The great American comic satirized white racism, his fellow blacks, and himself.
By Stefan Kanfer
Playwright Neil Simon called him “the most brilliant comic in America.” For humorist Lily Tomlin, he was “a gifted, raging, soaring, plummeting, deeply human man with the tender boy inside—the greatest pioneering comic artist of the last three generations.” Critic Pauline Kael dubbed him “a master of lyrical obscenity; the only great poet satirist among our comics.” They weren’t exaggerating. Other African-American comedians preceded him, and since his death in 2004, a handful of young black performers have earned more money and entertained larger audiences. One, Chris Rock, has every right to boast about his accomplishments. Yet he is modest enough, and wise enough, to warn his colleagues: “You should not even get onstage and attempt to be funny unless you realize you’re never going to be as funny as Richard Pryor.”
A typically protean Pryor routine in 1968
On his way to fame and self-destruction, Pryor became the funniest man in America by creating a new kind of comedy—a hilarious, heartbreaking, and conflicted view of life seen from the underside. He was conscious of his minority status but refused to take the route of special pleading. His vocabulary was down and dirty, but his work had a surprising elegance. He was always himself, yet could populate the stage with a cast of characters ranging from a pack of dogs to a bewildered black alcoholic to a Mafia thug. He was a savage, equal-opportunity satirist; he targeted white racism, his fellow African-Americans, and—finally and most severely—himself.
Pryor grew up in Peoria, Illinois, in the forties and fifties. “Black folks didn’t have it so good in Peoria,” he recalled. “If they worked at all, they were probably employed at one of the nearby slaughterhouses. My family escaped that fate. They ran a whorehouse.”
Richard’s grandmother, Marie Carter, was a madam, her daughter Gertrude (his mother) a hooker. His father, Leroy, was a boxer turned pimp who paid little attention to his son except to intimidate him when he stepped out of line. The boy grew up in an atmosphere of moral confusion: prostitution was the family’s source of income, yet he attended a predominantly white Catholic school. His mother seemed to love him, yet when Richard was ten she ran off. From that point on, Marie raised him—or tried to.
It was too late; he had become unmanageable. Apart from Leroy’s brutality and Gertrude and Marie’s professional activities (Richard once saw his mother in bed with Peoria’s white mayor), the bright kid suffered from a slew of other miseries. He was small, thin, and shy—the classic grade-school victim. In addition to daily bullying, he was twice sexually molested, once by a john at the bordello, another time by a member of his church.
A high school dropout at 14, Richard spent the next six years doing odd jobs, from truck driver to janitor to untutored drummer in a pickup band. He was drafted in 1960 but attacked another GI of higher rank and wound up discharged after 13 months, many of them spent in the stockade. By this time, an idea had come to him: he could always make people laugh—soldiers, fellow workers, family members. Why not get paid for it?
I wasn’t much taller than my daddy’s shin when I found I could break people up. A little dog wandered by and poo-pooed in our yard. I got up, ran to my grandmother, and slipped in the dog poop. It made Mama and the rest laugh. I was really onto something then. So I did it a second time.
“Look at that boy! He’s crazy!”
That was my first joke.
All in poop.
And I been covered in it ever since.
Pryor landed a gig singing in a Peoria nightclub. Between numbers, he would tell jokes and wow audiences. Encouraged, he pushed on to bigger venues. In New York City, he found work as the opening act for Nina Simone, Richie Havens, and Bob Dylan. He came on like Mr. Cool, a pose that fooled quite a few people, but not Simone. “Opening night,” she remembered, “Richard shook like he had malaria, he was so nervous. I couldn’t bear to watch him shiver, so I put my arms around him there in the dark and rocked him like a baby until he calmed down. The next night was the same, and the next, and I rocked him each time.” Pryor began to calm himself with multiple shots of scotch, then got ready for the next performance with lines of cocaine. It was the opening chapter of a long saga.
