of a heavyweight title fight in Vegas, with lines stretching around the block.”
When Richard held court, other comics, of necessity, had to relinquish their time slots, but when he was in the house, nothing else mattered. “They recognized that Pryor was the closest thing their peculiar profession had to a genius on the scale of a Beethoven or a Van Gogh,” says Knoedelseder. “Nearly every local comic who wasn’t on stage somewhere else was on hand to watch and learn. What were a few lost time slots compared to the chance of studying the master at work?”
For those who weren’t there to witness it firsthand, Richard Lewis says, it’s impossible to convey the charisma of Richard in the mid-1970s. “To see him walk through a club, the way people responded . . . For a young comedian, it was like seeing God. You watched him and you thought, ‘This man was born to be a comedian.’ He was the most organic comedian I ever saw. It was like he grew up out of the ground.” Franklyn Ajaye attests that Richard quickly became every comic’s idol. ”It was clear to everybody that Pryor was the best guy around.”
Every night over the course of a single week in the winter of 1975 Ajaye watched from the floor of the Comedy Store as Richard gave birth to Mudbone, his most enduring and recognizable character. “When I was a young comedian I liked to go back and see what other comics repeated from one show to the next, what they changed. It demystified the process.” Seeing Richard Pryor spin his masterwork out of thin air did little to demystify anything. Just the opposite.
Mudbone showed up one night as a nameless old man in the middle of Richard’s set. “One of those things that pop up in your subconscious that you don’t even know are in there,” Ajaye says. That first night, Mudbone spoke only a line or two at most, but Richard would bring the character out again every night and work on it. “That let me know that he was thinking about it during the day, building on what he’d done the night before. Each night he’d add a little bit more to it. That made me realize he was a lot more technical than I had thought. That’s why his routines are great routines. They’re very refined.” By week’s end, that nameless old man had become the crusty, wizened raconteur who commandeered more than a third of Richard’s next Warner Bros. LP . . . Is It Something I Said?, recorded in May at the Latin Casino in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. Before Mudbone, Richard had always brought his characters into a specific situation to interact with each other while he, as storyteller, stepped in and out of the scene. Here Richard gives Mudbone a formal introduction before turning the stage—and his audience—over solely to him. It’s telling, too, that Richard introduces Mudbone by speaking as himself but in Mudbone’s voice.
RICHARD (MUDBONE VOICE): I was born in Pee-oh-rah, Illinois.
GUY IN AUDIENCE: What’s that?
RICHARD: That’s a city, nigger. You probably wouldn’t know nothin’ about that, see? Ol’ country-ass boy.
And when I was little there was a old man, his name was Mudbone and he’d dip snuff and he’d sit in front of the barbecue pit and he’d spit, see? That was his job. I’m pretty sure that was his job, ’cause that’s all he did. But he’d tell stories. Fascinatin’ stories, see? And I loved him . . . He made me very happy. ’Cause I’d stay with him and listen to him. ’Cause you learn stuff listenin’ to old people. They ain’t all fools, you know. You don’t get to be old bein’ no fool. Lot of young wise men, they deader than a motherfucker, ain’t they?
A few moments later, Richard quietly retreats, leaving Mudbone to stand on his own and speak for himself. It’s a touching gesture, with Richard acting as caregiver, making sure this rickety old man is steady on his feet before he tiptoes away.
In what is essentially a one-man theatrical piece, Mudbone tells how he drove a tractor to Peoria, Illinois, from Tupelo, Mississippi, after revenging the physical and verbal assaults he’d suffered at the hands of his bossman’s 465-pound mail-order bride.
I went in the toolshed and got me one of them Kreg jigsaws and I sawed the bottom out of the outhouse and I hid in the bushes and waited for this big collard-green-eatin’ bitch to go to the bathroom. Well, long about eight thirty she commenced to going to the bathroom. I’m in the bushes lookin’ at her. She wobbled out to the outhouse, opened the door, went in, shut the door. I heard a big splash. That’s when I got on the tractor and drove up here. I wasn’t mad no more, either.
Continuing on the album’s B side, Mudbone, now an established resident of Peoria, next tells how he took his friend Toodlum to visit a conjure woman known as Miss Rudolph in hopes that she can cure a hex cast on Toodlum by a lady friend from Louisiana. Mudbone tells Miss Rudolf right away that they have no money. That’s fine, she says. In lieu of cash, they can bring her a goose or a turkey at Thanksgiving time.
