Some comedians just can’t keep their offstage lives separate from their gigs, and for a while there during his heyday, Richard Pryor’s life and act interlocked as one hilarious (and often dangerous) wrecking ball. Back in 1975, before the whole freebasing fire incident, Pryor’s explicit nature was getting him in trouble, and one particular TV appearance saw him freaking Cher out enough to fearfully hide out in her dressing room. I didn’t think Cher was afraid of anything.
The amusingly high octane situation was detailed in Scott Saul’s recently published biography Becoming Richard Pryor (via Salon), and it paints a small but interesting picture of what stand-up comedy must have been like in the 1970s for brash comics. In February 1975, Pryor was making an appearance on a special for fellow comic and TV personality Flip Wilson. During a break in taping, Pryor performed an impromptu set for the audience; one that was free with the four-letter words.
This is reportedly when another one of Wilson’s guests, M*A*S*H actor McLean Stevenson, got fed up and claimed he would never be “on the same stage as that man,” in reference to Pryor, before storming off. As you can imagine, this didn’t sit well with the scrappy comedian, but things didn’t get blown out of proportion until an NBC page stopped Pryor from letting his family exit the studio through a fire door. Kaboom! I picture his face just then as a cross between these two, only with an evil magma behind the eyes.
Right about here is when Pryor apparently took a swing at the page, which led to all-out mayhem from one end of the set to the other. (I’m guessing his family didn’t make a quick getaway.) This is the point when Cher hauled ass to her dressing room, where she locked herself inside. If only Sonny Bono had shown up to save her.
Things ended without anyone being carted off to a hospital, as Pryor was restrained by a bearhug until proper authorities took care of things. When all was said and done, Pryor found himself on the wrong end of a lawsuit when the page sued him for the physical and mental harm caused by the incident. Personally, I’d have let Pryor hit me, and I’d be wearing that black eye with pride.
Pryor followed that by heading to Saturday Night Live and performing in one of the most iconic sketches in that show’s history. So it’s not like mentally harming an NBC page hurt his career or anything. I wonder if that night will show up in the long-gestating biopic.