Feb 072011
 
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All the SNL reviews have been listed together in a burst of fine over-organization, which you can see here if that’s your thing.


1x07: Richard Pryor, 13 December 1975

Richard Pryor :: 13 December 1975

Cold Open: A man and woman (Dan Akyroyd and Jane Curtin) are having dinner. They call for the check and waiter Garrett Morris enters. A moment later, waiter Chevy Chase also enters. Chevy and Garrett begin to argue about who should open the show. Garrett says that Richard Pryor wants him to do the fall, but Chevy insists that it’s his bit, and besides the fall is dangerous and Garrett could hurt himself. Garrett does a fall to prove himself. It’s not very good. Chevy shows him how it’s done, but perhaps too well as he knocks himself out. Garrett goes to Chevy’s aid saying “Live from New York…”

1x07: Garrett tries a Fall.

Garrett tries a Fall. Chevy is unimpressed.

This is a great cold open, working better than most in terms of setting the tone for the show. There’s the very obvious racial undercurrent (Garrett should open the show because Garrett’s black) which will run through most every sketch. More than that, we have the “dangerous black man” aura that will similarly crop up sketch after sketch. Right from the beginning this show makes it clear that it’s something different from what Saturday Night has shown us so far, and that turns out to be very literally true in many ways, starting with Garrett being the first non-Chevy Player to give the opening line.
 
This sketch is also a fun bit of play between the skit-world and the backstage-world of the type I always love. The cast makes another bold move toward declaring themselves the true stars of Saturday Night (“It’s not Richard’s show. Richard’s just the guest host.”). Chevy’s ego is front and center (“I do The Fall, that’s my thing”) as is Garrett’s marginalization (the only way he can get anything significant to do is by somebody more powerful than him insisting on it). I also have to point out that I adore Jane Curtin’s reaction to Chevy’s fall. She looks genuinely horrified by it, and it’s hilarious.

Monologue: Richard Pryor talks about relationships gone bad, alcohol, and acid trips.

This is basically just Pryor doing a stand-up routine, much in the vein of George Carlin and Robert Klein before him. It’s fantastic; Richard Pryor is in a comedic class by himself. His extended bit about acid trips is especially noteworthy given that this is 1975 on network TV.

Skit: Samurai Hotel. A guest (Chevy Chase) rents a room from the samurai front desk clerk (John Belushi). Conflict arises when the samurai bellhop (Richard Pryor) refuses to carry the bags up to the guest’s room.

1x07: Samurai Futaba versus Samurai Pryor

Samurai hotel clerk versus Samurai bellhop.

This is the first appearance of Samurai Futaba, probably John Belushi’s most famous character. Given that this is a character that Belushi has been doing for years (it’s a large part of what got him hired for Saturday Night in the first place), it’s no surprise that he plays the role perfectly from moment one. Interestingly, Pryor almost upstages Belushi in this skit, albeit aided in large part by just how ridiculous he looks with the topknot skullcap. Besides being the first Samurai sketch, this is also extremely notable in that it’s the first – and only – time that Futaba will speak English: “Well I can dig where you’re coming from,” he says after Pryor’s samurai bellhop slices the front desk in two. Finally, I note that this is the second sketch (out of a grand two sketches so far) to incorporate the “dangerous black man” motif I mentioned above: Belushi’s samurai quickly acquiesces to the menial work in the wake of implied violence.

Musical Performance: Gil Scott-Heron performs “Johannesburg”.

This is a really good song, a sort of jazz/R&B fusion about apartheid. Scott-Heron and his band give a lively performance, and he seems really pleased to be there.

Skit: Jane Curtin hosts “Looks At Books”, which today focuses on a new book about race in America, White Like Me, by Junior Griffin (Richard Pryor).

1x07: The author's picture for 'White Like Me'.

The author's picture of 'White Like Me', with shoe polish disguise.

Another sketch with race front and center. Both Jane and Richard are great in this one, with Pryor getting some fantastic moments. It’s a clever bit of satire as well, such as Pryor’s character using shoe polish to blend into the white world, and the change in his attitude and walk as he pretends to be a white man. These things may be considered rote by today’s standards (if I recall a future Eddie Murphy episode of SNL even revisits this basic idea for a filmed segment), but they were unheard of and extremely edgy for the time. The crowd especially seems to love this bit, but it’s worth noting that one of the many demands Richard Pryor made before agreeing to guest host was a huge block of audience seats for his own use. Consequently it’s difficult to use audience reaction as an entirely accurate gauge.

