An Iconoclast Remembered: Richard Pryor

By Jason McGahan
Clamor Magazine, Issue 36, Spring 2006


Redd Foxx used to say that Richard Pryor would
have been banned from every nightclub in the
country had he performed his act before the Black
Revolution of the 1960s. Foxx, a friend and
admirer of Malcolm X since his youth, was
speaking from long and bitter experience. Years
before he played Fred Sanford in the hit 1970s
television program Sanford & Son, Foxx was a
"blue" comedian known to Black audiences
throughout the Midwestern Chitlin' Circuit of the
'40s and '50s for his sexually and politically
explicit humor. He catered his act to the
sensibility of Black underclass audiences, which
embarrassed many integration-minded Blacks and
missed white audiences almost entirely.

Foxx's black-or-white dilemma illustrates what
historian Mel Watkins, borrowing from W.E.B.
DuBois, called the "twoness" of African-American
humor. Slavery created for Blacks the necessity
to manage both how they were perceived by whites
and how they perceived themselves. A laugh from
the master could mean averting punishment, while
satire, mimicry, and mockery of the master in the
company of slaves could help alleviate the pain
and misery of bondage. To justify slavery to
themselves, the slavers rewarded foolish
joviality and naïveté, while no overt act of
intelligence or irony went unpunished. The
richness of Black humor was secluded from the
view of whites for centuries. The gulf between
authentic Black ethnic humor and crude racist
representations persisted unabated for more than
a century.

Richard Pryor wasn't the first Black comedian to
draw humor from the bitterness of racism. He
wasn't the first to substitute dazzling wit and
intelligence in place of "acting the fool" for
white audiences. And his mordant political satire
informed by racial otherness had long since
become a staple of the Chitlin' Circuit. What
first and foremost made Richard Pryor a
transcendent American comedian was that he
removed the racial barrier separating
working-class Black ethnic humor from the
predominantly white mainstream of American

Jim Crow segregation after the Civil War had the
effect of providing Blacks with clubs and
cabarets in which to develop the humor denied
them in the whites-only theater and mass media.
Richard Pryor, like Redd Foxx before him, began
his career performing before almost exclusively
Black audiences. And like Foxx, the divergence
between the types of humor suited to Black as
opposed to white audiences became a defining
source of conflict in Pryor's development as a
comedian. He was born into the racially
segregated Black underclass of Peoria, Illinois.
His father was a teenage boxing champ turned pimp
and bar manager. His mother was a prostitute. He
grew up in one of his grandmother's brothels. His
earliest memories were peopled with the winos,
addicts, con-men, prostitutes, and gangsters
occupying the lowest rung of Black society in
Peoria. Nowhere is this fact more evident than in
his best known stand-up comedy of the '70s and
'80s. But earlier in his career, Pryor suppressed
his vivid remembrances of the past, believing
them a hindrance to his pursuit of the financial
rewards of white mainstream approval.

Fans who discovered Richard Pryor in the 1970s
may be surprised to learn that he was a famous
comedian as early as 1964. Pryor belonged to the
coterie of Black comics that included Bill Cosby,
Nipsey Russell, and Dick Gregory who had achieved
a measure of fame by traversing the narrow, often
shaky ground between Black ethnic humor and
acting the fool. As tame as the humor of Cosby
and the pre-1970 Pryor was by modern standards,
when they told jokes on Merv Griffin and Ed
Sullivan in the mid-1960s they were pioneering

In the mid to late-1960s, Pryor was imitating
Cosby "so much so that I should have informed
people," he wrote in his autobiography, Pryor
Convictions. His performances during this period
were heavily rendered, derivative, anxious, and
painstakingly suited to the tastes of mainstream
white audiences. "I had a wild neighborhood, I
gotta tell you," began one such bit. "Because my
mother's Puerto Rican, my father's Negro, and we
lived in a big Jewish tenement building -  - in
an Italian neighborhood. So every time I went
outside, they'd yell, 'Get him! He's all of

But Pryor could never become Cosby, whose college
education and middle-class background were a
far-cry from Pryor's and imparted to Cosby a
natural polish and subtlety that endeared him to
the mostly white audiences. The pressure on Pryor
to be someone he wasn't gradually summoned his
personal demons to the fore, and his drug use and
erratic behavior increased. One night at the
Aladdin Hotel in Las Vegas in 1969, Pryor gaped
at the VIP crowd and reportedly  muttered, "What
the fuck am I doing here?" before wandering off
the stage.