Early on, Pryor patterned himself after the reigning black comic, speaking politely, telling middle-class jokes, doing impressions of businessmen and tourists. To audiences, he seemed a Bill Cosby satellite—one reason why he continually found work, but also why star status eluded him. And then one night in Las Vegas, things changed forever. “There was a world of junkies and winos, pool hustlers and prostitutes, women and family screaming inside my head, trying to be heard,” Pryor remembered. “The longer I kept them bottled up, the harder they tried to escape.” He peered out at the audience at the Aladdin, spotted Dean Martin at a front table—and suddenly experienced what he would call “my nightclub epiphany.”
I asked myself, “Who’s he looking at, Rich?”
I couldn’t say.
I imagined what I looked like and got disgusted. I gasped for clarity as if it was oxygen. The fog rolled in. In a burst of inspiration, I finally spoke to the sold-out crowd: “What am I doing here?”
Then I turned and walked off the stage.
In the dressing room my agent was hysterical, incredulous. How could I have walked off? “Do you know what you did?” he screamed. “Do you know what this means?”
“No, you’re the agent. You tell me.”
Then I heard those famous words. “You’ll never work in this town again. Did you hear me? You will never work in this town again!”
As things turned out, he was inaccurate.
The turnaround took several years. During that time, Pryor divorced, remarried, divorced again, and became increasingly involved with hard drugs. Looking back years later, he observed, “I couldn’t escape the darkness.” But at least he was able to put his demons at the service of his art—and it was art.
To remake the Pryor persona, he went into self-imposed exile in Berkeley, California. For the next three years, he hung out with a group of writers who called themselves the Black Pack, headed by the satiric novelist Ismael Reed. Slowly, Richard began to evolve a new comic style—biting, scatological, improvisational, rooted in the experiences of his childhood, told in the argot of poor and working-class black folks. He prowled the stage like a puma, dispensing the most penetrating comedic view of African-American life ever revealed to the American public.
Pryor’s vast cast of characters, headed by a wise old drunk called Mudbone, were at once volatile and vulnerable, gross and sensitive, streetwise and intimidated. As he portrayed them, he showcased an astonishing array of dramatic skills. “I saw myself as a victim of the system,” Pryor said, “an outsider for whom justice was out of reach, a dream. And then I saw how closely my situation mirrored the black man’s larger struggle for dignity and equality and justice in white society. So I became a kind of prism, refracting the experience of a race.”
When he reentered the club scene in the late 1960s, Richard rocked show business. His perspective proved ideally suited to the time, with its Black Is Beautiful agitation, Vietnam anti-warriors, and counter-culture leaders attacking the mores of previous generations. But poignancy lay beneath Pryor’s brightest comic moments, in his work and on his face; the explosively funny addict had become America’s black Pagliacci.
You wonder why a nigger don’t go completely mad. You get your stuff together. You work all week, right? Then you get dressed, right? And you go out and get clean and be driving with your old lady, going out to a club.
And the police pull you over. “Get out of the car. There was a robbery. The nigger looked just like you. All right, put your hands up, take your pants down, and spread your cheeks.”
Now, what nigger feel like having fun after that? “No, let’s just go home, baby.” You go home, beat your kids. You gonna take that crap out on somebody.
The laughter of recognition began with black audiences, but within a year Pryor was the most popular crossover comedian in the country. Now it wasn’t just African-Americans like LeRoi Jones and Muhammad Ali who flocked to his performances; college students and hip whites showed up, too.
Verboten 4-, 6-, and 12-letter words dominated his vocabulary, but as the Washington Post observed, Richard “always had a higher purpose than the chest-thumping, crotch-grabbing entertainers who use the N-word with such profligacy. As Pryor saw it, ‘nigger’ meant ‘black like me and millions of others, who’ll never get on this stage,’ and his use of it might end up doing more than Ali, Stevie Wonder or Bill Cosby to break down racial barriers in mainstream America.”