Fake Ad: [Repeat] New Dad

Previously appeared in the first episode (George Carlin).

Skit: Police Line-Up #1. A boy scout (Tom Schiller), a man in handcuffs (Pryor), a doctor (Belushi) and a businessman (Chase) are lined up. In voice-over a woman (Gilda Radner) immediately identifies the man in handcuffs as the one who assaulted her.

A short but amazing piece of satire. A scalpel wielded with a surgeon’s precision.

Skit: An interviewer (Chevy Chase) speaks to Mr. Wilson (Pryor), a prospective employee. They do some word association. It gets ugly, fast.

1x07: Word association.

'What'd you say?'

This is easily one of the best Saturday Night Live skits of all time. It starts out mild enough: the interviewer asking seemingly innocent questions of the meek but hopeful job-seeker. Its brilliance is in the slow but insistent escalation. Rain/snow becomes black/white becomes negro/whitey, and by this time our discomfort with the whole thing is inescapable. It’s a brilliant statement on words and their potential. Mr. Wilson transforms before our eyes from a nice, friendly guy to ball of eye-twitching rage. The interviewer meanwhile goes from a man with all the power to a man with none, brought there due to his own amazingly inexplicable racism. The fact that the job in question was for the lowest-rung no-power position of a janitor just makes the interviewer’s fall all the more delicious.

Skit: Two college students (Al Franken and Tom Davis) play Pong while talking about the school’s hockey game last night.

There’s not too much outright funny here, but it’s another interesting slice-of-life bit. I particularly love how Franken is the team’s goalie but he loses 11 to 0 in Pong.

Skit: A family is having dinner. The father (Akyroyd) is raving about how “they’re taking over”. One by one his family members leave the table, only to return replaced by a black person. Nobody seems to notice, least of all Dad who continues to rant about how “they’re” taking over, he can see it happening before his eyes.

1x07: They're taking over.

'One day one's governor, the next day one's president!'

Another amazing bit of satire, with a lot going on. We have the more obvious joke of a man so caught up in his own hatred that it’s blinded him to any sort of reality; he’s too busy railing against “threats” all around to pay attention to his own family. You could also view it on a more subtle level, that you can rant and you can rave but change is inevitable and it’s coming. There’s also the family itself: an ultra-conservative uptight 50s-style Stepford family of the worst kind. Mom (Jane Curtin) vehemently enforces a rule, but is clearly only acting out Dad’s orders; when Daughter (Gilda Radner) pleads to answer the telephone during dinner, Mom looks to Dad for permission. When he gives it, it’s with little more than a single curt nod, and Mom dutifully tells Daughter it’s okay. When fawnishly subservient Son (Belushi) spills milk in the kitchen, Mom rushes off to clean it saying that it’s “woman’s work”. All this oppression and lack of individuality or independent thought at Dad’s own table illustrates just the kind of people who would be so paranoid about “them” taking over, while making the point that even if “they” did would it be such a bad thing given what you see here? It’s not the most hilarious sketch ever – save for Belushi’s turn as the vapidly enthusiastic son I can’t think of any real laughs. But it works fantastically well as another dimension of the kind of thing Saturday Night does best.

Weekend Update: Generalissimo Fransisco Franco is still dead, commentary from the presidential campaign trail, Ford continues to be a buffoon, an editorial reply by Emily Litella about busting school children, and the top story repeated for the hard of hearing.

This is a great Update, even if there’s not much new here in a broad sense (at least not when placed in the context of future shows). The dirty phone talk, “I’m Chevy Chase and you’re not”, the Franco joke, Emily Litella, the hard of hearing bit, even down to the unrelenting attack on Ford, these are Update staples. Yet this is probably one of my personal favourite Update bits. It’s all very funny (even the bits that aren’t as funny) and very smooth. Additionally it’s the second Emily Litella appearance, but the first in the place where we’ll come to know her best. Gilda still hasn’t completely settled on Emily’s delivery, but she’s mostly all there, and “busting” school children will never not be funny.

Fake Ad: [Repeat] Spud Beer.

Repeated from the Lily Tomlin show.

Skit: Police Line-Up #2. A man in handcuffs (Pryor) is in a line-up with a nun (Curtin), a duck, and a refrigerator. A woman in voice-over (Radner) isn’t sure who did the crime and requests they open the ice box.

1x07: Police Line-Up #2

So a nun, a duck, a black guy and a refrigerator walk into a bar...

