Richard Pryor was born 77 years ago today in Peoria, Illinois. His impact on comedy, and culture in general, is immeasurable. I never got to speak with Pryor, but he has come up in a number of different interviews with other comedians, from Dave Chappelle to Elayne Boosler. I’ve taken quotes from some of those interviews to build this essay.
Fifty years ago, in the summer of 1967, Richard Pryor moved west from Ohio to Hollywood, met Paul Mooney, and, according to his autobiography, made his first steps away from mimicking Bill Cosby and toward his own voice. Had he stopped then, he’d have been a footnote. Instead, he turned on and dropped out. No taxes, no driver’s license, no banks – he stopped participating in the system altogether and started building his legacy.
And Richard Pryor’s legacy sprawls. It starts with the raw nerve of a stand-up comic Pryor became in the 70s when he cemented his place in stand-up’s holy trinity with George Carlin and Lenny Bruce. It reaches past stand-up into acting, directing, and writing for television and film. He showed remarkable emotional depth playing a junkie trying to beat the habit in the “Juke and Opal” sketch in Lily Tomlin’s Lily in 1973. He and Chevy Chase shocked audiences with a word association sketch (co-written by Mooney) that had the pair tossing the words “nigger” and “honky” at each other. He wrote for Blazing Saddles with Mel Brooks, starred in the goofy period piece Carwash, wrote, produced, directed, and starred in the autobiographical Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling, and starred in a series of terrible films like The Toy and Moving.
Wherever else he applied his talents, Pryor’s most important work was his stand-up. Shelley Berman, an important comic in his own right as a member of Chicago’s influential Second City improv troupe, places Pryor in a historical context as a voice railing against an a murky and questionable establishment. “When Richard Pryor and George Carlin started articulating the anger of the day by their insolence, that was righteous anger,” he said. “And that was articulating the anger of the country. It mattered at that time. It really mattered.”
Dick Gregory goes one step further, stretching back his evaluation of American comedy more than a hundred years. “There’s three comical geniuses that this country has produced,” he said. “One was Mark Twain. And he was so far ahead, the other two I shouldn’t even mention in the same year. The other was Lenny Bruce, and the other was Richard Pryor. So out there. So brilliant, and all of them self-destructed, except for Twain.”
Gregory was a pioneer himself in the fifties, discussing race as a black comic addressing a mixed audience. He, Redd Foxx, and Godfrey Cambridge laid the groundwork for Pryor, but Pryor undeniably reached a larger audience than any of his forebears. He could be as endearing as Cambridge, as poignant as Gregory, and as profane as Foxx. Unfortunately, says Gregory, a lot of younger comics listen to Pryor and only hear the profanity.
“What ruined a lot of good comics was Richard Pryor,” he said. “Richard Pryor is a genius. Red Foxx probably had the most profanity and risqué material of any comic in the history of show business at that time. And when you were sitting around, and they brought out a Red Foxx record, you knew all the Christians was gone. You know anybody that felt anything about spirituality was gone. And then Richard Pryor came along, and we were so into his genius that we didn’t hear the profanity. So we played those records in the family room with the children, because we absolutely did not hear the profanity, we heard his genius. Well, to a five year old child, there is no genius. That five year old child heard the profanity.”
Oddly enough, Bob Newhart mentioned to me that it was his love of Pryor’s comedy that made him relent and actually appear in movies with profanity. “At first the profanity kind of turned me off,” he said. “I had passed on movies that had the profanity. And then I thought to myself, you’re kind of being a hypocrite, because the guy who you think is the funniest guy who ever lived was Richard Pryor. And you laugh at him. So you’re kind of being a hypocrite.”
In a later interview than the one already quoted here, Gregory would tell me there were only three comic geniuses in the history of America – Mark Twain, Lenny Bruce, and Pryor. Gregory also saw a different side of Pryor than did the public. “Richard was a personal friend of mine,” he said. “I couldn’t stand to be around him. He was so bashful and so shy. It embarrassed me.”