I said, well, shit, that’s fine with me ’cause it was June then. If I don’t never see this bitch no more in life it’s alright with me, see? And just about that time a big motherfuckin’ tarantula this big crawled up my arm, around my neck—I almost shit on myself, man—went down this arm, under my hand . . . I tried to mash him. When I lift my hand up, he was gone! That’s when I put my hand on my knife. Because I figured if somebody get hurt in here, I ain’t gonna be the last one, see?
I said, “Miss Rudolph, please tell me what happened to the tarantula.” She said, “That ain’t none of your goddamn business. But if you don’t bring me that turkey, you will see him again.”
As a youngster performing with his father and uncle at the Apollo Theater in the 1930s, Sammy Davis Jr. recalled that the best jokes were always told backstage. “We didn’t call them jokes at the time, we called them lies. ‘That nigger sure can lie’ was a common phrase at the time.” Mudbone said the same of his friend Toodlum. “He could lie his ass off. Oh, that nigger could tell lies! That’s how we became friends, see? He’d tell a lie, I’d tell a lie. And we’d complement each other’s lies. He’d make me laugh all day long, bless his soul. He told me this lie one time, he told me about the niggers with the big dicks.”*
These niggers had the biggest dicks in the world, and they were trying to find a place where they could have their contest, see? And they wasn’t no freaks, didn’t want everybody lookin’. They was walking around lookin’ for a secret place. So they walked across the Golden Gate Bridge and the nigger seen that water and make him want to piss, see. Boy say, “Man, I got to take a leak.” He pulled out his thing and was pissing. The other nigger pulled his out, took a piss. The one nigger say, “Goddamn! This water cold!”
The other nigger say, “Yeah, and it’s deep, too.”
Boy could lie his ass off. He say, “Yeah, and it’s deep, too.” Goddamn his soul . . .
Mudbone’s folk wisdom and deft storytelling skills immediately drew comparisons to Mark Twain. (“Dark Twain” was but one honorific bestowed upon Richard by his peers.) The genius embodied in Mudbone prompted Bob Newhart in 1998 to effuse that it was entirely right and proper that Richard should receive the first-ever Kennedy Center Mark Twain Prize for American Humor because “he and Twain did the same thing. Mark Twain wrote about life on the frontier, what it was like growing up on the Mississippi River, and Richard Pryor [told] what it was like growing up in the inner city. Even without the raw and colorful language, his concepts are still rich.” Richard, through his characters, provided entry into a side of life that seemed—that was, in fact—closed off to most of middle America. And it was a side we wanted to know. It was where all the best music and the biggest laughs came from.
Kathy McKee had no idea who Richard Pryor was in 1973 when he came backstage at the Tropicana in Vegas to pay his respects to her boss and boyfriend, Sammy Davis Jr.
The aspiring actress, a native of Detroit, had at that time played the title role in Deluxe Movie Ventures’ slavery-era feature Quadroon, appeared on The Bill Cosby Show, and in two episodes of Sanford and Son. She may well have been the first black dancer to work a line in Vegas by passing for white. If anyone asked, she said she was part Jewish, part Italian. At that time she served as the “mistress of ceremonies” for Davis’s stage show. McKee had first met Sammy Davis when she was eleven years old. Davis had stayed at the home of one of her classmates when he came to Detroit for Martin Luther King’s June 1963 Freedom March. Davis recalled the meeting with only minimal prompting in 1970 when the seventeen-year-old McKee, dressed in full showgirl regalia, approached his table at a Vegas club. When Davis later married his longtime girlfriend and mistress of ceremonies, Altovise Gore, McKee took over both of Gore’s former roles.
