Read of the Day: “Saturday Night Live and Richard Pryor”
5:30 pm, November 5th | by Colette McIntyre
Today’s Read of the Day is the untold story behind Richard Pryor and Chevy Chase’s legendary word-association sketch, excerpted from David Henry and Joe Henry’s tribute to Pryor’s significant cultural legacy, Furious Cool: Richard Pryor and the World That Made Him.
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.
The read the full story, including why Paul Mooney wrote the word-association sketch, click here.