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.