During that first season of Saturday Night Live in 1975, Lorne Michaels knew he had to have Richard Pryor as a host. The new show’s claims to hip edginess or even bare relevance would ring hollow without him. With Richard as host, sufficient numbers of the alienated youth Michaels sought could be counted on to tune in just to see what Pryor might do.
The trouble was, NBC flat-out refused to allow Richard Pryor anywhere near a live studio camera. Richard, everyone knew, was wildly unpredictable. Hearing this, Michaels resigned in protest. “I said, ‘I can’t do a contemporary comedy show without him.’ 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 Pryor would never agree to that. It was insulting. 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, Chevy Chase kept dogging the writers all week to come up with something for him and Richard to do together. Just as Lorne needed Richard to establish his show’s bona fides, Chevy needed airtime with him. Everybody else had a skit with Richard: He and John Belushi faced off as samurai hotel clerks; Jane Curtin 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.
Head writer Paul Mooney recalls the genesis of the sketch 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 show approaches, he starts following me around, 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.
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. I decided to do a job interview ... 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 word association escalates quickly - and hilariously.
Blazing Saddles was playing in movie theaters, and had been for six months, when Richard Pryor was arrested in Richmond, Virginia. He was arrested for using four-letter words in his act.
Pryor had done a typical stand-up performance at the Richmond Coliseum. After the show, police were unable to locate him in his dressing room or his hotel. They left word with his manager that the comedian needed to turn himself in. They were issuing a warrant for his arrest.
Pryor showed up at the police station the next morning. The charges were “disorderly conduct” for “refusing to clean up his act.”
He was fingerprinted, charged, and released on a $500 bond.
He simmered, and awaited his turn. When he finally walked in front of the audience, Pryor didn’t speak for a little while; he prowled back and forth like a pent-up animal. Then he pounced: “I came here for human rights,” he said, “and I found out what it was really about was about not getting caught with a dick in your mouth.” The crowd erupted in laughter.
“You don’t want the police to kick your ass if you’re sucking the dick, and that’s fair,” Pryor continued. “You’ve got the right to suck anything you want!” With three sentences, Pryor had outflanked all the other performers on the bill – some of whom, like Tomlin, had open ties to the gay community – by stripping away the airy talk of “human rights”. He had brought into the open the basic demand of the gay struggle: sexual freedom in the face of police harassment.
“I sucked one dick,” he said from the stage, drawing his audience back into a scene from his red-light district childhood. “Back in 1952. Sucked Wilbur Harp’s dick. It was beautiful, but I couldn’t deal with it. Had to leave it alone.” The crowd roared. “It was beautiful because Wilbur has the best booty in the world. Now I’m saying booty to be nice. I’m talking about ass-hole. Wilbur had some good ass-hole. And Wilbur would give it up so good and put his thighs against your waist. That would make you come quick.” With that confession, Pryor became perhaps the first major Hollywood celebrity to talk graphically about his own positive experience of gay sex – and certainly the first to do so in front of tens of thousands of people.
Cutting from a press report on the Star-Spangled Night
Pryor then spoke of the romance it kindled in him: “I was the only motherfucker that took Wilbur roses. Everybody else was bullshitting. I took Wilbur [the roses] and said, ‘Here, dear.’” Again the crowd hooted in delighted disbelief.
Now that he had worked the audience into the palm of his hand, Pryor became indecisive – addled by some combination of drugs, alcohol and the complexity of his feelings. Speaking softly into the microphone, as if musing to himself, he asked, “How can faggots be racists?” He recounted what he’d observed with the Lockers, then his tone shifted and he aimed pure scorn at the audience: “I hope the police catch you motherfuckers and shoot your ass accidentally, because you motherfuckers ain’t helpin’ niggers at all.” Howls rose up from the crowd. Any remaining sympathy he threw away with a rant that pitted women’s rights against welfare rights (“Motherfuck women’s rights. The bitches don’t need no rights. What they need to do is pay the people on welfare”). The crowd booed in response, and Pryor goaded them back: “Yeah, get mad. ’Cause you’re going to be madder than that when [police chief] Ed Davis catches you motherfuckers coming out of here in the lot.”
It was hard to tell where Pryor’s allegiances lay. Was he on the side of the police or the side of sexual freedom? Or simply on the side of Richard Pryor? “I wanted to test you to your motherfuckin’ soul,” he continued, as if the anger he’d unleashed was a thought experiment on his part, a trial he’d designed to winkle out the truth in their hearts.
The gay people in the audience, he determined, were the same gay people who, a decade earlier, had looked the other way at the black community’s desperation: “When the niggers were burning down Watts, you motherfuckers were doing what you wanted on Hollywood Boulevard, didn’t give a shit about it.” With that, he hoisted his backside into the air, asked the crowd to kiss it, then walked off to a chorus of boos, a smattering of applause, and thousands of sullen faces. The show’s choreographer came onstage and cried in anguish, “I hope you realise that was unplanned and everybody involved is very, very embarrassed about it.” He was promptly booed, too.
Pryor had left a mess that no apology could clean up. It took two weeks for the firestorm sparked by Pryor’s performance to blow through the LA and Bay Area press. (The Los Angeles Times devoted over a full page to the original event, then ran 17 letters in two instalments in response to it.) The bad feeling lingered.
Among the commentators, most numerous were the moralists who judged Pryor an obscene homophobe who should never have been permitted onstage at the Bowl. “His ‘street’ language was abusive, filthy, and racist,” wrote one audience member in the Los Angeles Times. “It takes a certain talent, genius (if you will) to insult 17,000 people – black, white, male, female, straight, gay, rich and poor – at one time.” Others thought Pryor wrong in his sweeping comments about gay racism. “[M]ost of us in the gay rights movement (which does not include all gay men and women) were previously involved in other civil rights movements such as those for black and women’s liberation,” an activist explained. “Now we are fighting for our own rights and we need support, especially from those we have supported in the past.”