In 1975, a new sketch comedy show was reaching the midway point of its first season on NBC. “Saturday Night,” as it was then known, had premiered with George Carlin as its inaugural host, followed by turns from celebrities including Rob Reiner, Candice Bergen and Lily Tomlin. The fledgling series was in need of a ratings boost, and Lorne Michaels — co-creator and producer — was determined to book a guest host he knew could garner viewers: comedian Richard Pryor.

Pryor was at the height of his breakout, on the heels of his Grammy-winning 1974 comedy album and an Emmy win for his work (alongside Michaels and others) on Tomlin’s eponymous 1973 TV special. He agreed to host the show on a few conditions, including one nonnegotiable demand: Paul Mooney, his writing partner of several years, was coming with him.

Mooney’s presence in the writers room proved integral to the episode’s success, though his contributions have largely been relegated to footnotes over the years. To some extent, his brief but indelible work on what became “Saturday Night Live” mirrors the legacy that Mooney — who died Wednesday at 79 — built as an influential but often underappreciated comedian.

Director Robert Townsend and other celebrities reflect on the comedy legend Paul Mooney's raw humor. (Ashleigh Joplin/The Washington Post)

It was Mooney who penned the showstopping sketch NBC aired during SNL’s seventh episode on Dec. 13, 1975. The legendary bit featured Chevy Chase as a corporate manager interviewing a job candidate played by Pryor. Chase’s character announces one final test for Pryor’s prospective employee: a word association exercise that begins innocuously — with words including “dog” (“tree,” Pryor offers) and “rain” (“snow,” Pryor replies) — and escalates into a call-and-response torrent of racial slurs.

When Chase says “colored,” Pryor says “redneck.” Pryor responds to another racist epithet with “honky honky.” Ultimately, Chase says the n-word, prompting a wide-eyed Pryor to unearth a cautionary nonequivalent: “Dead honky.”

The sketch ends with a flustered Chase offering Pryor a $15,000 annual salary. “You’ll be the highest paid janitor in America. Just don’t hurt me, please,” Chase pleads.

The sketch was by all accounts the most talked-about moment of SNL’s debut season. Following Pryor’s death in 2005, Michaels remembered the episode as a pivotal moment for the series, now in its 46th season. “It defined us,” Michaels told the New York Times. “It put us on the map.”

Pryor’s appearance on the show had been greeted with apprehension at NBC, not least because of the comedian’s well-documented struggles with substance abuse and penchant for profanity. The network eventually ordered Michaels to put the episode on a seven-second delay. (“There was just a fear that it was too volatile and too dangerous for live,” Michaels recalled in a 1999 interview with NBC News.)

As Scott Saul details in his 2014 book, “Becoming Richard Pryor,” even Michaels — who had lobbied his network bosses for months on Pryor’s behalf — was hesitant in agreeing to all of the comedian’s requirements for hosting. (One of Pryor’s more unusual conditions was that his ex-wife, Shelley Bonus, be allowed to give a “monologue,” which veered toward stream-of-consciousness poetry.)

But the comedian’s insistence that NBC hire Black talent, including Mooney and musical guest Gil Scott-Heron, was no diva demand. Even as Pryor ascended to comedy superstardom, he and Mooney encountered racism in the entertainment industry. In his 2009 memoir, Mooney recalled battling NBC executives after he and Pryor were hired, at star Redd Foxx’s recommendation, to write for “Sanford and Son” in 1972.

“'We’re having trouble finding Black comedy writers,' the NBC people would say in meetings, right to our Black faces,” Mooney recounted in “Black Is the New White.” “Baffled and apparently invisible to them, I reply ‘I guess if I were running this show, I’d have some trouble finding White ones.’” (Ultimately, the pair wrote just a few episodes between them.)

Mooney said “Word Association” was inspired by similarly frustrating exchanges with executives who grilled him on his writing credentials before agreeing to bring him on for Pryor’s SNL debut. It was insulting — in addition to his TV credits and collaborations with Pryor, Mooney had logged sets upon sets of standup at popular clubs including the Comedy Store. It was also unnecessary, since Pryor had made clear they were a package deal.

Both Saul’s book and Mooney’s memoir describe a tense week leading up to the episode. Pryor sparred over jokes with the show’s head writer, who effectively abandoned his post for the week. The episode’s signature sketch came fully into view, according to Mooney, after Chase repeatedly pestered Mooney to write him into a sketch with Pryor.

“After all … I’ve been put through to get here, the … cross-examination Lorne subjects me to, I decide to do a job interview of my own,” Mooney wrote. “Chevy’s the boss, interviewing Richard for a janitor’s job. The White personnel interviewer suggests they do some word association, so he can test if the Black man’s fit to employ.”

“Easiest sketch I ever write,” Mooney continued. “All I do is bring out what is going on beneath the surface of that interview with Lorne and the NBC execs.”

The sketch epitomized the incisive racial humor at the center of Mooney’s work, from his collaborations with Pryor to his creative influence on “In Living Color” (Mooney famously helped create Homey D. Clown) to his irreverent appearances on Dave Chappelle’s Comedy Central show. It remains one of SNL’s edgiest efforts to date.

“It’s like an H-bomb that Richard and I toss into America’s consciousness. All that [stuff] going on behind closed doors is now out in the open,” Mooney recalled in his memoir. “The N-word as a weapon, turned back against those who use it, has been born on national TV.”

As anti-racism protests continue, the comedy world is reckoning with its past, uncovering how racist depictions of blackface and minstrelsy feed into TV today. (Adriana Usero/The Washington Post)

Mooney used the n-word throughout his career, from the stage to his TV appearances on “Chappelle’s Show,” which introduced him to a whole new audience. “I figure it is about time for equal opportunity, since White folks have been spewing [the n-word] for centuries,” Mooney wrote of his initial stance on the slur.

But in 2006 he made a public commitment to abandon the word in his comedy after Michael Richards’s racist rant at the Laugh Factory in West Hollywood. Pryor had already done so, decades earlier, after a trip to Africa. “It was quite dramatic because we had made money off the word, we had got famous off the word,” Mooney later recalled in an interview with NPR.

Mooney’s “Word Association” sketch inspired a younger generation of Black comedians, including the so-called “Black Pack,” a group including Arsenio Hall, Robert Townsend and “In Living Color” creator Keenen Ivory Wayans.

For Chappelle, who wrote the foreword to Mooney’s memoir, seeing “a Black man on TV, holding his own with a White man” was life-changing. “It changed everything,” Chappelle wrote, “not only TV, but also my course, and it gave me the direction my life was meant to go in.”


An earlier version of this article incorrectly said that Chevy Chase's character offers Richard Pryor's a weekly salary of $15,000. He actually offers an annual salary of $15,000. It also misidentified Redd Foxx as Red. The article has been corrected.

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