Richard Pryor Made Milton Berle Livid on ‘The Mike Douglas Show’

Richard Pryor Made Milton Berle Livid on ‘The Mike Douglas Show’

Milton Berle, the 1950s icon known as Mr. Television, and Richard PryorRolling Stone’s #1 stand-up comic of all time, seem to occupy such distant moments in comedy history that they couldn’t have possibly shared the same stage. Yet, there they were on The Mike Douglas Show in 1974, creating the most uncomfortably awkward moment in the show’s history.

Pryor was co-hosting Douglas’ daytime talk show that week — hey, a job’s a job — when Uncle Miltie joined the two to plug his new autobiography. The book featured several maudlin stories, including one in which Berle confessed to a 1930s affair that resulted in a child born out of wedlock. For the time, it was pretty scandalous stuff. Berle, in his best Jerry Lewis-style tears-of-a-clown mode, revealed his inner agony to Douglas and America’s housewives. The young woman wanted an abortion! Her mother insisted they marry!  And in the midst of Berle's story, an off-camera Pryor got the giggles. Douglas, despite himself, had to stifle his own snicker. 

I’ll go ahead and speculate — given Pryor’s mid-1970s habits, it’s not unlikely that he’d been smoking something that made it hard to keep a straight face. (Later when Pryor offered to light Berle’s cigar, the older comic snapped, “I don’t smoke that.”) Whatever the reason for the suppressed laugh, Berle stopped mid-story to lecture Pryor on propriety and comedy. “Richard, let me tell you something, baby. I told you this nine years ago, and I’m going to tell you this on the air in front of millions of people,” he said before pausing for dramatic effect. “Pick your spots, baby.”

“All right, sweetheart,” Pryor replied, imitating Humphrey Bogart. 

Berle could barely contain his rage as the exchange continued, according to Scott Saul’s Becoming Richard Pryor. “Pick your spots!” he repeated, furious at being called “sweetheart.”

“I’m sorry, Milton,” Pryor tried. “I’ll be honest, I’m crazy.” 

“No, you’re not crazy,” Berle said before taking Pyror by the chin and forcing him to look into his eyes. It’s a wonder Pryor didn’t punch him then and there. “I want to ask you why you laugh.”

“I laugh because it’s funny, man. It’s funny to me. It ain’t nothing to do with you.”

“Because it never happened to you,” scolded Berle. 

“No, no, it’s just the insanity of all this is funny,” Pryor said, looking to the heavens for help. “Do you understand? I’m funny and I laugh, and so I’m crazy and so I apologize because I don’t want to hurt your feelings and because I respect what you do. But I don’t want to kiss your ass.”

The audience went nuts — “ass” wasn’t a term regularly heard on The Mike Douglas Show. Berle literally threw up his hands, turned back to Douglas and didn’t address Pryor again. 

Predictably, the comedy community was split on who “won” the uncomfortable confrontation. Older comics believed Berle put the younger comedian in his place, while Pryor’s contemporaries applauded his refusal to back down. Like Berle’s ill-fated hosting stint on Saturday Night Live, it was another signal to Mr. Television that a new generation was taking over. 


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