Richard Pryor's Bonkers Saturday Morning Kids Show
The history of children’s television is rich with imagery otherwise only found on the most extreme acid trips. Fuzzy aliens who bounce around a meadow underneath a flaming baby’s head. About 300 talking dogs and more than a few talking pieces of home furniture. Even an overeager sea sponge who lives in a tropical fruit and drives a neighboring cephalopod to wish for the sweet release of death.
Yet across the spectrum of hallucinogenic kids’ media, there’s often one constant: an exceedingly agreeable host. Classically, there’s Mr. Rogers, the pioneer of Calm Kid Demeanor. More recently, Steve from Blue’s Clues made us forget our abandonment issues with his tranquil presence.
Even animated hosts exhibit composure and patience. Notice how Dora the Explorer waits an eerily long time for her audience’s answers? Let’s move it along, Dora!
With this storied lineage of even-keeled hosts, it might come as a surprise that in 1984, kid TV execs tried a somewhat different voice: Richard Pryor.
Yes, the same Richard Pryor who, four years earlier, doused himself in rum and set himself on fire. The same profanity-spouting Richard Pryor who said, “I’m not addicted to cocaine. I just like the way it smells.”(This, of course, makes John Mulaney the second stand-up comedian familiar with cocaine to host a kids’ show.)
Yes, that Richard Pryor hosted “Pryor’s Place,” a live-action childrens’ series airing on CBS every Saturday morning. Pryor hosted all 13 episodes of the show’s run, introducing narratives featuring Richie, an actor portraying a young Pryor.
The show’s salvaged footage feels like it should be in a museum — or perhaps saved for one of those acid trips I mentioned earlier. One episode in particular stands out: “To Catch a Little Thief.”
If you, unlike me, don’t have 23 minutes to watch a television show from the ’80s, let me recap so you can get back to your productive life.
“To Catch a Little Thief” is an absolute psilocybin-spiritual thrill ride of kids’ entertainment, and even if you’re not a Pryor fan it’s very much worth the watch — if only for the theme song, which is a certifiable banger sung by Ray Parker Jr. of Ghostbusters theme song fame.
Visually, picture a set very much akin to Sesame Street but with about 950% more hard knocks. The Sid and Marty Krofft Puppets featured in the show are also definitely reminiscent of the classic Henson characters.
The episode is pretty powerful. As someone who’s written for the humanitarian arm of Sesame Street, which deliberately covers issues like destigmatizing HIV and AIDS in South Africa and girls’ literacy in Afghanistan, I’ve been around some pretty serious topics in kids’ media. This episode of Pryor’s Place centers on theft among children and explores its real-life consequences. Especially in the 1980s, there weren’t many other kids’ shows willing to go there.
Like in his comedy, Pryor didn’t sugarcoat the hard topics. He begins with a comedic yet sobering reference to his dad beating him, sound effects and all. His tone might be best compared to some middle ground between Mr. Rogers and Eddie Murphy’s Mr. Robinson. Earnest, funny but not lacking grit.
A few minutes later, the tab kicks in. After we see young Richie swipe a basketball from a storefront, puppets made to look like an assortment of baked goods have a conversation about what’s transpired.
As the acid peaks, more characters emerge. There are two puppet sewer rats in a stubborn marriage because of course they are. Then there’s the grown man in a blue beret who pulls young Richie into a back alley to sell him a stolen watch. Finally, Richie meets Carlotta the Gypsy Lady, brought to life by a cross-dressing Pryor.
In one of the episode’s more shocking images, Carlotta shows a vision in her crystal ball of Richie sitting in jail. If you’re wondering, yes, it’s a little different than what I’ve pitched at Sesame Street; Elmo just wouldn’t do well in that kind of environment. He’s much better suited for house arrest.
In the end, Richie returns the basketball and has to sweep the store’s floor for one week (a slightly lighter sentence than prison). Pryor ends the episode in earnest: “If you are stealing maybe you’ll stop, because I’d like to see you back here next time.”
And if you did return next time, there really was a lot to see. Other episodes of Pryor’s place featured the likes of Robin Williams, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Willie Nelson — and in this episode, a cameo from Sammy Davis Jr. as Creepy Guy in Alley.
So believe it or not, Richard Pryor did host a kids’ show in the ’80s. In Pryor’s own words, “Who are you going to believe? Me, or your lying eyes?”
To see Ryder do comedy in Brooklyn, online and forever in your nightmares — and recently on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon — follow him on Instagram at @mybestfriendryderchasin and subscribe on YouTube at Ryder Chasin.
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