The weakest of the line-up sketches. I’m not entirely sure why it changed from the “it was the black guy, who else could it possibly be?” punchline, but it does do well with the laziness or need for police to pin the blame on a black man rather than actual solve a crime. The other bits do it much better though.

Skit: A general (Akyroyd) shows one of his majors (Pryor) the latest equipment and gadgets he’ll be working with. The major accidentally takes a pill intended as a last result for a suicide mission and it kills him within 20 seconds, as advertised.

I’ve seen this episode a dozen times and totally forgot this sketch. Not surprisingly as there’s not much here besides maybe commentary on just blindly following orders. A small and short moment of weakness in an otherwise killer show.

Muppets: Skred and Ploobis get drunk. They go see The Mighty Favog for no particular reason.

Or, well, we also have this moment of weakness I suppose. This is just a flimsy Muppet sketch, even by Muppet sketch standards. The best part was a complete accident, when Skred’s shirt gets caught on Ploobis’s ring and Jim Henson’s cool and totally in-character ad libbing to deal with it. Also earning a smirk is Favog’s “The Mighty Oz has spoken” closing line, a double entendre for an earlier Wizard of Oz reference and Favog’s voice actor, Frank Oz.

Skit: Police Line-Up #3. The same man from the previous two line-ups (Pryor) is brought in with three police officers (Chase, Schiller and Belushi). A woman (Radner) quickly identifies Pryor as the one who robbed her liquor store.

We’ve already discussed the premise and this one was better than the previous. The cops not even trying to be sly as they pointed to Pryor was a great touch, as was Pryor’s poor, seemingly hapless “criminal”, silently pleading with the witness to get him out of this nightmare.

Skit: “Exorcist II” sees Father Merrin (Thalmus Rasulala) and Father Karras (Pryor) trying to save Regan (Laraine Newman) from the evil spirit that’s possessed her. Things go especially badly when she talks about their mamas.

1x07: Exorcist II

'YOU must rest?! The bed! Is on! My foot!'

I love this skit, just adore it. Everyone involved is fantastic, from Pryor’s reluctant priest to Laraine’s little girl voice, a perfect contrast to the scratchy booming voice of the demon. There are genuine laughs all over this bit. I occasionally work “The bed! Is on! My foot!” into conversations where they have no business being. Then toward the end, Regan slandering their mothers with the most ridiculous of insults (“Your mama eats kitty litter!”) and getting such extreme reactions … Written fabulously, acted fabulously, just a wonderful sketch.

Film: Albert Brooks is sick.

I’ve already made it pretty clear that I don’t care for the Albert Brooks films too much, so this being a Albert Brooks film you can pretty well imagine my stance on it. That said, it’s actually a bit more amusing and entertaining than I remembered it being, though by no means any less self-indulgent. Brooks spends the entire eight minute segment talking about, in various ways, how awesome he is. Some of the blatant plugging does mildly amuse, and I have no idea how genuine his supposed beef with his film processing guy is, but ultimately the message is that if it doesn’t directly concern Albert Brooks then it’s not of any actual importance. The part that works best for me is when Brooks is talking to his doctor about his films on Saturday Night (“I have one film left in this contract”, “Don’t do it”), and that really only does anything for me because I know background info on his rapidly deteriorating relationship with Saturday Night and Lorne Michaels. Ultimately these films are just a waste of everyone’s time in my eyes, and I won’t miss them when they’re gone. Additional: Albert Brooks is a tremendously hairy man; his chest is incredibly distracting.

Skit: Before Richard Pryor can talk, a man (Tom Schiller) leaps out of the audience and starts saying he has proof that the CIA were involved in JFK’s assassination. Before he can say anything more, a shot rings out and the man dies at Richard’s feet. Richard says Dick Gregory started this and he doesn’t care who killed who.

Dick Gregory is an influential comedian whose research into the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. helped drive a formal investigation into the assassination of JFK. That’s your historical side. Otherwise, this is a skit that’s one of those moments too heavily mired in the context of its time. What’s probably most interesting about it, I would assume then as now, is that moment where you wonder if it’s genuinely spontaneous and some random guy is leaping out of the audience. That actually works pretty well within this show in particular, given the dangerous energy already permeating every sketch.

Stand-Up: Shelley Pryor tells a story she’s written about different carousel horses and their love for one another.

1x07: A tale of two horses.

Yeah that's about where I'm at too.