What the generations of comedians that followed Pryor failed to realize, according to Gregory, was that the profanity was not the point of Pryor’s act, it was just one element. The profanity wasn’t the punchline. “If you go take all of Richard Pryor’s tapes, all his comedy, all his raw, naked comedy, and take the profanity out, it’s just as funny because he never had to use profanity as a punchline,” he said. “They didn’t hear that. So then you turn on Def Jam and you don’t see nobody on there that ain’t talking about something gross and filthy – and I have no problem with that, I have no problem with that at all, but not for television. And then they develop, and once you develop that kind of comedy routine, you can’t grow, because you have to top it.”
John Witherspoon remembers just how far over the top Pryor could be. The popular character actor was a bit player along with Marsha Warfield, Sandra Bernhardt, and Robin Williams on the short-lived Richard Pryor Show in 1977. Witherspoon and company say they needed what little money they were paid at the time, and needed the exposure even more, but they could only watch as Pryor self-destructed, letting drugs and fame go to his head.
“Too wild not only for the network, he was overboard, you know, with his attitude and everything – wasn’t serious work ethics,” he said. “He could work anywhere, that’s his problem. If a guy could work anywhere… But we couldn’t continue working. We wanted him to be cool. We want to make that money. That was a great job for us. Richard was all high and cursing.”
Pryor was struggling with NBC to keep the show on the air and stay true to his stand-up voice, but Witherspoon saw it wasn’t going to work. “I think they were bickering so much about the subject matter at that time, and plus his work ethics weren’t a hundred percent, either,” he said. “He would come in high. You can not work high. At eight o’clock, you can not curse, and he would curse. I mean, hilarious stuff. I mean, if they had HBO today, it would have been a top show. It would have been like The Sopranos today. Let him curse and let him go. But they tried to tame him, and you can’t tame him.”
But who would Pryor have been if he hadn’t gone to these extremes? He was admired for the fact that he would stand onstage in front of thousands of people and report his life exactly as it was, from setting himself on fire to shooting his car in an argument with his wife. While those close to him suffered to see Pryor plunge himself into turmoil, he made us laugh reporting from the eye of the storm.
And Pryor’s audience knew where he was coming from. No matter how far out he traveled, he was tethered by something real, something relatable. Dave Chappelle found that inspiring. “I like the idea of being understood,” he said. “Richard Prior was doing that show in Long Beach, and he was talking about the police, trying to figure out if the rules said they could break a nigger. And the crowd was hootin’ and hollerin’. Their laughter is like a mutual validation. That means he’s saying something that all of all these people can relate to, and then these people laughed at this comedian’s feelings, is being validated as well. It’s a real nice part of the exchange.”
What’s most fascinating is that you can watch Pryor take that trip. After he walked out of a Las Vegas casino in 1967 in a meltdown, he moved to California, fell in with a more politically active crowd, and shed his clean cut sweater and a smile persona. He wasn’t comfortable with it at first, as evidenced on Live & Smokin’, taped at the New York Improvisation in 1971. Pryor constantly references the cameras taping the evening, and even shrinks at times, if just for a moment, between bits. But his bravado grows, building into a brilliant rendition of his “Wino Preacher & Willie the Junkie” routine. The attitude was still developing, but the details were there – when Pryor mimes Wino Preacher taking a tug from his flask, he not only puts the cap back on afterward, he tightens it and places it snugly in his back pocket while moving on to his next point.
Compare this to the polished Pryor of 1983’s Here and Now. All his tentativeness is long gone. When a fan stands up in the middle of the show to ask for an autograph, Pryor turns it into a routine that could have been a rehearsed bit. Unflappable, unstoppable, it was always onstage in front of a live audience where Pryor showed why he was important, and just how powerful he could be.
The dramatic elements in Pryor’s act helped change how a comic functioned onstage. In an interview about Billy Connolly, Eddie Izzard revealed the influence that Connolly and Pryor had on his comedy. “The acting out of characters stuff that he does, which Richard Pryor does, I was very influenced by Richard Pryor and Billy on that,” he said.
To comics like Elayne Boosler, Pryor the stand-up comic had the best job in the world. The fact he was an innovator was almost gravy. What mattered was that he could captivate a live audience and be completely in the moment every night. “My goal was to be Richard Pryor,” she said. “And then I found out too late that there is a Richard Pryor. But my goal is still to be Richard Pryor.”
To any working comic, that should mean a lot.