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Pryor convictions

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Richard Pryor Show: An Inside Look, a special show at the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival, revisits the late comedians short-lived 1977 TV series. The shows pilot also will be screened at the festival. (Courtesy U.S. Comedy Arts Festival)
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By 1977, Richard Pryor had stepped into prominence in American entertainment. The year before, he had starred in three notable, mainstream movies: Car Wash, The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings and Silver Streak, the first film to pair him with Gene Wilder, with whom he would make a memorable black-and-white film duo. The year before that he had been one of the first hosts of the groundbreaking Saturday Night Live. 1977 seemed a ripe moment to bring Pryor into living rooms in prime time.Rocco Urbisci, just starting his career as a writer, director and producer of TV comedy, thought the moment had come to put Pryor on the small screen. It took some pushing; even in the mid-70s, TV was a tame medium and cautiously dipping its toe into the black American experience with Sanford and Son and Good Times. Pryor came from another world. For a black comedian to host a show, even in the 70s, there were a lot of people not interested, said director/producer John Moffitt. And a good portion of the population was specifically not attuned to Richard Pryor. A lot of people didnt know him. He had guested on Ed Sullivan, but he wasnt popular.Dick Ebersol, however, was interested. A 29-year-old who already had made his name in sports programming, Ebersol had recently moved into late-night TV at NBC and had great success with Saturday Night Live. Urbisci pitched the idea of The Richard Pryor Show to Ebersol but as a prime-time, variety and sketch show. Ebersol took a chance and gave the green light.For a moment, anyway, it looked like a seminal moment for TV. The pilot for The Richard Pryor Show, made in the spring of 1977, was pure cutting-edge, with Pryor as a wacked-out version of Idi Amin and in a sketch featuring Maya Angelou that was daring, insightful and emotional. The future looked bright.What happened next will probably make up a large part of The Richard Pryor Show: An Inside Look, billed as a special show at the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival, which runs in Aspen Wednesday through Sunday, March 8-12. The event, featuring Urbisci, the shows producer, and Moffitt, the co-producer and director, will screen clips from the pilot and series, as well as segments that never made it on the air. Why The Richard Pryor Show lasted only four hit-and-miss episodes will be discussed.As Moffitt tells it, the show became doomed when Pryor took the advance money and traveled to Europe in the time between the pilot and the making of the series. There, Pryor turned on the TV and saw Flip Wilson on whose variety show he had made several appearances in an insubstantial guest spot, used almost as a prop.He had an epiphany: This is what TV does to people. It changes you and spits you out and makes you do things you dont want to do, said Moffitt (who is also an executive producer of the USCAF). He got really upset and depressed and said he didnt want to do it.That was a huge comedown from where Pryor had been before enthused about the show and in unusually good health. He was in great shape, said Moffitt. He wasnt on any drugs. He lived with Pam Grier, played tennis every morning.In the fall of 1977, upon his return from Europe, Pryor announced his intentions to kill the show entirely. As soon as he did, his mood lifted. But NBC, which had contracted for 10 episodes, had other ideas. The two sides ultimately negotiated a four-show run, with an eye toward revisiting the deal afterward. By the end of those four show, neither Pryor nor the network cared to carry on.Unfortunately, his heart wasnt in it, said Moffitt. Some days, hed be great. Some days, hed be out of sorts.On his better days, Pryor pushed the envelope so far that its unclear whether NBC censors preferred the less-inspired days. In one of the more notorious bits, an introduction to the show featured a close-up of Pryor. As the camera pulled back, it revealed a naked Pryor, genitals removed through the magic of a body cast. NBC refused to air the bit, but Pryor circulated the tape to the TV news programs, which happily broadcast it.By the end of four shows, he had so antagonized NBC and Dick Ebersol by pushing the censorship issue that they said they didnt want him any more, said Moffitt.Some sketches that did make it past censors included Pryor as the first black president, a parody of spaghetti Westerns, and Pryor as the bartender in a spoof on the Star Wars intergalactic bar scene. The show featured the first TV appearance of Robin Williams, as well as guest spots by John Belushi, Tim Reid, Shirley Hemphill and Sandra Bernhard.Some of the reviews were thoroughly praiseful. According to Moffitt, Variety called it the most vivid show of any genre at the time. When the show was re-aired in the late 80s, The New York Times gave it a positive review, saying it was ahead of its time. (A three-DVD box set, featuring the pilot, four episodes and bonus material, was released in 2004.)For Moffitt, the experience was bittersweet. Because Richard was in his prime at the time, and at his best, he was the funniest man alive, he said. Rocco and I were devastated: Here was something we were so hopeful for, and it was a thrill to be working with him. It was very uneven. There are wonderful moments and moments that just dont work.”

Pryor, who died in December, is not the only one to receive the retrospective treatment at the USCAF.Part-time Aspen-area resident Goldie Hawn will be the recipient of the AFI Star Award. Hawn, who earned a best supporting actress Oscar for her first major film role, in 1969s Cactus Flower, and starred in Protocol, Private Benjamin and Foul Play, will be honored in an event Saturday, March 11, at the Wheeler Opera House. Michael Patrick King, best known as a writer and producer of Sex and the City, will moderate.Swingers, director Doug Limons 1995 film of male-bonding over martinis and swing music, will have a 10th anniversary reunion Saturday, March 11, at the St. Regis. Scheduled to attend are stars Jon Favreau, who wrote the screenplay, actors Vince Vaughn and Ron Livingston, with writer and TV host David Wild moderating. Swingers will also be screened Thursday, March 9 at the Isis Theatre.A Salute to the Larry Sanders Show, the festivals tribute to the satire of late-night talk shows, is set for Friday, March 10, at the St. Regis. Scheduled to reminisce are stars Garry Shandling, Jeffrey Tambor and Rip Torn. Also being saluted is Def Comedy Jam, with the shows creators, including Russell Simmons, joined by Cedric the Entertainer, Dave Chappelle and Bill Bellamy. The event, moderated by film critic Elvis Mitchell, is set for Friday, March 10, at the St. Regis.A/K/A Tommy Chong, Josh Gilberts documentary of comedian and bong entrepreneur Tommy Chong, shows Thursday, March 9, and Saturday, March 11, in the festivals Film Discovery Program.The USCAF also features stand-up performances, one-person shows, sketch comedy groups, films, discussions and more. For a full program, go to http://www.hbocomedyfestival.com.Stewart Oksenhorns e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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