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How Richard Pryor made Lorne Michaels quit SNL

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As one of America’s most celebrated comedians of the 20th century, the late Richard Pryor had an indelible influence on the future of western comedy, inspiring the likes of Jerry Seinfeld and Dave Chappelle, among many others. A screen actor as well as an on-stage comedian, Pryor worked with the likes of Richard Lester, James Frawley and even David Lynch on his way to industry prominence. 

Enduring a difficult upbringing, Pryor was kicked out of school at the age of 14 after he was abused and abandoned by his mother and father at a young age. Following a short stint in the army in his later life, in 1963 Pryor moved to New York City where he would perform alongside the likes of Woody Allen, Bob Dylan and even Nina Simone, with his comedy inspired by the, since disgraced, comic Bill Cosby.

Diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS) in August 1963, Pryor made light of the debilitating medical condition, telling GQ: “When I discovered I had MS I didn’t think, ‘Why me?’ Why bother? It’s the hand that was dealt me… and I’ve had a great life ‒ fuck yeah!”. Hit with news of the illness whilst shooting the movie Critical Condition in Los Angeles, Pryor added: “It was as if God had all this shit left over from the other afflictions he created and decided to throw it all into one disease called MS”. 

As the first black person ever to host the prestigious show Saturday Night Live (SNL), Pryor helped to further elevate his career on the show that was still only brand new when he headed up the programme in 1975. Created by the influential producer Lorne Michaels, SNL had not yet earned the reputation that it holds today, so when Michaels requested the notoriously explicit Pryor to appear on the show he was taking a considerable risk. 

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So convinced that the blossoming talent of Richard Pryor should appear on his show, Lorne Michaels went to drastic measures to ensure his inclusion, handing in a fake resignation to NBC executives in order to allow the controversial comedian to appear on the show. Threatened by Michael’s intent to leave the network, NBC gave in to his demands, with Pryor hosting the programme with musical guest Gil Scott-Heron on December 13th, 1975. 

The only stipulation in Michael’s agreement with NBC was that the producer had to implement a five-second delay to the night’s recording, making it Saturday Night (not-quite) Live to ensure that any explicit language or unscripted moments didn’t make it on the broadcast. With no knowledge of the delay whilst he was performing Pryor was later distraught at the news and confirmed he would have refused to appear on the show if he knew about its existence. 

The delay clause in the episode was the only reason Richard Pryor was allowed on the show, however, where he would help to deliver the iconic ‘Word Association’ sketch with Chevy Chase and make comedy history.

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