In the 1980s, it wasn’t uncommon for R-rated entertainment to be translated into children’s entertainment. Sylvester Stallone’s violent Rambo film franchise was homogenized into Rambo: The Force of Freedom, a bloodless action cartoon and toy line; the dystopian RoboCop got similar treatment.
But it wasn’t often an R-rated comedian got his own kid’s show. That changed with Richard Pryor and his short-lived series Pryor’s Place, which ran in 1984 for one season. It turned out to be one of the more surprising listings in the history of Saturday morning television.
An Animated Life
Born December 1, 1940, Pryor had few fond childhood memories of his own to draw from. His father was a pimp, his mother a sex worker. His upbringing in Peoria, Illinois, was turbulent: Living in brothels operated by his mother and grandmother, he witnessed everything from violent arguments to attempted murder.
As in many tumultuous childhoods, humor became an outlet, and after a stint in the Army, Pryor got into comedy as a profession. Encouraged by everyone from singer Bobby Darin to Miles Davis, he became a comic phenomenon, finding success both on stage and in films like Blazing Saddles and Brewster’s Millions. His personal life, however, was erratic. He was married seven times, struggled with substance abuse, and once lit himself on fire while in a drug-induced frenzy, suffering third-degree burns in the process.
It was not quite the profile of someone who you’d expect to host a children’s show. That idea came from Marty Krofft. Along with his brother, Sid, the Kroffts produced some of the biggest kid TV hits of the 1970s, including H.R. Pufnstuf and Land of the Lost. In 1983, Krofft took a meeting with CBS vice-president of children’s programming Judy Price, who suggested Krofft do a show with a recognizable star. Krofft brought up Pryor.
“I said I would love to do a show with Richard Pryor because I think he's the funniest man in the world,” Krofft told The New York Times in 1984. “[Price] liked the idea and said CBS would give me a commitment if I could talk him into it. I knew that he was making a lot of changes in his life and was concerned about his image, so I thought he just might like the idea of doing something for kids.”
It took Krofft months to get a meeting with Pryor, and when he finally did, he was “pleasantly shocked” when the star expressed interest. (In fact, it wasn’t so unusual a choice: While Pryor was best known for his profane stand-up and tabloid headlines, he had also appeared alongside Christopher Reeve in 1983’s family-friendly Superman III.)
Pryor said he wanted to make something “real positive“ that would be different for kids on Saturday mornings: “It came at a point in my life when I wanted to do it. When you sit in a room with Marty Krofft, it’s hard to say no.”
The premise for Pryor’s Place was a kind of bizarro Sesame Street. Walking around in a neighborhood meant to evoke Peoria, Pryor would introduce topics like bullying, divorce, or drugs, then allow a juvenile cast—including a younger version of himself played by actor Akili Prince—to play out the drama.
Pryor was also slated to appear as a number of other characters, including a saxophonist named Chill and a derelict named Bummer. Some of Kroffts’ puppets would also make appearances. One, Twilight, was inspired by Gizmo of Gremlins fame. With a theme song by Ray Parker Jr. (Ghostbusters), the show was an assembly of ‘80s talent.
Pryor’s Place premiered in September 1984 and immediately faced two substantial obstacles: the trend of live-action series performing poorly on Saturday mornings, and Pryor’s history of mercurial behavior. That he had been frank about his struggles with drug abuse and had an act consisting of profanity worried CBS affiliates. (That the show was airing just as CBS was producing far fewer episodes of Captain Kangaroo seemed to increase the contrast between Pryor and his kid-show peers.)
“I’m very concerned,” KTSP-TV general manager Jack Sander told The Arizona Republic in 1984. “I’m not sure Richard Pryor has done anything to deserve a chance to be a prime representative to the children of America.”
Sander estimated that the majority of affiliates—roughly 60 percent—were wary of Pryor as a kiddie host. Sander himself wanted to see a finished episode before committing to airing it. (Ultimately, 90 percent of CBS affiliates opted to carry the show.)
Price tried defending the network’s choice of kids’ host. “As far as I know, he is a man who is trying to clean up his act, and I think he deserves that chance,” she said. “He has kicked drugs and alcohol, and I think that makes exactly the sort of role model we need for children, because he’s been there and back. They will believe him when he gives them advice.”
Price may have been correct. In reviewing Pryor’s Place, critic Barbara Holsopple of The Pittsburgh Press wrote that Pryor’s struggles gave him “credibility” when discussing hot-button topics on the series. She dubbed it “the best new children’s show in a long time.”
A total of 13 episodes of Pryor’s Place were produced, several of them with guest stars like Sammy Davis Jr., Lily Tomlin, Robin Williams, and Henry Winkler. But ultimately it was modest ratings, not controversy, that doomed the show. (The fact that it aired opposite the highly successful Mister T didn’t help, either.) Publicly, Pryor also expressed concern that his film schedule wouldn’t allow for more. It never got an order for any additional episodes.