Richard Pryor
Photo of Richard Pryor, circa 1970.
Michael Ochs Archives

We Owe Richard Pryor A Conversation

Richard Pryor may be a grandfather of comedy, but his work still resonates decades later.

There’s been a lot of talk about Black comedy over the last couple of years; about impact, talent, and value. Mo’nique sued Netflix, while Kevin Hart lost his long-coveted Oscar hosting gig and turned his road to redemption into a Netflix check. Tiffany Haddish has faced accusations of nae nae’ing her way to the top too quickly, Dave Chappelle made a long-awaited return to the screen with his most controversial special yet, and Eddie Murphy began a comeback as well. There’s a lot of chatter about who’s worth what, who’s done what, who’s earned what, who owes whom what, and what exactly the role of a comedian is in responsible social discourse. But in all this chatter, there is one unnamed career that shadows the rest: none of these ni**as would have jobs without Richard Pryor, and we don’t talk about him nearly enough.

I understand why Pryor isn’t mentioned in current conversation often; at this point, he’s a grandfather of comedy. He’s the second generation of Black celebrity comedians, the first generation of integrated entertainment, and the first-ever winner of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. He passed away 14 years ago, and he would have been 79 on December 1. He missed the opportunity for his interviews to go viral, for Jerry Seinfeld to talk to him about his craft on Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee (which I highly recommend everyone watch, even if you just watch the episodes with Black comics), and God forbid, for Vlad to somehow yoke him up for a chat. Two recent specials, ABC’s The Last Days of Richard Pryor, and The Paramount Network’s I Am Richard Pryor Uncensored (2019) serve to finally place Pryor in the GOAT conversations, where he belongs. As a kid who grew up with mainstream, movie star Pryor -- post-set-himself-on-fire-freebasing Pryor -- I didn’t have a full understanding of his career evolution; the steps that had gotten him to that point. But now, as comedians and social commentators navigate the #MeToo movement, “Cancel Culture,” the absurd political landscape, and this faux post-racial, talking-about-racism-is-racist climate, it’s easier to see Pryor’s impact on modern comedy. His boldness in subject choices, his brilliance in translating them to a wide audience, and his struggle to find his place in a time when Black comedy was still fighting to be authentic in the white-controlled entertainment space still resonate today.

Richard Franklin Lennox Thomas Pryor III is overdue for a proper celebration. He was acutely aware throughout his career that he was undervalued and underutilized, and it pissed him off.  So, consider this a “Give Pryor his Things” primer; these are the reasons we owe him more credit and acknowledgment as a comic great and a game-changer.

His Talent Was Versatile AF

As a kid growing up in brothels, around situations that were too grown even for some adults, Pryor developed and adaptability that included a gift for performance and entertainment of any kind. Magic tricks, half-playing some instruments, acting, and singing, which he played around with early in his career. He may not have been as good as Jamie Foxx, but he was at least as good as Eddie (no shade).

When Pryor filled out his discharge papers from the army, he listed his occupation as “actor,” even though he was on his way back to Peoria to work in a plant. Richard wanted to be taken seriously as an actor and creative, and was always frustrated that he wasn’t.

In the below clip from Lady Sings the Blues (1972), Pryor took 12 seconds of silence and packed it with years of pain. Over-the-top acting is easy. Doing a lot with a little is talent.

“(After) Lady Sings the Blues, I should have been one of the hottest young actors in Hollywood,” Pryor lamented in his autobiography. “There was talk of an Oscar nomination in the press. People knew that I’d co-written (Mel Brook’s) Blazing Saddles, one of the funniest pictures ever. I had ideas and talent. I deserved the type of multi-picture deal that... Spike Lee and Robert Townsend would get fifteen years later.”

There were pain and earnest vulnerability just beneath the surface of a lot of Pryor’s roles, like the titular character of The Wiz. His brilliance was the ability to let just enough of it through to make his characters real. He even held his own next to Cicely Tyson in Bustin’ Loose, a comedy about a bunch of ragtag Philly foster kids, a bougie social worker and a grumpy bus driver, which in retrospect had some heavy moments.

