One of the hallmarks of Richard Pryor’s comedy was his fearless willingness to attempt and stunning ability to deliver authentic pathos. Humanity flowed from the man freely; especially after his famous 1967 meltdown in Las Vegas that represented a complete sea change in his career, his standup work often seemed almost as sad or heartbreaking as it was hilarious. Pryor had an essential sweetness that allowed him to remain relatable and childlike even when broaching the most delicate topics of race and sexuality, and had the guts, for example, to incorporate the “N word” into his work—not for nothing was his 1976 celebration of America called Bicentennial Nigger. What must have been an emotionally pulverizing childhood in a bordello in Peoria, Illinois, uniquely qualified Pryor as a subterranean spelunker of the human condition. Only someone inured to such pain could make us laugh about it so consistently.
On May 5, 1977, after several successful appearances on Saturday Night Live and a string of profitable movies, NBC gave Pryor an hour in prime time to put on a show of his choice—and the results were devastating. The show was called The Richard Pryor Special? and it included the most gut-wrenchingly honest and heart-breaking sketch I have ever seen—on what was ostensibly a comedy show.
The show started out on a confrontational note, as Audrey T. McCluskey described it in her edited volume Richard Pryor: The Life and Legacy of a “Crazy” Black Man:
The opening skit takes place on a slave ship with a whip-cracking captain played by Belushi doling out punishment to the captives. Pryor, a random slave, is given the additional punishment of having his own NBC special. In this short skit Pryor manages to compare his predicament in the white-controlled world of corporate television to slavery. Such barbs against television, particularly against its censorship of his material, characterized his work on network television.
You can see Pryor’s horrified reaction to the news that he has been condemned to hosting his own NBC special above. Pryor’s very affability cloaks the sheer gumption it must have taken to open his special with a sketch about slavery, now matter how amusing. I can’t remember Saturday Night Live doing all that many slavery sketches in the last ten years.
The most powerful sketch of the show was almost certainly the one revolving around Pryor’s drunk “Willie” character. The eleven-minute sketch starts out in a bar, where Willie is already on the verge of being asked to leave for his inebriated antics. He berates a few of the bar’s patrons, jawbones with the bartender (played by John Belushi) for a little while, and gets beaten up by the irate husband of one of the tavern’s drunken regulars. So far there have been a few genuine laughs, but it scarcely seems like a comedy sketch—it’s too trenchant and cuts way too deep about the nature of poverty and alcohol addiction. But the sketch is just getting going.
At this juncture Willie stumbles home and passes out on the couch in front of his wife—played by the astonishing Maya Angelou. The last four minutes of the sketch are a monologue by Willie’s wife as she apostrophizes the hapless, unconscious figure of Willie. Her soliloquy is a masterpiece of pain, understanding, despair, and forgiveness, a howl of anguish by the woman who loves him, the man whose poverty-driven tribulations and shame-fueled alcoholism have, it’s fair to say, ruined her life. It’s a bit of trenchant kitchen-sink racial commentary—I have never seen anything else like it on American TV, and don’t ever expect to see anything like it on American TV in the future.
Definitely watch the video below; it’s futile for me to capture its courage, honesty, and brilliance. It leaves me pole-axed every time.
Here’s a special thank-you advertisement that Angelou took out in the pages of Variety that was excavated by the indispensable Kliph Nesteroff:
According to Billy Ingram, The Richard Pryor Special? was a critical and ratings success, and it led to a regular series of Pryor’s own the following autumn—which lasted only four episodes.