Television comedy makes a little lunge for the jugular tonight as two new series, "The Richard Pryor Show" on NBC and "Soap" on ABC, makes their debuts. If they succeed, they could generate a trend toward much less innocuous and much more visceral prime-time comedy. Even Norman Lear might be shocked.
Of the two programs, it's the Rryor show that deserves to succeed, even if the premiere, at 8 on Channel 4, is uneven and slightly shaky. The 37-year-old Pryor is an incisive and unpredictable comic commentator, and he brings to television a considerably more jaundiced view of the world than is used to.
The most easily enjoyable sketches on tonight's premiere are the "Star Wars Bar" episode that opens the show and a press conference given by Pryor as the 40th and first black President of the United States.
The Star Wars bar is frequented by the same bizarro grotesques that hung out at the cantina in the movie, and Pryor, as the bartender and sole human on the premises, gets a lot of laughs by just reacting to them. During the press conference, he answers questions about neutron bombs like any other double-talking politician, but as the questions get increasingly racial Pryor gets increasingly "black" in his answers.
But the interlude that's going to be hardest to forget is a nightmarish vignette set in a revival tent presided over by Pryor as Bo Jo, a sadistic and ineffectual voodoo minister who is not about to suffer the suffering. While the crowd shrieks, Pryor tosses a cripple out of a wheel-chair, puts a bag over an ugly woman's head, and attempts to molest a pair of Siamese twins.
At the close of the sketch he has cut himself in three places with a knife, then kisses a snake and wraps it around his neck. As a vitriolic lampoon of pseudo-religious fervor this is not particulary funny, but it is unquestionably alarming.
The difference between this kind of strong, angry humor and the synthetic savagery of "Soap" is that Pryor's comedy has a point. Even if that point gets muddled in turbulent execution, you have to admire the impulse. The usual goal of TV shows is to disrupt our sensibilities as little as possible. Pryor has the courage to stir up provocative trouble.
Other aspects of the show will prove controversial. Pryor reintroduces the word "nigger" into pop entertainment, though he uses it much more sparingly on the air than on his comedy record albums. Some viewers may dislike the fact that whites are portrayed mainly as threats or foolish bumblers.Even if the Pryor show ran for 200 years it wouldn't be able to even up the score on radical stereotyping, however.
More importantly, while Pryor makes blacks as well as whites the targets for his satirical thrusts, his most frequent target is himself, the Kukla-faced little man whose attempt to imitate Clint Eastwood ends when he can't get the gun out of the holster at showdown time: who rises to the presidency only to have the dignity of his mother impugned; whose heart is broken by the Satin Doll (Paula Kelly) at the Club Harlem but who bounces back with semi-futile resolve to find another girl.
NBC has slotted Pryor against ABC's "Happy Days" and "Laverne and Shirley" package. Pryor's show is not for children but he has many fans among young adults and they deserve access to him in a better time slot. Though ragged in patches and sometimes uncertain of itself, "The Richard Pryor Show" is the most perilously investive comedy hour to hit prime time in years.
It's not the Kama Sutra and it's not "Deep Throat," but neither is it very funny. The premiere of ABC's tiresomely controversial "Soap" tonight will be a real letdown not only for the pressure groups who've predicted a sordid orgy of want on degeneracy but also for anybody who thought anything so rabidly denounced would have to be worth seeing.
Several ABC affiliates have elected not to carry the first episode of "Soap" on the basis of advance complaints about ABC's "adult character comedy," but Channel 7 will air it as scheduled tonight at 9:30. It should become apparent quickly enough that all the ado was misdirected.
Series creator and writer Susan Harris has taken the mythical, wholesome sitcon family that ruled TV for 25 years and turned them inside out. Kindly old gramps become a demented crankly bigot. Faithful black servant is turned into vengeful chronic complainer. Papa Chester Tate is an adulterer and crook. Young Jodie Campbell is a simpering homosexual whose stepfather retches at the sight of him. And so on.
If this is supposed to be a TV transposition of bawdy Restoration comedy or saucy French farce, it fails because there is too much venom in it and virtually no wit. The comedy stoops to verbal lows regularly and such wan physical devices as having two people smear each other with food. In fact, that eerily Freudian act practically becomes a motif for the series.
Strenuously over-acted and directed by Jay Sandrich to be as harsh and unrelenting as possible, "Soap" seems outrageous only in the most self-conscious and self-congratulatory ways. Its obvious inspiration. Norman Lear's "Mary Hartman. Mary Hartman," maintained a central equilibrium of dismay and compassion that justified its exaggerations and little lunacies and made them not only funny but often poignant.
There is none of this token humanity in "Soap." By the third episode, some of the characters (apparently on orders from frightened network brass) begin to resolve their animosities, but the chief source of humor continues to be the vicious attack of one character upon another or the vicious attack of the author upon all of them.
"Soap" is a fantasia of hate.