"I Ain't Dead Yet, Motherf#cker!," boasts the website of legendary comedian Richard Pryor. Born in 1940, Pryor rose to fame as an incredibly talented and charismatic entertainer, paving the way for the likes of Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock, and the currently-popular Dave Chappelle. He's appreared in a variety of films, including See No Evil, Hear No Evil and Superman III (stragely enough, he even showed up in David Lynch's Lost Highway). At the height of his career, his act was unlike anything most audiences had ever witnessed: brash, uncompromising, energetic, and extremely vulgar. Even so, "extremely vulgar" is perhaps an understatement: this wasn't the kind of entertainment you'd want your kids to watch. Heck, most adults shyed away.
Now imagine giving this guy his own TV show.
Shortly after hosting his own television special, The Richard Pryor Show premiered in 1977 beside such popular shows as Happy Days and stuck out like a sore thumb. Originally slated to run for at least 10 episodes, the number was gradually decreased until both Pryor and the network settled on airing just four episodes, making The Richard Pryor Show one of the shortest runs in TV history. That's not to say it was bad (like Cop Rock, for example); instead, it was badly mishandled by the networks and thrust upon an audience that probably wasn't ready for it. It crossed the lines of 'good taste' (whatever that is), leading to constant battles with television censors and tons of angry letters from viewers. If anything, it's pretty interesting to hear Richard Pryor not swear; since he's most famous for his harsh language, his ability to entertain under these strict conditions is but another testament to this man's obvious talent.
Naturally, the star of the show was Richard Pryor himself. Backed by a stellar team of writers and fellow comedians (including Robin Williams, Paul Mooney, and Sandra Bernhard), The Richard Pryor Show was one of the funniest shows in television history, and holds up pretty well today. While it's pretty tame by today's standards, the sense of social relevance is as sharp as ever, if not more so. In today's politically correct world, shows like these are a great example of how televsion should be: a wake-up call for the sleeping masses.
Of course, The Richard Pryor Show has influenced much more than singular talents. It literally paved the way for countless television series, including In Living Color and Chappelle's Show. Although shows like Saturday Night Live had already made their mark, The Richard Pryor Show helped to push the envelope even further, even with only four shows under its belt. It's truly one of television's best-kept secrets, plain and simple.
Thankfully, this little gem has finally been given a chance to shine on DVD, courtesy of Image Entertainment. While the technical presentation isn't half as good as I hoped, there are a number of decent extras that sweeten the pot a little. Despite any problems, you can bet that the quality of the show shines through, and is a testament to the skill of everyone involved. This is a 3-disc set containing the four original episodes in their entirety, which run about 50 minutes each. From the Star Wars Bar to Mojo the Healing Man, there's a great variety of stuff to keep you laughing. Let's just say if you've never seen this show before, you're in for a real treat. Let's move on to the technical portion, and see how this set stacks up:
Quality Control Department
Video & Audio Presentation:
Presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, the video quality for The Richard Pryor Show is easily the most disappointing aspect of this release. The image transfer is very uneven, and most of the darker scenes appear washed out and dull. In short, it's almost like watching a VHS tape, and could have really benefitted from a stronger re-mastering effort. Still, not all of the video is bad: several of the more brightly-lit scenes look quite good, and are much closer to the level that you would hope for. Additionally, the overall image is fairly clean, so it's not a total loss. I'm not sure how bad the source elements were, but I'm willing to bet that Image Entertainment could have done a much better job with these discs.
Faring slightly better is the audio, which is presented in Dolby Digital Mono. As with most Mono releases, I set my reciever to 'Stereo' for a wider and smoother sound, which dramatically improved the presentation. This audio mix isn't terribly exciting and aggressive, but the dialogue is clean and easily understood. While it felt a little flat at times, it's still pretty good considering The Richard Pryor Show is now over 25 years old. Additionally, I doubt this show would have benefitted much from a 5.1 Surround remix, so it's pretty obvious that this is the best we're going to get for now.
Menu Design & Packaging:
While this boxed set doesn't feature the most typical menus around, they're amusing and get the job done. For example, the main menu (as seen above) is taken from an unaired promo for the show. Navigation and design are both simplistic and smooth, and each disc wisely employs the ever-popular 'Play All' option. On the bad side, the packaging itself is a bit cumbersome, and affirms my initial fears that this set is a bit 'padded'. All of this material could have fit on two discs, so the need for three cases and a slipcover isn't really warranted here. It might seem that you're getting much more than you really are, that's all. All complaints aside, the packaging is surprisingly basic, but you can't say it doesn't stand out in a crowd. Inserts and a few other advertisements are also included for each keepcase (including a cordial invitation to "Visit [his] website, muthaf#cker!!!"). Overall, a passable job, but the presentation could have been much more polished in general.
Extras are spread out accross all three discs, and cover a decent amount of ground. The first two discs include several short Deleted Scenes that never made it on the air, whether for content or time. The third disc houses the most bonus material, which starts off with the 45 minute Richard Pryor Special? (1977), which led to the show's brief run on television. This is a most welcome inclusion, and features guest appearances by Robin Williams, Sandra Bernhard, and even Maya Angelou. The third disc continues with the complete 45 minute "Mudbone" Sketch, which was abbreviated for one of the episodes. Last but not least, we get the complete Richard Pryor Roast (also 45 minutes), featuring many popular comedians letting Richard have it (although it's obvious that they're holding back a little). It's worth noting that some of these extras are in rough shape, and it's unfortunate that they couldn't have found better copies. Also included in the packaging is a miniature 'script' with descriptions of unfilmed scenes and sketches.
Overall, I found the extras to be entertaining and interesting from a historical perspective, but I was hoping for more. Specifically, I'd have liked to seen more participation from Pryor himself, especially in the form of audio commentaries or other interviews. It would have been nice to hear some personal experiences and other recollections, as this show undoubtedly had an impact on his career. As far as archival materials go, what we get here is good, espcially considering the rocky relationship between Pryor and the network: they didn't seem to have much faith in his ability to entertain. Overall, The Richard Pryor Show wasn't as thorough as most TV boxed sets we're used to seeing, but there's enough on here to keep most fans happy.
The Richard Pryor Show is chock full of absolutely historic comedy, plain and simple, and makes this package a must-buy for hardcore fans of great comedy. It's too bad the DVD couldn't have been a little more streamlined, as an audio/video upgrade or even more extras would have really put this one over the top. Specifically, the video quality isn't up to par (even by 1970s standards), which really hurts this release in general. The organization of the material is cumbersome and somewhat padded, which may leave a few viewers out in the cold. Even with the complaints, there are several hours of solid entertainment here for just under $40, so it's not a bad deal. Additionally, it's great to see such this show on DVD in any form, and this will likely be the best version available for quite some time. Long story short: if you're even mildly interested in this piece of television history, I urge you to seek this one out. Recommended.
Other Links of Interest
Richard Pryor's Official Website
Richard Pryor Filmography at IMDb
Related DVD Talk Reviews:
Richard Pryor: Here and Now
In Living Color: Season One
Chappelle's Show: Season One (Uncensored)
SNL: The Best of Chris Rock
Randy Miller III is a part-time cartooning instructor based in Harrisburg, PA. He also does freelance graphic design projects and works in an art gallery. When he's not doing that, he enjoys slacking off, general debauchery, and writing things in third person.