Join Date: Jan 09, 2001
Originally Posted by Mace Dolex
I'm an 80's kid so I enjoyed the later seasons a lot more than the preachy 70's episodes, gotta agree on how quickly the writers made Arnold and Willis less "ghetto" and more whitey friendly especially with the ugly sweaters Arnold would be wearing even inside the house!
I guess a good analogy to this is Richard Pryor
's film roles/comedic persona pre-"freebasing incident" and post-his "freebasing incident".
As he recuperated, an apparently “reborn’ Pryor set about consolidating his growing superstardom with a batch of projects that continued to marry his endearing screen persona with the raw subversion of his stand-up. But behind the commercial frenzy that surrounded him, something had changed. His demons had not gone away, of course, and his boozing and drug taking soon returned to monstrous levels, but part of Pryor had died on June 9, 1980. For the edgy, dangerous performer of the seventies would now give way to a lazier, less coruscating comic, one who was moving further away from his own truth. But was this the result of his near-apocalypse, or simply a consequence of mainstream success?
* * *
The signs that Pryor’s best days were behind him were soon to appear. Richard Pryor Live on the Sunset Strip (1982), a record of the star’s first return to stand-up comedy eighteen months after the fire, immediately shows something of this decline. Although the provocative honesty still shines through, and the funny routines, when they come, are occasionally brilliant, some of his energy has been replaced with doubt and caution; he is a little less agile, less sure of himself. And his newfound aversion to the word “******” seems, although heartfelt, a curious concession to the encroaching political correctness of Reagan-era Hollywood.
It was by no means the life-threatening “accident” that had sapped Pryor’s magic by Live on the Sunset Strip, however. In fact, his long-awaited routine about setting himself ablaze turned out to be one of the movie’s high points. But in a remarkably candid interlude, the comedian admits to the audience that he knows he was better — funnier — when he was hungry, when he wasn’t the Hollywood hotshot. And this isn’t just a throwaway comment. On the first night of the concert, in December 1981, Pryor actually abandoned the stage of the Hollywood Palladium halfway through the act, announcing: “I don’t know what I’m doing here … I’m not funny any more.” Leaving the bewildered audience behind, he locked himself in his trailer and wouldn’t come out. He had to be goaded into resuming the concert film the following evening. Things went more smoothly this time, and judicious editing ensured that not too much of Pryor’s uncertainty dragged down the concert movie, but the experience left the comedian somewhat shaken.
Despite this, Live on the Sunset Strip earned almost twice what it cost to make in its first three days of release. And the box office reception to his downbeat comedy-drama Some Kind of Hero (1982), about a Vietnam vet returning to find himself distrusted by his government and ignored by society, also excited the executives. Soon after, Pryor was signed up as the comic relief in Superman III (1983) for an unprecedented four million dollars — a million more than Christopher Reeve was getting for playing the caped superhero himself.
Another big payday was to come with The Toy (1982), a witless and degrading farrago that casts Pryor as an expensive plaything for a spoiled little white boy. The Toy Could have had allegorical potential, not just regarding Pryor’s career but for all those ethnic actors in Hollywood, but it fell far short of any such insight, and existed solely to show Pryor freaking out and looking scared, like a comedy negro looking down the barrel of a redneck’s gun. Nonetheless, the film did respectable business. Nineteen-eighty-two ended with Pryor as the number-one box office draw in America.
But if the direction of Pryor’s film career was suddenly at odds with the renegade brilliance of his early success, things were to get much worse from here. Ironically, they did so as the star secured what appeared to be an all-empowering deal from the studios.
In 1983, Columbia Pictures gave Pryor over $40 million to set up a company to produce four films — with complete creative control. The deal established Pryor as the most powerful black actor in Hollywood. He named his company Indigo Productions and announced he was looking to make serious, relevant, and challenging films with black actors and filmmakers.
In effect, it was a case of giving the lunatic control of the asylum. Indigo was a disaster from the start. Perhaps more than anything, it finished Pryor as a radical force. He was required to make business decisions, select scripts, and green-light projects, oversee them from concept to finished film. At the press launch, he was all noble ambition and worthy intent. But underneath he had no idea what he was doing. Indigo would become — in his own words — a fiasco.
Despite all the big talk, the first project Pryor decided to produce was yet another concert film. As a commercial decision, it seemed sensible enough, but it was hardly an artistic gamble. Even so, the expectation was understandably high.