Had his height come a decade later, or had he been healthy longer, maybe Richard would finally have had the chance to show the full range of his ability.

He Was Woke, Early

When Pryor first started in comedy, he wanted to be one of the few who could do TV shows and white clubs – that was the money route. So he did a clean-cut act, borrowing his style heavily from non-threatening favorite Bill Cosby.

But there was none of him in the act; none of his life, none of his childhood growing up in Peoria, Ill. in brothels with prostitutes, gangsters, and hustlers. His star ascended, but he felt lost, creatively. In 1970, burnt out by the excess of LA and facing a failed marriage, he moved to Berkeley, Calif. There, in the epicenter of counterculture, Pryor experienced an awakening. In his autobiography, Pryor Convictions, Richard calls his period in Berkley “the freest time of my life…a circus of exciting, extreme, colorful, militant ideas. Drugs. Hippies. Black Panthers. Antiwar protests. Experimentation... I was like a lightning rod.” He spent time with Angela Davis and Huey P. Newton, mingled with Black artists and intellectuals, read Malcolm X speeches, listened to Marvin Gaye, worked on his act, worked on himself (but still did coke), and by the time he went back to LA, “I understood myself…I knew what I had to do. I had to go back and tell the truth.”  Pryor started putting real rap about the world he came from and life as a Black person in America into his act. Live and Smokin’ (1971) was full of material he’d worked on in Berkeley, but the audience was expecting the old, more whitewashed Pryor. It’s an awkward routine to watch unless you keep in mind that you’re watching a career evolve in real-time.

He started moving into more of a conscious space. When we think of Black comedic activists, Dick Gregory is the first name on the list. But Gregory was older and of a different ilk than Pryor and Paul Moony – The Civil Rights Movement vs the Black Power Movement. Richard had activism in his heart, and he felt a responsibility for telling “the truth,” but he didn’t want the responsibility beyond the stage.

After the enormous success of Pryor’s Grammy-winning albums,1974’s That Ni**er’s Crazy (we’ll get to that in a bit,) and 1975’s Was it Something I Said?, NBC nervously gave him a sketch comedy show. The Richard Pryor Show (1977) was the 20+ year precursor to Chapelle’s Show, and like Chapelle featured Pryor’s creative partner Paul Mooney as a writer and cast member, along with future comedic stars Jim Belushi, Robin Williams, John Witherspoon, and Sandra Bernhard, but Pryor’s form of social commentary was too real for early ‘70s prime time television.

And like Dave, Richard dipped because network brass was pressuring him with censorship, rewrites, and notes. In his case, however, it happened much sooner (and without the show garnering nearly as much fanfare). “The things that I have to do in order to be on (television) just destroy me too much,” Pryor shared with Rolling Stone three years earlier. “It’s really weird, like they make me feel like thanking them for letting me degrade myself.” Pryor shut down the show after just four episodes.

He Normalized Using "Ni**a" For Entertainment...

For better or worse, everyone who wants to blame rappers for “ni**a” being used so much in the mainstream needs to start with the original rappers: comedians. Specifically, Richard, who titled his third comedy album “That Nigger’s Crazy.”

Richard decided to reclaim the word while in Berkeley: “I repeated the most offensive, humiliating, disgraceful, distasteful, ugly and nasty word ever used in the context of Black people,” he said in Pryor Convictions. “I decided to make it my own…I decided to take the sting out of it.” In fact, if Pryor had a calling card, besides cocaine (and I think he’d be perfectly okay with me saying that,) it’s the word “ni**er.” He brought it out of the chitlin’ circuit and Black-only clubs and back rooms and onto The Dinah Shore Show and into illustrious award forums. “Saying it changed me,” he explained. “It gave me strength, let me rise above sh*t.”

The most incredible, and also most infuriating thing about Pryor’s “Ni**ers vs The Police” bit from this album is that he could walk on a stage today (whatever day you’re reading this), and it would still work, because it’s still true. Forty years later.

