Saturday Night Live is a sketch show that has run for forty years on television. It’s been great, it’s been terrible, it’s been everything in between. One thing is pretty universally agreed upon, though: When it first started it was freaking amazing. This is season one.
Saturday Night Live did not run, and usually does not run, with a delay. Some bits are pre-recorded, but everything else is broadcast live, for better or for worse. Now, the first host of SNL was George Carlin, so that’s taking a risk right off the bat, but the producers didn’t truly worry until the seventh episode, when they asked Richard Pryor to host. If you don’t know who Richard Pryor is, he’s usually considered one of the best comedians of all time, but was also one of the most foul-mouthed people on television in the 70s. Also, he was a constant drug user with a history of strange statements during live shows. Pryor had given his word that he’d be under control during taping, but still, the show had a 7 second delay so that they could censor any slips. Hearing this, the cast and production team promptly looked at each other, laughed, and said “f*ck that sh*t.”
Richard Pryor started off by insisting that Garrett Morris, the only black cast member on SNL at the time, be allowed to do the opening pratfall instead of Chevy Chase. Chase, reportedly, wasn’t happy with this, but agreed because he got to openly show how much better he was than Morris at physical comedy during the opening. It’s as true now as it was then: Playing to vanity is always a valid tactic.
At the time, Richard Pryor’s writing partner was Paul Mooney, who many people know now from Chappelle’s Show, but was previously known for having fewer limits than Pryor. As a demonstration, Mooney wrote a skit for Pryor that will forever be a moment in television that can’t be duplicated (and almost certainly never should be): Racist Word Association.
Pryor is at a job interview with Chevy Chase, who begins a “word association exercise” as part of the job interview. Chase starts with normal words (Dog, Fast, Rain, Bean) and then progressively starts throwing out racial slurs of increasing offensiveness (Tar-baby, Negro, Spearchucker, etc.) with Pryor throwing out a counter for each one (Cracker, White Trash, Peckerwood, etc.) until the final exchange occurs (Jungle bunny – Honky, Spade – Honkey Honky, N***** – DEAD HONKY).
Chase immediately begins offering Pryor huge job perks and salary bonuses in order to keep Pryor from killing him, making him the highest paid janitor in the world. Note: Even with the delay, none of this got censored. Pryor and Mooney had assured the network that Pryor’s mere presence in the scene made it somehow not racist. I don’t know if that’s true, but it made it one of the most intense minutes of TV.
There are 3 other notable things about this episode. The first is that it contained Albert Brooks’s short film “Sick” which is one of the big kick-offs to mockumentary in modern film. The second is that it contained the first, and maybe best, of John Belushi’s Samurai Futaba sketches, “Samurai Hotel,” which included samurai Richard Pryor cutting a desk in half. The third is that it contained the first use of “Generalissimo Francisco Franco is still dead,” which was a huge running gag when the show started.
The point of the racist interview sketch is a little more subtle than Mooney’s or Pryor’s usual comedy, to the extent that it’s somehow overlooked sometimes. See, this was the 1970s, and, unlike today, when racism is clearly no longer an issue (hello, dear readers of 2944), people sometimes were kind of racist. Especially employers who were complaining about having to “not discriminate based on race.” So, one of the first practices put into play was that the employers would try to discourage black people from applying to jobs, or to harass them into giving good cause not to hire them. This interview is both of those in the course of a few minutes. It’s a white guy pissing off a black guy and calling it “part of the process.” It’s an exaggerated version, of course, but the point is still there, and watching Chase pause as if he’s coming up with all of the slurs as he goes really sells the fact that his character is just trying to offend Pryor’s.
If you want to introduce someone to old-school SNL, this is one of the best episodes.
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