Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Richard Pryor Despised Chevy Chase: The Untold Story Behind "SNL's" Edgiest Sketch Ever

By David Henry and Joe Henry

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.

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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.

hat’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.’ ”

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