“Stand-Up” is the best standard classification I can think for this, but a spoken word performance is probably more apt. This piece by his ex-wife was yet another demand Pryor had for doing the show. It’s okay, but extremely schmaltzy I find, painfully obvious and condescending in delivery (done in the style of a children’s story I grant, but grating all the same). Being a metaphor (however thinly veiled) for her interracial marriage to Pryor and society’s problems with it, its underlying message is a good one. But particularly in a show that’s been so smart in dealing with racism, preconceptions and stereotypes, this feels like being forced back to kindergarten after your first year of college.

Stand-Up: Richard Pryor talks about winos and junkies.

Richard mentions the pictures that have been used throughout the show as the bumpers between commercials. Sadly none but the final image are included on the DVDs. It’s a small price to pay to have the shows as complete as they are, but it’s unfortunate. As to this routine itself, no surprise, it’s very good. Pryor takes a great turn with character acting here, similar to but extremely different from Lily Tomlin doing the same last week. There’s a whiff of sadness in Richard’s portrayals, a kind of acceptance of defeat that echos in the laughter.

Musical Performance: Gil Scott-Heron performs “A Lovely Day”.

Another good performance. Scott-Heron commands the spotlight well. The song itself isn’t as catchy, but is very positive without being saccharine.

Goodnight: The Not Ready for Prime Time Players join Richard at Home Base brandishing assorted food items. Pryor says that if you didn’t watch the show, he hopes you made love.

1x07: Richard and a pickle say goodnight.

Richard and a pickle say goodnight.

I don’t know what behind-the-scenes joke there is with the food, I’ve never seen anybody fill in the gap on that one. One thing that does strike me about the Goodnights is how uncomfortable Richard looks surrounded by the cast. Uncomfortable and perhaps a little embarrassed by the attention? I’m not sure, it’s difficult to pin, but there’s certainly a weird vibe from him that wasn’t evident in the rest of the show.

Overall Thoughts: This is a fantastic episode, one of the best in the entire run of Saturday Night. Almost every sketch kills with little to no filler and it’s brimming with super smart satire and social commentary. Another of Pryor’s requirements for appearing on the show was bringing a writer with him. I’ve never been able to find a breakdown for who wrote what in this episode so I don’t know how much of an impact that writer made on the material produced this week, but there’s no denying its quality.

Richard Pryor was the first black host for Saturday Night, which was just one of the many first we saw. Along with first appearances of Belushi’s Samurai and Gilda’s Emily Litella (in her usual role as an Update commentator), we also for the first time had someone besides Chevy uttering the trademark opening line. In a bit of a flip on the “first appearance” trend, this is also the first time The Bees did not appear.

This was also the first (and for a very long time only) episode to not actually be broadcast live. The network censors were tremendously worried about what Richard Pryor might say on live TV, and after some fierce battles Lorne agreed to a 5-second delay. Only a tiny handful of people knew about the delay however, and Lorne even had the clocks in the studio intentionally adjusted so that Richard wouldn’t figure it out. Despite the censors’ fears, there was never any need to use the delay.

If there was one word to use for this episode, it would probably be “charged”. Pryor’s stand-up routines were as controversial as they were poignant, and much as with the Carlin show there was the feeling of a bomb in the studio that could go off at any moment. Unlike Carlin however, Pryor worked directly with the cast, and often, bringing that element of the unknown with him from piece to piece.

Then there’s the content of the show. Sketch after sketch either confronted racism head-on or had it as a simmering undertone. Looking back on the episode from 30+ years in the future, it’s easy to forget just how close in history this was to many key civil rights moments. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated only seven years previous and the Black Power movement was still very much alive. What may seem like abstract facts in history were living, breathing moments changing the world in 1975. As with so much, context is everything.

All of these things together led to one of the most unforgettable episodes in Saturday Night Live history.

Stand-out sketch you have to give to “Word Association”. But “Samurai Hotel” and “Exorcist II” deserve honourable mention. As for performances, Chevy takes it, again largely on the strength of “Word Association” and the juggernaut that is Update, but Belushi is right on his heels with the samurai. Also a stand-out is Jane Curtin, who while not stealing scenes is subtle and incredibly funny in each of her appearances.

  • Stephanie Jane

    DEAD HONKY!

  • Wendy

    I saw Sunday’s retrospective and when the Interviewer skit came on, the tension was cracking.

    • Jet Wolf

      It’s such a fantastic skit. Still palpable after all these years.