Because Richard Pryor's '70s stand-up routines were built on colorfully improvised riffs, they were, like jazz, inconsistent by design. Pryor could blaze one night and plod the next, and consequently, his talent was rarely showcased well in comic movies or television sketches. The best segments of his short-lived 1977 NBC series The Richard Pryor Show aren't comedic, but more impressionistic. The first episode ends with a 20-minute sketch set at a Harlem jazz club in the mid-'40s, with Pryor playing a G.I. who comes home to ask his girl to marry him. At the heart of the second episode is a lengthy sketch divided between a demonstration of African tribal dancing and a keen bit of satire with Pryor as a dashiki-clad salesman of phony family histories.
These pieces sport high production values, with oddly cinematic camera angles for a show shot on videotape. The Richard Pryor Show's big budget is apparent in the show's first sketch, which has Pryor working as a bartender in the Star Wars cantina, busting on the elaborately costumed creatures. ("You look just like a nigger from Detroit I know," Pryor tells one fish-faced humanoid.) But that same sketch demonstrates much of what's wrong with The Richard Pryor Show, which depends too much on the comedy of black people being in places that black people wouldn't ordinarily be: Pryor as a gunslinger and a heavy-metal superstar, in lengthy routines with no real point beyond the incongruity.
The dated daring of these pieces has some historical value, for their snapshot of racial anxiety in the mid-'70s (apparently, people were already sweating the lack of minority ownership in the NFL 25 years ago), and for the cast of soon-to-be-famous young comics, including John Witherspoon, Sandra Bernhard, Paul Mooney, Marsha Warfield, Tim Reid, Edie McClurg, and Robin Williams. A network TV special joins the four completed episodes on Image's DVD box set, along with some of the scenes that NBC ordered excised; strung together, the pieces illustrate that the star shut the program down (due to its family-hour timeslot and attendant content battles) just when it was starting to find a workable tone.
Toward the end, Pryor stopped trying to find creative ways to sneak in the word "ass" and began commenting on the limits of free expression, most effectively in a stark, non-comic monologue delivered by a moody lesbian whose most provocative comments are blocked out by an insert shot of the word "Censored." He'd also begun to let his cast cut loose in freewheeling revue pieces that had them trying out an array of characters, reveling in the flavor of the American language and indulging, as Pryor did in his best stand-up, a little empathy.