Richard Pryor & Gil Scott-Heron: 12/13/75

This particular episode of Saturday Night seems to be heavily tailored to host Richard Pryor’s comic sensibilities. Rather than Pryor merely participating in performing the sketches, many of the show’s sketches seem to revolve around the topics of Pryor’s standup: Race and Class. When I looked up this episode at SNL Transcripts, I realized this wasn’t an accident:

In order to get Richard Pryor to host the show, producer Lorne Michaels had to meet Pryor’s demands: Gil Scott-Heron (a groundbreaking artist in his own right) had to be a musical guest on the show; actor Thalmus Rasulala and his ex-wife Shelley (also the mother of Pryor’s daughter, Rain) must also be allowed to make appearances on the show. In 1975, Pryor was at the top of his game and this was only Saturday Night‘s seventh episode, so Pryor was able to bend Michaels’ resolve.

The result, in my opinion, was Saturday Night‘s best show up to this point. This episode is incredibly cohesive in tone, well-paced, and well written from beginning to end with some help from Pryor and his collaborator, Paul Mooney. Readers may recognize Paul Mooney from Chappelle’s Show:

Video: Paul Mooney as Negrodamus

The cold open finds Saturday Night already turning their own traditions on its head. Normally, it’s Chevy Chase who performs the fall and proclaims, “Live From New York, It’s Saturday Night!” But when Chevy Chase comes onstage to perform his schtick, so does Garrett Morris. Chevy Chase is none too happy about this, but Morris says that Pryor insisted on him performing what is usually Chevy Chase’s coveted territory. Morris tries to fall onstage, but it’s too fake, and Chevy Chase demonstrates how to make it appear more natural: “The whole point of the fall is to look like you hurt yourself,” Chase says.

Both Chevy and Garrett perform falls. It almost seems like Chevy may do it, but Garrett is the one to do the honors.

Pryor dedicates his monologue to Miles Davis, who’s in the hospital. It is a stand-up routine that concerns people getting drunk, and why he doesn’t go to bars. He talks about having taken acid; “And I thought I was crazy before I took it. It saned me right up.” (You can read the monologue in its entirety here.)

The first sketch is marks the first appearance of John Belushi’s “Samurai” character. This particular installment in “Samurai Hotel”, which has the Samurai running the front desk at a hotel. The premise of the character is to figure a character of the noble Japanese soldier into mundane, every day situations. The the simplest of tasks requires a grand, militant gesture. Richard Pryor plays a samurai bellboy who chops the front desk in half, making things more difficult for everyone.

Gil Scott Heron performs “Johannesburg”, which (IMO) is so awesome, I’m including a YouTube video of it in this post:

In another installment of Looks at Books, Pryor plays Junior Griffin, a black author who wrote a book called White Like Me, a take-off on John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me. Jane Curtain asks how Junior got white:

“Shoe polish.” he says. He also adopted a white walk and white mannerisms.

In researching his book, he discovered the advantages of being white: applying for jobs, he got accepted eight times out of ten. He also had no trouble with credit cards. Griffin plans on following up this book with a book on being a white Jewish American Princess.

As with last week, there is another recurring gag this week. The previous week had Beethoven playing pop songs; this week, it’s an injured Richard Pryor in a police lineup. Gilda Radner (who is offscreen) is asked to identify who assaulted her: “Well, I, I couldn’t see him too clearly, but, uh, I’m sure it’s the one in the handcuffs.” The other three men in the line-up are white, and they breathe a sign of relief. The second time has Pryor pitted against a nun (Jane Curtain) and an icebox. The woman isn’t so certain he’s the one this time, and she instructs them to open up the icebox. The third time has Gilda identifying Pryor as the guy who robbed her liquor store.

Penned by Paul Mooney, the Word Association job interview sketch is truly a memorable one. When Pryor passed away in 2005, SNL played a part of this sketch to commemorate his passing. It starts out innocently enough, with the interviewer (Chevy Chase) asking Mr. Wilson (Pryor) to do some word association. They line up “Tree” to “Dog”, “Fast” to “slow”. Then it progresses to an apogee:

    Chevy Chase’s Interviewer: “Negro.”
    Mr. Wilson: “Whitey.”
    “What’d you say?”
    “White trash!”
    “Jungle Bunny!”
    “Honky Honky!”
    “Dead honky!”

Following another Franken/Davis “Pong” sketch which has Franken’s character having been injured in a hockey game, there is a sketch with Dan Ackroyd as a family patriarch, grousing about how blacks have taken over the neighborhood. This sketch might as well have been called “Invasion of the black people.” As everyone else in his family excuses themselves for one reason or another, they return to the room as a black person. By the end of the sketch, Ackroyd’s character still hasn’t realized that his entire family has become black.

The top story is that Generallissimo Francisco Franco is still dead. Having previously appeared in a Looks At Books, Emily Litella delivers what will be the first of many editorials on “Weekend Update”. Litella is concerned over the “Busting” of schoolchildren, putting them in jail, and missing out on a normal childhood. Chevy Chase has to correct Litella and informs her that the item was about the “busing”, not “busting” of school children.

Litella’s editorial is an example of what separated Saturday Night from other sketch programs of the time, like SCTV (which debuted in 1977). I don’t recall Chevy Chase reporting an item on busing schoolchildren. SCTV revolved around its own orbit: every event, every character in Melonville is interconnected with one another. With “Weekend Update”, certain events take place offscreen, in another time and place; the viewer catches up with the action on Saturday Night.

Ploobis and Scred getting drunk in “The Land of Gorch”. Ploobis drinks out of self-loathing; Scred jokes that he drinks because he hates Ploobis. The Mighty Favog notices they’ve been drinking, too.

Exorcist II features an appearance by Thalmus Rusalala as Priest. (Pryor also plays a priest.) Laraine Newman plays Regan, and begins to insult their mothers in sort of a predcessor to “Yo Mama’s so fat” jokes. At one point, Regan has the bed on Pryor’s foot. After one final insult about their mothers, they both choke Regan.

Albert Brooks is sick in his short film, and performs his directing duties from his sick bed. Over the speakerphone, the doctor tells him that he’s overworked himself. His call is interrupted by a delivery of broasted chicken. The delivery boy is fascinated by Albert and his camera and asks, “Where’s the girl?” Although the delivery boy takes the opportunity to shill Brooks’ new album, he eventually becomes a nuiscance, and Brooks kicks him out.

Pryor starts to deliver a standup routine when he is interrupted by a member of the audience, who is insisting that JFK had more than one assassin. The audience member is shot, and we are segued into another one of Pryor’s routines, concerning alcoholics and a heroin addict being mentored by an alcoholic. This is followed by Pryor’s ex-wife, Shelley, who tells a cute little nursery rhyme about the carousel in Central Park. You can read the story here. She ends with, “I guess that’s a horse of another color, huh?”

Gil Scott-Heron performs another song before the show closes. At the show’s closing, Jane and Laraine taunt Pryor with a pickle and a donut.


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