“I’m Sammy’s woman,” she told Richard when he started hitting on her backstage that night, “and he knows what you’re doing, so just stop.” But Richard wouldn’t quit. He kept after her when the party moved upstairs to Sammy’s suite, and then off and on for the next several years. As he flirted with her that first night in 1973, chatting her up about her career, they discovered that Richard (along with Paul Mooney) had written both episodes of Sanford and Son she had been in. “When I got those scripts, the names Richard Pryor and Paul Mooney meant nothing to me.” After she and Sammy and Altovise returned to L.A., Richard wore her down with notes and gifts and phone calls, and she began seeing him on the sly. Then came the whirlwind of That Nigger’s Crazy,followed by . . . Is It Something I Said?, and the next thing she knew she was seated next to him on a plane headed for New York where he would host the seventh installment of NBC’s Saturday Night.**
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 boneyard 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, newcasts, 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 Deboragh 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 Jim Belushi faced off as samurai hotel clerks; Jane Curtain 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:
What’d you say?
(bringing it) Peckerwood!
As they wait for the long wave of laugher 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.”
Released only a month after his triumphant turn as host of Saturday Night, the mostly forgettable film, Adiós Amigo, costarred Richard with his friend Fred Williamson, who wrote and directed it. Williamson considered Blazing Saddles a silly movie, what with the Gucci logos on the sheriff’s saddlebags, a Yiddish-speaking Indian chief, and the frontier town’s Howard Johnson ice-cream parlor offering only one flavor. Williamson, too, wanted to make a comedy western but “down and dirty,” like the real West. “I wanted to be able to maintain my straight-man figure to Richard’s con man, still be tough and do my fight scenes—but just have someone floating around me like a butterfly to provide the comedy.”
Richard plays the classic trickster as a Wild West con man. His character (called Sam Spade, of all things) repeatedly thwarts Williamson’s plans, squanders his looted cash, and leaves him in the lurch with his life in peril. Each time, Spade pulls off a wily reversal of fortune, securing Williamson’s rescue and replenishing their coffers. The movie is frequently out of focus, padded with overlong shots of the heroes and their pursuers crossing the picturesque landscape on horseback. Shot in nine days, working from a twelve-page script, Williamson was counting on Richard to improvise the majority of the movie. “I wanted to give him an idea, a concept, and then just turn the light on him and let him do whatever he wanted. You know what they say about comedians—that you can just open the refrigerator door and the light comes on, the jokes roll on out. Well, Richard’s light didn’t come on.”
He made an honest effort, and at times he touched on brilliance, but the patched-together story really gave him nothing to build on, nowhere to go.
Adiós Amigo effectively marked the end of Richard Pryor’s participation in small, indy films. He’d had an eventful run, learned some hard lessons, and turned in some of the best—though largely ignored—performances of his life. With his star on the rise, he couldn’t afford to be associated with slap-dash fare like Adiós Amigo, no matter how well intentioned.
“Tell the fans I’m sorry,” he told a reporter. “Tell them I needed the money.” (It couldn’t have been much, unless he got it all.) “Tell them I promise not to do it again.”
* Show business legends and privately circulated photographs attest that Milton Berle and Forrest Tucker were both endowed with penises of equine proportions. One afternoon Jackie Gleason saw them both in the locker room at Hollywood’s Hillcrest Country Club and declared it was time to settle the matter once and for all. “We’ve got the East Coast champ and the West Coast champ,” Gleason said, according to Berle. “My money’s on Milton. I’ll put up two hundred dollars even money.” Berle tried to beg off. “I said, ‘Jackie, enough.’ And he looked at me and said, ‘Milton, just take out enough to win.’ It was maybe the funniest spontaneous line I ever heard,” Berle said. Except it wasn’t. Tales of dick contests, measured by length, girth, or weight, are abundant in African American folklore. Typical is the one in which a man comes home bearing wads of cash. His wife doesn’t believe his claim that he won it in a dick contest. “You mean you done won all this money by showing your dick?” He assures her that he only needed to show half of it.
** An ABC comedy-variety show called Saturday Night Live with Howard Cosell had debuted at 8:00 p.m. just a few weeks earlier on September 20, 1975. It’s gleefully remembered by some as one of the greatest flops in the history of television. The crew of skit performers featured on the Cosell show included future NBC Saturday Night Live regulars Bill Murray, his brother Brian Doyle-Murray, and Christopher Guest. They were collectively billed as the “Prime Time Players,” prompting Herb Sargent to dub the NBC Saturday Night crew “Not Ready for Prime Time.” When Cosell’s show was laid to rest after eighteen episodes in January 1976, Lorne Michaels pounced on the title, rechristening his show Saturday Night Live at the start of the 1977 season.