Salon.com has an excerpt on their site this week from Furious Cool: Richard Pryor and the World That Made Him, a book by David and Joe Henry. The excerpt concerns Richard Pryor’s appearance on the 7th episode of Saturday Night Live‘s first season, back before anyone thought much of SNL, and when Johnny Carson thought the sophomoric show would quickly die in the Saturday night television graveyard.
Carson was wrong, of course. But one of the sketches that put Saturday Night Live on the map was a controversial two-minute interview between a Chevy Chase character and Richard Pryor’s character, who had applied for a janitor position in a sketch that would NEVER make it on the air today.
There was a lot of tension leading up to Pryor’s appearance on SNL, mostly because Pryor was a known coke head at the time (he didn’t hide it), and NBC executives were terrified that Pryon would unleash a string of expletives on live television. NBC initially rejected Pryor as host, and in turn, Lorne Michaels threatened to leave the show. Eventually, a compromise was reached: Pryor could do the show, but only with a five-second delay.
The week leading up to the show, most everyone in the cast got a sketch with Pryor except Chevy Chase, in part because Richard Pryor didn’t like Chevy Chase. But Chase knew, if he was going to make a name for himself, he’d need to be in a sketch with Pryor, and so he badgered Pryor’s personal writer, Paul Mooney to write him a sketch. Mooney, who along with Pryor had gone through a huge ordeal with NBC and Lorne Michaels to get on the show, said it was the easiest bit he’d ever written. Inspired by the ordeal, he wrote what he knew.
Paul Mooney recalls the genesis of the sketch (via Salon)
Toward the end of the week, as the Saturday show time approaches, he starts following me around himself, 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.
Soon enough he’s back tugging on my sleeve. “Write something for us, will you?” he pleads. “I have to get some air time with Richard.”
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. After all the bulls*it I’ve been put through to get here, the f*cking cross-examination Lorne subjects me to, I decide to do a job interview of my own. 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 result was the sketch below, which still ranks as one of the best in Saturday Night Live history. Sure enough, it also helped to launch Chevy Chase’s career.