Worryingly, the result, Richard Pryor Here and Now (1983), confirmed the warning signs of Live on the Sunset Strip, catching the comedian badly off form. Pryor professed to be clean and sober now — he’d gotten his act together since spending the Superman III shoot in London completely off his rocker. (Revealingly, it’s fair to say that Superman III is the last film in which Pryor is spontaneously funny, although whether he is four-million-dollars funny is another matter.) But free of the drugs, Pryor is out of his depth in Here and Now. He’s trendily suited and slick, but moves uncertainly about the stage, falling back into some old routines that — this time — fall quite flat. And he is quite unable to deal with the raucous New Orleans crowd, whose frequent heckles catch him off-guard. Always acutely self-aware, Pryor is consciously playing to a crowd that knows he’s sold out. The calamity-prone performer of Live in Concert is gone, and Pryor can’t imitate him. Here and Now simply highlights John and Dennis Williams’ assertion that for Pryor “the absence of pain would be the kiss of comic death.”3
Not that there was a complete absence of pain in Pryor’s life. Indigo Productions was already going out of control, and at the end of 1983 he fired the company president, former football star Jim Brown. Brown had been Pryor’s close friend and right arm for some years, and the move smacked of corporate coldness. Worse, the firing upset the black community. Brown was a popular black figurehead — he and Pryor had made for a loveable badass couple. They were the brothers who’d infiltrated the white corridors of power and were going to stick it to The Man. Instead, Indigo fell dormant and didn’t release another film until 1986.
* * *
Nineteen-eighty-four was a significant year for black stars in Hollywood, but Richard Pryor wasn’t one of them. On the big screen, Eddie Murphy overtook Pryor’s box office status with Beverly Hills Cop, one of the biggest money-makers of the year and the 23-year-old’s third hit movie in a row. On TV, veteran Bill Cosby launched The Cosby Show, which quickly became one of the most successful series of the 1980s.
Pryor, however, was falling into limp imitations of Murphy’s successes (the spineless Brewster’s Millions, 1985, having more than a few similarities to the snappy Trading Places, 1983) or giving way to a “Cosbification” of his screen persona. This was apparent in his return to TV — seven years after his controversial, quickly aborted sketch show — with Pryor’s Place, a Saturday morning children’s series in which he played “a sombre, earnest figure … hosting the wholesome adventures of two black boys” on a Sesame Street-style set. Although the series represented, according to John and Dennis Williams, “a minor racial breakthrough”4 — given the casual acceptance of the blackness of its characters — it hardly befitted a performer who, only handful of years before, could hardly do anything without it being “radical.”
This hadn’t been the first time Pryor had presented himself in the mould of Bill Cosby. He’d begun his career trying to emulate the older performer, who by the mid-sixties was the highest-paid black actor on television and the first to achieve equal billing in a hit series (I-Spy, 1965-68, alongside Robert Culp). Cosby, of course, was already a well-known stand-up by then, and he had succeeded by avoiding issues of race to present a laundered, family-friendly form of comedy that relied on his dry but affably avuncular delivery for its impact. Pryor worked for years trying to copy this style, but in a legendary “breakdown’ in front of a Las Vegas audience in the late sixties, couldn’t square it with himself any more. One night, he abruptly left the stage and fled for California. Only then, settling in Berkeley, going deeper into drugs and hanging out with counterculture figures, could the birth of a unique comedian truly begin.
The Pryor of the ’70s, of course, couldn’t have been more different from Cosby, but they happily co-existed, even working together in the 1978 film adaptation of Neil Simon’s California Suite. Cosby, however, had been seeing his own career limp along on TV and the big screen, so his return to prime time with the 1984 series was something of a major comeback.
But if The Cosby Show signified a new direction for “black” comedy in the eighties, it was a direction disturbingly out of synch with everything that Pryor had stood for in his best years. The Cosby Show ran for seven years and dominated the ratings, but it achieved its success not only by avoiding the edgy and confrontational aspects of race-oriented comedy, but also by appearing to bask in a smug, upper-middle-class elitism. The show’s Huxtable family, with their Ph.D.s, law degrees, M.B.A.s, and diplomas, may have presented a highly positive image of blacks, but somehow they looked tailored to appeal to a rigidly non-progressive audience. They were as primly self-satisfied as the households in the blandest WASP sitcoms. Perhaps this was the series’ radical raison d’etre, but for all Bill Cosby’s twinkly sarcasm and the gentle reference to some distant race struggle every fifty episodes or so, The Cosby Show often appeared ultraconservative, even reactionary. The Huxtables reflected a relentlessly upbeat image of success in Reagan-era America, when the reality of many black lives couldn’t have been more different. Of course, NBC wouldn’t have had it any other way — the network was saved by the show’s success.
Now, Pryor was falling in line with this fashion for “collaborationist comedy.” If the Pryor of The Richard Pryor Show in 1977 had been a ferocious comic bulldog, not safe to be let out amongst children and the weak, then the Pryor of Pryor’s Place and Brewster’s Millions had clearly been house-trained, able to sit placidly by as the young ones pulled at his ears — not dissimilar from the character he’d played in The Toy. Like the Huxtables, he was well-scrubbed and unthreatening; any spark of activism had been summarily defused.