But He Was Also One Of The First To Say He Would Stop Saying It

In 1979, Pryor went to Kenya, his first time in South Africa, and similar to all our friends and cousins who just came back from the Year of Return (I’m still salty), he had a cultural epiphany. In his 1981 special Live From the Sunset Strip, his first after his accident, he declared he wasn’t using “ni**a” in his material anymore (but I’m pretty sure he did in Harlem Nights. I think there a “Ni**a” quota per comedian in Harlem Nights. I’m gonna check.).

He Created The Live Stand-Up Film

Richard Pryor Live in Concert (1979) was the first stand-up comedy movie. Not the first stand-up act that was taped or broadcast, but the first stand-up that was shot and edited with the intent to release it as a motion picture. Without Live in Concert, there’s no Delirious, there’s no You So Crazy, there’s Bigger & Blacker, there’s no Kings of Comedy.

It’s considered the bible for stand-up comedy. In an interview about his own legendary stand-up film, Delirious, Eddie Murphy praised the standard: “If you’re studying the art form…if you want to be a stand-up comic, you want to see what the art form is,” he told interviewer Byron Allen, “you take Richard’s In Concert... that’s the single greatest stand-up performance ever captured on film.”

The genius and tragedy of Pryor’s material is realizing just how much of his bits came from his real life, and how unfunny the real-life situation was. Pryor was indeed arrested for assault at his house in 1978 after his wife tried to leave him (because he was high, drunk and abusive), and he shot up her car so she couldn’t. He’d be “canceled” today. But through his combination of physical comedy, warmth, and openness, he channeled it into one of his most memorable bits.

Also covered in Live in Concert: police using attack dogs and putting Black people in chokeholds (Time also named the live concert one of their Top 25 Movies on Race), rescue animals who’ve been abused, his father dying while having sex with an 18-year-old, and what it feels like to have a heart attack. And the crowd is rolling. That’s Richard.

He Felt Under-appreciated

Despite his childhood, circumstantial and systematic odds, and his own self-sabotage, Pryor was the highest-earning Black actor in Hollywood by 1983, paving the way for Eddie Murphy’s rock star-level superstardom behind him. But what conversations with those who knew him, interview clips and his own autobiography reveal is a soul that was never completely settled or content. Pryor knew exactly how brilliant he was; he compared himself to friend Miles Davis (Robin Williams compared him to Miles’ protégé John Coltrane), and it pulled at him to not be recognized as such.

He admitted in an interview with Barbara Walters around 1979, “I’m angry because I’m talented. There’s nobody I’ve ever met in the business of comedy who’s any more brilliant than me, and I will never get the recognition for the talent in my lifetime.” When she asked him why not, he answered simply, “Because there’s one bad seed in America. It works for economic reasons. It’s called Racism. Racism keeps a lot of talented human beings underground.”

This anger was never far from him. In 1974, Rolling Stone reporter David Felton wrote about Pryor breaking down in quiet tears, unable to fully articulate his frustration at not being appreciated. It was the cause of his consistent drug use, and his eventual freebase episode (or suicide attempt, if you believe Richard’s later interviews). And the reason why, even after surviving damn near burning himself alive, Richard often appeared to not give a damn about the success other comics would kill for. In this infamous interview on the set of 1980’s Stir Crazy, Pryor is clearly high, and clearly over all pretense of professionalism. “They’re paying me a million and a half dollars! I didn’t earn it. I don’t even know what a million dollars is.”

Richard Pryor was complex, unpredictable, and generally what we would have called in my day “off the chain.” He was self-destructive, violent and paranoid, but also warm, relatable and genius. These dichotomies came together to produce the seemingly effortless characters and story-weaving style Richard bequeathed to comedy. As race and popular culture professor Dr. Todd Boyd explained in “The Last Days of Richard Pryor,” “Hoes, pimps, drugs, poverty, racism -- Richard took all that dark sh*t, and made it light.” So the next time you evaluate Kevin Hart’s impact vs Mo’nique’s earning potential vs Dave Chapelle’s realness vs Eddie Murphy's talent, keep in mind that Richard made it all possible.

