Richard Pryor's Forgotten TV Career

Groundbreaking comedian Richard Pryor is remembered either as a brilliantly raunchy stand-up comedian or as the harmless misfit in family-friendly fare like Brewster’s Millions and Toy. But like most entertainment careers, his included some work best forgotten.

A five-time Grammy winner for his comedy albums, Pryor remains a legend in the world of stand-up comedy – Jerry Seinfeld called him “the Picasso of our profession,” and Pryor landed in the number one slot on Comedy Central’s list of all-time great stand-up comedians. Fearlessly tackling racism, sex and drugs, his trenchant observations and improvisational storytelling style earned him the adoration of nightclub and record-buying audiences and the plaudits of comedians as disparate as Bill Cosby and Bill Hicks.

Like many edgy comedians who came after him – George Carlin, Steve Martin, Robin Williams, Eddie Murphy and Chris Rock – he wasn’t opposed to tempering his profane onstage persona for big-screen PG paydays. Though in the late 70s he launched a film career that included critically lauded, adult-targeted films like Lady Sings the Blues, Blue Collar and Bustin’ Loose, for audiences who grew up in the 1980s – those too young to have listened to his racy nightclub comedy albums or to have known exactly what freebasing cocaine entailed – he’s mostly remembered as the loveable misfit of Toy, Brewster’s Millions or See No Evil, Hear No Evil.

Like most performers, his career had its share of missteps and missed opportunities. There was 1968’s Uncle Tom’s Fairytales, set to be Penelope Spheeris’ (The Decline of Western Civilization, Wayne’s World) directorial debut but halted by Pryor during shooting. Despite co-writing Mel Brooks’ 1974 Blazing Saddles, he was denied a role in that film when insurers refused to put up a completion bond because of his drug problems and tax evasion conviction. Though he was considered for Trading Places, the role went instead to Eddie Murphy.

But his biggest failures came in TV. First was The Richard Pryor Show, a sketch comedy variety show NBC aired in 1977. Despite – or perhaps because of – a talented cast that included Robin Williams, Sandra Bernhard and Paul Mooney – the edgy show, whose humor was more fitting for late-night viewing, bombed in its primetime Tuesday night slot, where it aired opposite the feel-good, family oriented nostalgia of Happy Days. Pryor and the network began butting heads over creative issues before a single episode was even shot, and he was only convinced to return to the show after his original contract was slashed from ten to four episodes. Once those four segments aired, neither Pryor nor NBC were interested in working together again.

But Pryor wasn’t done with television just yet. In 1984, having starred in a run of successful PG comedies for Columbia Pictures, Pryor was lured by CBS to star in a Sesame Street-styled children’s show called Pryor’s Place. Produced by Sid and Marty Krofft of H.R. Puffinstuff and Land of the Lost, the show lasted only one season. Looking at the credit sequence – which today plays like an embarrassing 1980s time capsule complete with bad breakdancing and a theme song by Ray Parker, Jr. of Ghostbusters fame – it’s not hard to understand why.

Most comedians will tell you that endlessly touring comedy clubs is not an ideal or especially lucrative way to make a living. Most comedians, no matter how not-suitable-for-prime-time their material may be, are desperate for that big money deal that gets them off the road and onto TV and movie screens. And in reaching for that brass ring, there are bound to be some moments they’d rather forget. Not that such considerations excuse the latest Eddie Murphy-in-a-fat-suit movie or your favorite caustic comedian denuded in a cookie cutter sitcom – but hey, if Richard Pryor can star opposite puppets and still remain a comedy legend, who can blame others for trying?