Years later, one Yalie recalled that “the release of a new Richard Pryor album in the seventies became a major event. We ran to the record store to purchase a copy of That Nigger’s Crazy or Is It Something I Said? even before we ever heard all the funny, cold-blooded, true stuff Pryor was talking.”
I’m glad I’m black. I’d hate to be white. ’Cause y’all got to go to the moon.
Ain’t no niggers going to the moon, you know that. First of all, there ain’t no niggers qualified. Or so you all tell us.
If niggers was hip, they’d help y’all get to the moon. “Hey, let’s organize and help them whites get to the moon. So they leave us alone!”
In Ebony, a young woman covered a typical Pryor performance: “His elastic face melts, his body contorts, his voice gains and loses octaves, before our eyes he morphs into a German shepherd, a deer drinking from a pond, his car as he shoots it to death so his wife can’t use it to leave him. Watching him, we are terrified, exhilarated and provoked. Pryor will forever be the gangly, slightly nerdy, funny and smart kid of our collective childhood. The one we ended up falling in love with not only because he was funny, he was sexy; the member of the group we all suspected would do something marvelous, large and life-changing—if he could ever figure out what that was, and beat racism back far enough to get to it.”
Pryor’s jazzy, improvisational approach was something far beyond Lenny Bruce, who had been funny because of his foul language; Richard was hilarious despite it. Comedians responded to his extraordinary talent. Robin Williams called Pryor “an alchemist who can turn the darkest pain into the deepest comedy.” Eddie Murphy said he was “better than anyone who ever picked up a microphone.” Bill Cosby admitted that the “troubled soul” who had run so hard from the Cosby style had “found laughter where none had a right to exist.”
Hollywood producers wanted in and offered Pryor a career in films. He won rave reviews for his straight performance as Piano Man in the Billie Holiday biopic Lady Sings the Blues. But the audacious albums and concerts kept coming. They featured a laundry list of volatile phrases and attitudes, and they made producers uneasy. Was he exhorting African-Americans or mocking them? Was he castigating whites or praising them? Or was he attacking both groups?
They had a movie of the future called Logan’s Run. There ain’t no niggers in it.
I said, “Well, white folks ain’t planning for us to be here. That’s why we got to make movies. But we got to make some really hip movies. Not movies about pimps. We done made enough movies about pimps, because white folks already know about pimping. ’Cause we the biggest whores they got.”
We find Super Nigger, with his X-ray vision that enables him to see through everything except white, disguised as Clark Washington, mild-mannered custodian for the Daily Planet. He’s shuffling into Perry White’s office.
“Hey, man, I’m quitting, baby.”
“Great Caesar’s Ghost! I can’t talk to you now.”
“Talk to me, Jack. ’Cause I’m ready to quit, man. You dig? I’m tired of doing them halls. Every time I finish, Lois Lane and them come slipping and sliding down through there and I got to do them over again. I’m through.”
Pryor cowrote Blazing Saddles with Mel Brooks, but Cleavon Little won the role of black sheriff: Warner executives feared that Pryor’s “street cred” might turn off suburban audiences. Still, independents were willing to roll the dice. In 1978 came Blue Collar, set in a Detroit automobile factory, a searing tragicomedy that examined the lives of three assembly-line workers, two black and one white: Pryor, Yaphet Kotto, and Harvey Keitel. Impoverished and ill-used, the trio decides to raid the union treasury. Instead of loot, they find paperwork showing that the labor organization is in bed with the mob, lending money at usurious rates. When they try to use the information, however, they wind up brutally quashed. Critics found Blue Collar rough-edged, and it failed at the box office. But most reviewers agreed with Vincent Canby’s appraisal in the New York Times: “The center of the film is Mr. Pryor, who has a role that for the first time makes use of the wit and fury that distinguish his straight comedy routines.”