From the Web

More on Vibe


Filayyyy Talks First Pro Hoops Deal, Shady Opponents, And Mogul Aspirations

Anyone who plays or watches basketball has experienced the joy of seeing a player get embarrassed on the court, and Jesse Jones has made a hustle out of that feeling. On his Instagram page, the man known as Filayyyy makes hilarious voiceover videos where he narrates, sings and laughs as athletes get their ankles crossed, their heads dunked on, and their faces knocked out in the boxing ring or MMA octagon. His videos play like watching ESPN's iconic Sportscenter show with the homies, splicing jokes with astute basketball analysis. It may sound simple, but he’s got a goldmine: he has 1.7 million followers on IG alone. It’s to the point where when you see a highlight play in real-time, you’re anticipating how he’s going to make it even funnier. Plus, Filayyyy gets busy on the court himself: he posts clips of his own play, and this October he signed his first professional basketball contract with the St. John’s Edge in the National Basketball League of Canada.

But Filayyy isn’t just making fun videos on the Internet; he’s building a branding empire. He has a sponsorship with Nike, he has his own character and unique layup package on the video game NBA Live 19, and now, he’s part of the For Professionals Only campaign with the headphone and speaker company JBL. He, along with artist Shoe Surgeon and celebrity trainer Shannon Nadj, are enlisted to showcase a new age of professionals that eschew suits and ties to handle business in their own way. Filayyy is rocking with JBL’s Free X truly wireless earbuds. In a conversation with VIBE, Filayyyy shares his origins, how his Internet celebrity impacts opponents’ play and his personal career highlights.


View this post on Instagram


Something’s coming. Can you hear it? 🏀#ForProfessionalsOnly

A post shared by JBL USA (@jblaudio) on Oct 26, 2019 at 1:00pm PDT

VIBE: How did you get involved in sports, and in singing?

Filayyy: I always played basketball growing up, and my pops would always sing around me, being joyful and being himself. It snuck up on me, it was a gift. Growing up, I just wanted to be my pops, he was my role model. He was the person I really looked up to. I was just following things he’d done, and I used to develop my style when I got older.

VIBE: What made you decide to start making these videos in the first place?

I was recording the Finals game between the Warriors and the Cavs. I normally record stuff on my phone and I kind of talk in the background. But I had just finished playing basketball with my boys, and we would all be in the gym playing around and saying “filet mignon.” Everybody would always say “filet mignon,” so I didn’t want to stay with the mignon part. When I was recording the video I was just talking reckless, and I started singing the moves. I was hype because Steph Curry was the biggest player in the league at that time, and he did a crazy move. So I hurried up and put the camera on the TV, and as Curry is doing the move, I’m calling out the moves and I’m singing. I posted that video, and people were just like, “this is mad funny.” I got 400-500 comments. People started commenting, “try to take out the audio from the background, so we can just hear you.” For a few weeks I was trying to find an app, and I finally found one, I used it for two years and it got me through a lot of videos. I found out how to take the audio out, and I started to do voiceovers. First I was just talking about regular moves, and then I started to think about how I play, let me incorporate myself into my videos. Once I caught on to it, I started to see what I post, started thinking of different terms I created. People ask what made me do it. It just happened, I never thought it would blow up like this.

Did you ever do commentary like that while watching with your friends?

I never did it with my friends, but I did it at home with my parents and my girlfriend. I was doing commentary way before I was doing videos, I just never recorded it. It was just that one move that Steph Curry did on Dellavedova in the Finals. I pulled my phone out. You know how someone does a dope move and you’re hype and you’re recording, but you’re talking in the back? But I’m singing. It just clicked in my mind, like, “Yo, you’ve got something.”


View this post on Instagram


Nah the lakers is max for this game it was literally like watching the playoffs no lie @kingjames 39 , 16 , and 12 smh nahhh that’s max 💯 #filayyyybball #filayyyylifestyle

A post shared by Mr.SkipThruDatLane (@filayyyy) on Nov 2, 2019 at 11:48am PDT

You also hoop yourself, aside from making these videos. Do your opponents ever try to mess you up on the court because of your reputation online?

