Saturday Night Live is currently in its 40th season, and so far ratings and reviews have been only so-so. It’s safe to say that the weekly comedy-skit series has been struggling in recent years to stay hip, what with the likes of Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and John Oliver leading satire’s zeitgeist, and Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel dominating You Tube (SNL doesn’t do itself any favors in this department, as it is notorious for keeping a tight lid on its copyrighted clips). So cast your minds back to December 1975, when SNL was only a few weeks old, Richard Pryor was the host, and the show aired one of its edgiest sketches: a racially-charged game of word-association between Pryor and Chevy Chase. The skit is rightly famous: it helped solidify SNL and confirm Chase’s status as a TV star. What is less-known is the on-set tension in the lead-up to the show. Salon relates how NBC was terrified of Pryor, and how Chevy Chase begged writers to let him do a sketch with him. Salon quotes an excerpt from Furious Cool: Richard Pryor and the World That Made Him, “NBC flat-out refused to allow Richard Pryor anywhere near a live studio camera. Richard, everyone knew, was a wildly unpredictable, uncontrollable cokehead. (So was just about everyone else on the show, but Richard didn’t bother to hide it.) What was to stop him from letting loose a string of shits and motherfuckers on live TV, as he would sometimes do during rehearsal, just to mess with them?” Producer Lorne Michaels threatened to walk off if Pryor was not allowed on the show. “I can’t do a contemporary comedy show without Richard Pryor,” he told executives. But Pryor could be difficult to work with, and behind the scenes there was concern that the comedian would be just as out of control as NBC feared. According to producer Craig Kellem, “Lorne loved Richard. He thought he was quote-unquote the funniest man on the planet. As wonderful and as adorable as he was, it was also very tense being around him. It took so much work and effort to go through this process of booking him that Lorne, in a moment of extreme stress, sort of candidly looked around and said, ‘He better be funny.’ ”
Chevy Chase, meanwhile, was begging Pryor’s personal writer Paul Mooney to write a skit for the two of them. “Chevy Chase kept dogging Mooney all week to write something for him and Richard to do together. Just as Michaels needed Richard to establish his show’s bona fides, Chevy needed airtime with him. Everybody else had a skit with Richard. He and Jim Belushi faced off as samurai hotel clerks; Jane Curtin interviewed him as an author who lightened his skin to see what life is like for a white man; Laraine Newman, as the devil-possessed Regan in a take-off on “The Exorcist,” threw a bowl of pea soup in his face; Dan Aykroyd debriefed him as a special-ops major; Garrett Morris, claiming that he was acting on Richard’s request, did Chevy’s trademark pratfall to open the show; and Gilda Radner, in a running gag throughout the show, repeatedly picked him out of police lineups. But Chevy had nothing. He kept sending emissaries to Mooney asking, “Could you please write something for Chevy and Richard?” At the end of the week Mooney turned in the sketch. Two weeks after it aired, Chase was on the cover of TIME as “the funniest man in America,” and SNL got a much-needed ratings boost. Forty years later, what’s old is new again: in October the show almost got its groove back–playing on racial tension once more–with its edgiest sketch in years.