Pryor had joined Bill Cosby and Sidney Poitier in another trio for Uptown Saturday Night and was the marquee attraction in such comedies as Car Wash and Silver Streak, the first of four pepper-and-salt features costarring Gene Wilder. Lily Tomlin hired Pryor to write material for her TV specials; then Saturday Night Live grabbed him. In one skit, he and Chevy Chase played job candidate and employer. Their word-association game, a cascade of escalating network-verboten terms, pushed NBC to the edge.
“What did you say?”
All the while, Pryor was becoming ever more celebrated. A documentary, Richard Pryor Live in Concert, set the standard for all comedy “concert” films to follow. It caught the entertainer in peak form, reflecting on his disorderly life, his domestic quarrels with wives and girlfriends, the death of a pet monkey, the story of his brush with death during a heart attack: “I woke up in the ambulance, right? And there was nothing but white people staring at me. I said, ‘I done died and wound up in the wrong heaven. Now I got to listen to Lawrence Welk the rest of my days.’ ”
As his fame rose, so did his trouble with wives and ex-wives—five, all told, with a total of seven children. (Only one, Rain Pryor, chose a show-business career, appearing in sitcoms and off-Broadway plays. Her memoir, Jokes My Father Never Told Me, was published by HarperCollins in 2006.) Accompanying Richard’s familial complications were deteriorating health and difficulties with the IRS.
I went to jail for ten days for income tax evasion. I didn’t know a thing about no taxes. I told the judge, “Your Honor, I forgot.”
He said, “You’ll remember next year, nigger.”
Unhappy and guilt-ridden, he exiled himself once more, this time to Africa. He had heard tales about the place and wanted to see it for himself. Something epochal occurred while he was there—though initially, he hid his insight beneath gags: “Landing at the airport in Nairobi, it just fills your heart up. You see everybody’s black. And you realize that people are the same all over the world. Because people in Africa screw over your luggage just like people in New York.”
Even though Pryor would use the continent for routines, the visit deeply affected him. Long before black leaders like Cosby and Juan Williams warned about the corrosive social effects of gangsta rap, he went public about the black community’s degraded language and its consequences.
One thing that happened to me that was magic was that I was leaving, sitting around the hotel lobby, and a voice said, “What do you see? Look around.”
And I looked around, and I looked around, and I saw black people everywhere. At the hotel, on television, in stores, on the street, in the newspapers, at restaurants, running the government, on advertisements. Everywhere.
And the voice said, “You see any niggers?”
I said, “No.”
It said, “You know why? ’Cause there aren’t any.”
I’d been there three weeks and hadn’t said it. And it started making me cry, man. All that crap. All the acts I’ve been doing. As an artist and comedian. Speaking and trying to say something. And I’d been saying that. That’s a devastating word. That had nothing to do with us. We are from a place where they first started people. I left regretting ever having uttered the word on a stage or off it. It was a wretched word. I felt its lameness. It was misunderstood by people. They didn’t get what I was talking about. And so I vowed never to say “nigger” again.
The N-word vanished from his routines. But the comedian failed to make a corresponding cleanup in his private life. From standard substance abuse he moved on to freebasing cocaine. While filming in Phoenix, he dropped in at the Arizona State Penitentiary to play Cool Black Celebrity for the inmates. Richard even planned to sneak in some drugs. Both the prisoners and the wardens quickly disabused him, and because he could never be anything but honest, he turned the experience into material.
I always said the black man had been screwed over since the Revolution. “We’re nice people. We just got a bad break.” But I was there six weeks and I talked to some of the brothers there. Thank God we got jails.
I said to one, “Why’d you kill everybody in the house?”
He said, “They was home.”
The drug use intensified. Friends tried to get him to stop, or at least slow down. Jim Brown, the running back turned actor, asked him what the hell he was doing to himself. “Freebasing,” replied Pryor. Snapped Brown, “What’s free about it?” The words bounced off ineffectively until the night Pryor spilled cognac all over himself while lighting a toke. A moment later, he was engulfed in flames, screaming down a thoroughfare. Later, a Washington Post columnist commented that Pryor was “his own Nero. He fiddled while he burned.”