Oh, yeah. It’s to the point where I don’t hoop like that around local people. I don’t really play in an open gym that much. This summer I’ve been playing with pros, I don’t play with that many people who don’t really know the game. Some people see me, and not they’re starstruck, but they say, “oh that’s Filayyy, I don’t want him to embarrass me.” So they foul me on purpose or try to mess me up in the game and try to hurt me. People don’t care, because they don’t want to be embarrassed. My thing is, I’ve got highlights. I can’t control people that record me when I play. If I’m at the gym and someone’s there recording, people think I had them there recording. No, that’s them recording on their own. So if you get crossed over and I post it, that’s on you. I just try to stay healthy and careful with who I play with.

When you follow somebody on social media and you see them in person, sometimes you don't know how to react. They’re trying to play so hard against me that sometimes they do too much, and it gets out of hand. Some people understand, some people don’t, and some people just don’t care – those are the ones that try to hurt you. It’s a few people I’ve met and they’ll say, “it’s not gonna be none of this ‘Filayyy’ stuff over here,” “this isn’t Instagram.” Bro I play basketball, it’s not about social media. But everywhere I go someone is trying to challenge me.

How did you get to the point of being able to play with pros?

A lot of work. Consistent work, accepting failure. Staying in the gym. When you work and start playing games, it’s about building confidence to do what you’re working on in the gym, in the games. I had a name before Filayyy, people knew me as Jesse, as a hard worker. To get myself where I am now, I played against people who were better than me and I had to make mistakes. Next time I played against them, I can’t make the same mistakes I made last time. When you’re playing against pros, you’ve gotta be poised, you’ve gotta be smart. There are things you can’t do because pros are professionals, they perfect their craft. At the end of the day, to go back to this campaign with JBL, professionals perfect their craft. They really don’t mess up. When you’re perfecting something, it’s hard to beat. When you plan stuff out and go after it, you can achieve it. I knew the things I had to get better at. I got to the gym, I worked on it, and that’s how I was able to play with pros now. Things like strength you can’t control, because some dudes are ten or seven feet, but you can control the small things which are IQ, skill, and stuff like that.


View this post on Instagram


A post shared by Mr.SkipThruDatLane (@filayyyy) on Sep 30, 2019 at 7:54pm PDT

Do you have any long-term basketball goals?

The dream since I was a kid is to play in the NBA. But as you get older and life hits you, it’s just about being happy and comfortable with what you can achieve. If I can get in a great country, make money, build my brand, continue to help others and work with brands, that’s my NBA. I’m so successful because I’m not trying to chase something that’s impossible. People thought it was, but I made it into reality. It’s just things I made visible a long time ago and I worked at it until it was made possible. I know the basketball is going to stop bouncing, but it’s a long term goal, for now, to know what I’m going to do after. I just signed my first pro deal after four years, so who knows what’s going to happen?... I haven’t even done half of the things I want to do. The Filayyy brand is the long term goal, basketball is the short term goal.

If you were hooping and you got crossed over, would you make a video of yourself?

I did already! I posted it, but it didn’t get a lot of engagement because I didn’t really get crossed. The dude crossed over, stepped back and made a shot. But because it was me, he made it a big commodity. I think it got like 200 comments. People weren’t really like “oh snap!” I would think it would be like “oh, he got crossed” and the whole world would be like “yo!” It didn’t get a lot of hits so I took it down. But people commented like, “I respect it because you aren’t just clowning everybody else. It happened to you, some people don’t do that.” But I already know that. I play basketball, so I know I’ve gotten crossed before. That’s how I’m able to joke around with others.

Would you ever consider doing commentary in real-time, as opposed to videos after the fact?

I'd definitely consider doing games in real-time. And there are a lot of favorites, but the main ones for me are Cha-Ching at Dyckman, Mr. Talk Spicy for Hoops in the Sun, and Famous Los.

You’ve done a lot with your brand. You have your page, you were on NBA Live, you have this partnership with JBL. What made you decide to make a full business out of this, as opposed to just making videos in your spare time?

