[WORD ILLEGIBLE] if NBC hired Farrah Fawcett-Majors they'd ask her to cut her hair. Maybe they'd give Nureyev a desk job. Maybe if they reunited The Beatles it would be on condition that they promise not to sing.
It makes as much sense as giving Richard Pryor a prime-time hour of comedy and then expecting him to be safe, sane and squeaky-clean. The brilliant black comic made his reputation by being rough, scatological, and irreverent, and anarchistic in the tradition of great comedians from the Marx Brothers to Lenny Bruce.
NBC vice president Dick Ebersol, one of the few bright young men at the fuddy-duddiest of networks spent three years trying to coax Pryor into a prime-time series by telling him he could have the showcase and freedom, too.
But what happens when Pryor makes his debut? NBC censors the very first minute out of the very first show in the series. The program went on in bowdlerized form last night. The cut may seem small even trifling but by making it the censor has endangered the whole series and not given any encouragement to people who want to expand the limited boundaries of network TV.
Insiders say the network's action, in addition, amounts to a virtual double-cross of Pryor, who had originally been told that one version of the opening sketch could air and then at the last minute was informed that no version of the sketch could go on, no matter what Pryor did to it.
This is no way to treat a talent.
"It's an insult to me." Pryor told us yesterday from NBC studios where he was about to tape his second - and possibly last - show. "We're going ahead with this show but we don't intend to do any further work for NBC if we can't get it on the air the way we do it. They're treating us like children."
At a Monday news conference in Los Angeles, Pryor was asked if NBC shouldn't have control over what goes out its stations. "They do," he replied. "And that's why they're No. 3."
It's more complicated than a simple case of all-thumbs censorship by a befuddled bureaucracy. In the original script for the Pryor premiere, the censored sketch was approved without complaint by NBC's West Coast "standards and practices" personnel.
In the sketch, Pryor was to open to show in tight close-up, assuring viewers that he had compromised nothing in coming to television. Then the camera pulled back to reveal a full-length Pryor apparently nude, but actually wearing a long body-stocking.
When it came time to tape the actual opening, Pryor and writers got another idea. While in close-up Pryor told the audience, "I'm standing here naked right now." Then he was viewed unclothed from the waist up. "No, I didn't give up anything to be on television," Pryor declared, and this was followed by the long shot of Pryor in the body stocking.
At first the censors objected because although Pryor had been implicitly naked in the script he hadn't actually said the word: it sounds stupid but network censors aren't always entirely logical. Then they insisted that the reference to "not giving up anything" and the full-length shot implied that Richard Pryor's private parts had been removed so he could be on TV.
Pryor and the producers of the show thought the ruling silly. He said yesterday, "What that sketch says is a lot about why I, Richard Pryor, am doing television, and it says it in a funny way." He conceded it was a "naughty" joke but denied it was an obscene one.
The producers decided to appeal to a higher authority. They sent a tape of the show to NBC chief censor Herminio Traviesas in New York. To their surprise, Traviesas, whose tenure with NBC practically predates the peacock, ruled that the sketch was unacceptable as taped, unacceptable as written, unacceptable in fact in any form at all.
(In place of the first sketch, NBC began the program last night with a blank screen and the spoken announcement, "The opening minute of 'The Richard Pryor Show' will not be seen - ever!")
Traviesas was hidden behind a network blockade of flacks and spokesmen yesterday and refused any comment on his decision or anything else about the Pryor show. The network concocted a statement in Milquetoast bureaucratese: the sketch was deemed "inappropriate but Pryor is still "one of America's most innovative and talented performers."
Just how offensive is the deleted minute and a half of the Pryor show? It couldn't be all that demoralizing, because KNXT-TV, the CBS-owned station in Los Angeles, ran the entire thing, uncensored, on its early evening and late-night newcasts Monday. "It was more funny than offensive," says KNXT critic David Sheehan.
Ebersol, whose domain over variety programming was recently extendel to include comedy shows, yesterday expressed dismay about the censor's decision from his Hollywood office. "The piece as originally put together and approved was certainly not offensive to me," he said. "Its an unfortunate situation; I can empathize with Richard."
It was Ebersol who managed to convince reluctant fogies in the NBC hierarchy to put "NBC's Saturday Night" on the air. That outrage became one of the network's few successes of the past two years.
Pryor's complaint is with the censor, not the NBC brass, except that, he said, "No one is willing to make a decision; everybody is afraid to take a step. We showed the program to the executives and all the executives loved it. Then the censors come long. They have a ludicrous idea of what is good taste and what is bad taste."
Network diffidence is hardly unprecedented. But the real and sad moral of the story seems to be that anybody who goes on TV must agree to be co-opted body and soul by it - to be turned into television, not just used by television. When a network says it wants Richard Pryor, it apparently means it wants Richard Pryor's good and exploitable name without also accepting the special combustible qualities that made him valued and popular in the first place.
So if NBC should buy the movie "Jaws" for TV, expect to see everything but the shark.