You know something I noticed? When you run down the street on fire, people will move out of your way. They don’t screw around. Except for one old drunk who’s sitting there, going, “Hey, buddy, can I get a light? Come on, pal. A little off the sleeve?”
Bad press made Richard reconsider his life. He quit taking drugs and got his act together. In the post-crackup documentary Live on the Sunset Strip (1982), he speaks with extraordinary candor about his freebasing catastrophe. The revelation begins, of course, with a gag: “Before going to bed, it’s my habit to have a glass of no-fat milk and cookies. When I put them together, they exploded. Scientists are still trying to figure out what happened.” He proceeds to the delusions that arise from cocaine-smoking (“I understand, I understand,” his pipe tells him), the falling away of his friends, the denial of drug use to his family, the horrific accident with first-, second-, and third-degree burns, and months of agonizing physical and mental therapy. All these could have served as pretexts for self-pity; instead, Pryor turns them into something as laugh-provoking as they are affecting.
Richard’s 38th film, Jo-Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling, had more to say about life lessons. The contrite, transparently autobiographical account of a black superstar’s rise and crash—written, produced, and directed by the star himself—wasn’t a hit, but it seemed to exorcise many demons. Alas, Pryor had hit the brakes too late. During the filming of the ironically named Critical Condition, he found his legs unresponsive to his will. Physicians at the Mayo Clinic gave him the awful news: he was in the first stages of multiple sclerosis.
There were still movies to make, and he did some standup at the Comedy Store in Los Angeles, and later, when the paralysis made it impossible to walk, he entertained in a wheelchair. Pryor won an Emmy for his performance as a bedridden victim of paralysis in Chicago Hope. And in 1998, he received the first Mark Twain Humor Prize, awarded at the Kennedy Center. He responded, “It is nice to be regarded on a par with a great white man. Now, that’s funny!” Then he got serious. “Two things people throughout history have had in common are hatred and humor. I am proud that, like Mark Twain, I have been able to use humor to lessen people’s hatred.”
Pryor dropped out of sight during his last years, but when he died in 2004 large obituaries ran in every major newspaper. Network and cable news shows broadcast expurgated versions of his routines and excerpts from his films. And celebrities lined up to acknowledge their debt to an authentic original. “To fully appreciate the power of Richard Pryor as a stand-up comedian,” said David Letterman, “you had to follow him at the Comedy Store. I did once, and I’m lucky to be alive.” Composer Quincy Jones added, “I’ve always thought that a big laugh is a really loud noise from the soul saying, ‘Ain’t that the truth!’ Richard Pryor was the truth machine. He took black street humor to its highest universal level.”
Jim Carrey was the most eloquent: “Some people are born wearing an iron shoe. They’re the ones who kick doors down and enter the places that before them have been untouched even by light. Theirs is always a mission filled with loneliness and broken bones. Pryor was one of the bravest of them.”
Today, new generations are discovering Pryor’s routines on YouTube, as well as on widely available DVDs and CDs, making him famous all over again. With good reason. For unlike the shock-troop comedy that panders to a snickering audience, Richard Pryor’s work had authenticity, purpose, an odd dignity. His memorable representatives of both the black and white worlds, his acute social observations, his autobiographical self-parodies were timeless—and so were his strivings for racial pride. As Mudbone once observed about himself in a third-person monologue: “He’d learned somethin’ through all the crap he’d been through. Acquired wisdom. Done become a philosopher.”
You all know how black humor started? It started on slave ships. Cat was rowing and dude says, “What you laughin’ about?”
He said, “Yesterday I was a king.”
- Stefan Kanfer, a contributing editor of City Journal and a former editor of Time, is the author, most recently, of a biography of Marlon Brando, Somebody.