I don’t remember the first dollar I made, but after I got my first DM about coming somewhere and being paid for it, it clicked in my mind, “this might go somewhere.” Just doing videos for a while, my page was really getting noticed. Then I got sponsored by Nike, I was the first influencer to be sponsored by Nike. When that happened, I took a different focus into what i posted, what I say in my videos, and how funny I got. I went from 99,000 followers to a million in one year. Being focused on the content and being consistent. When I made that first dollar, I knew, this might be a role for me. Even though I want to be a basketball player, this might be an opening. That’s when I first knew that this brand was something I had to take serious.

What have been your personal highlights so far?

My favorite part is meeting Kyrie Irving, he’s somebody I really look up to. I met Pierre Jackson, someone I look up to. Nate Robinson, John Wall. These are people that helped me grow as a basketball player. That’s the best part of my brand. My brand took me out the hood. I didn’t have nothing. Something I created in my room got me to be in front of people I’ve looked up to for a long time. Going to Greece to see the Greek Freak. I’ve never been to Greece a day in my life. Being sponsored by Nike. You know how anyone would feel to be sponsored by Nike for doing something you love to do? You created, nobody made you do this. You created it your own way, in your own style, and you’re sponsored by Nike. Those are moments I’ve always been appreciative of, and I keep them in my heart. Then working with brands like JBL. You think about these things all the time.

How did you connect with JBL, and what made this make sense for you?

My manager told me we have an offer from JBL, and I’m like, that’s dope. I had just bought some JBL headphones last year. Being honest, I thought “okay this is JBL, it’s going to be in and out.” I get there and it was the best experience with a brand I’ve had so far. Just the connection they had with me, they were knowledgeable of what I’ve done. They went on my page, they knew what I’d done, and they were fans. When you’re in a room with people who know what you do, it’s just a different feeling. The whole campaign is For Professionals Only. I’m a professional, regardless of if it’s on the court or what I do on Instagram. The amount of time I put on the court is the amount of time I put on my videos. The whole campaign is about how me and entrepreneurs are considered professionals for what we do. I feel like professionals perfect their craft. They’re perfect for what they do. It’s not that you need a suit and tie or have to talk proper, but you do things the right way. My headphone that I have is the JBL Free headphone and it’s wireless. I don’t have to worry about cords or nothing. It’s 24 hours without a charge, you can answer the phone with it, and I really like it. I’ve been using them, my mom’s been using them. When I’m in the gym and I’m locked in, it’s a great fit in my ear. First time they gave me the headphones I put them in my ear and they didn’t move, didn’t shake, nothing like that. I’m like yeah, this is something I can rock with. It’s a dope campaign. It’s showing people they don’t have to wear a shirt and tie to be considered a professional.

Continue Reading

Get Ready For Dave Chappelle's 5th Netflix Stand-Up Special, 'Sticks & Stones'

Dave Chappelle's comedic return just won't let up. With four Netflix comedy specials in the bag, the funnyman is returning to the streaming platform with another stand-up comedy special, Sticks & Stones.

To announce its upcoming premiere, Netflix released a one-minute teaser of Chappelle randomly walking through a desert as Morgan Freeman's god-like voiceover adds a bit of comic relief.

"This is Dave. He tells jokes for a living. Hopefully, he makes people laugh." But these days," he sighs, "It's a high stakes game.

"How did we get here? I wonder...I don't mean that metaphorically. I'm really asking. How did Dave get here? What the f**k is this?"

In 2017, Chappelle dropped four stand-up specials: Deep in the Heart of Texas, The Age of Spin, Equanimity, and The Bird Revelation. Later this year, he'll become the 5th black comedian to receive the prestigious Mark Twain Prize for American Humor award. Richard Pryor was the first honoree in 1998, followed by Whoopi Goldberg in 2001, Bill Cosby in 2009, and Eddie Murphy in 2015.

Sticks & Stones is set to premiere on Monday, August 26 on Netflix. Watch the randomly funny teaser clip above.

Continue Reading

Top Stories