Numerous obituaries have made passing mention of
Pryor's sojourn in Berkeley in 1969-70 that
coincided with his studying the speeches of
Malcolm X and familiarizing himself with the
political philosophy of Black Nationalism. But
this period is of considerable interest for the
artistic metamorphosis it resulted in. Malcolm
X's posthumous influence on Pryor, reaching him
as it did at the peak of the Black Power Movement
and in its epicenter in Berkeley, is palpable.
"Strangely, I hadn't been affected by Malcolm X's
death when it occurred," Pryor wrote in his
autobiography. "However, after Redd introduced me
to him as a person and what he stood for, I
missed him terribly." Malcolm X distinguished
himself from Black leaders of the Civil Rights
movement by opposing racial integration on the
grounds that it reinforced the false notion of
white supremacy in the minds of oppressor and
oppressed. Most Blacks in the U.S., not to
mention in the smoldering ruins of colonial
Africa, were fighting for racial equality and
self-determination, not mere acceptance by
whites. Black people, he said, would have to
liberate themselves.

The uncompromising ethos of Black Power was born
out of the flames of urban race rebellion and
urgently called into question modes of
practicality and patience that had marked Black
behavior for centuries through the Civil Rights
Era. Disagreeable though terms like "house negro"
and "field negro" may sound, to many Black youths
of Pryor's generation they served to distinguish
the old integrationist mindset from the new
militancy. Black Power was like a giant breach
opened in the historical enclosure of Black
racial consciousness and pride. And Pryor was
absorbing it all, having befriended leading
revolutionary Black intellectuals of the period
like Ishmael Reed, Angela Davis and Cecil Brown -
- not to mention members of the Black Panther
Party of Self-Defense. Imbued with the excitement
of that historic moment, he began to reevaluate
his art and his politics, and, most importantly
to analyze the conditions of his life in Peoria
in light of everything he had learned.

The genius of Richard Pryor, more evident with
each successive white mainstream publication that
feels compelled to praise him in death, is that
he perfected the comedy of the Black American
underclass and injected it into the predominantly
white mainstream - permanently redefining the art
of stand-up comedy. Pryor was a man of enormous
talent and subversive predilections who revealed
to the public to an extent never before seen the
rich tradition of Black ethnic comedy in a manner
that, if he didn't exactly smash the racist idols
of minstrelsy, at least replaced them with
something less vulgar. Pryor repudiated punch
lines for comic and often poignant impersonations
of Black ghetto archetypes like the Big Liar, the
Wino, the Junky, the Religious Fraud, the
Prostitute, the Neighborhood Tough. His superb
gift for mimicry, poetic use of street
vernacular, and broad acting range had the
unprecedented effect of producing pathos in Black
and white viewers alike. "I think there's a thin
line between being a Tom on them people and
seeing them as human beings," he told author
James McPherson. "When I do the people, I have to
do it true. If I can't do it, I'll stop right in
the middle rather than pervert it and turn it
into Tomism. There's a thin line between to laugh
with and to laugh at." Pryor exercised no such
caution when the subject turned to the
obliviousness of white America. The nasal voice
that he used to impersonate the overly inhibited,
cowardly unassertive, and naively cruel "average
white male" has become part of the standard
repertoire of any number of contemporary Black
comedians. For all the myriad Black characters
that Pryor developed into marvels of
idiosyncrasy, that white voice never underwent so
much as a change of inflection whether it was
meant to be a cop, a neighbor, or a tourist on
African safari. It is emblematic of his
profoundly funny satire, which pilloried the
racist double-standards, the cultural
insensitivity, the victimization, the
degradation, and the fear that Blacks living in
the U.S confront every day. Racism made up the
very fabric of his work.

But Pryor was, after all, a comedian and he spent
plenty of time joking about how Blacks and whites
behaved differently at funerals, at the dinner
table, and when reaching orgasm. At the height of
his powers, when he was both Black rebel and
Hollywood box office king, Pryor flaunted his
greatest vulnerabilities onstage to daring comic
effect. He challenged delicate themes of Black
masculinity by regaling audiences with tales of
his transvestite love affair and confessions of
his own sexual performance anxieties. He
described shooting up his own car with his wife
and her friends inside. He recounted his abyss of
freebase cocaine addiction, his pipe personified
into a bully with a voice like Jim Brown's. He
famously narrated the story of his
self-immolation. It was beyond uncharted
territory; it was an undiscovered planet. No
comedian since has ever sought to duplicate
Pryor's ultimate highwire act, the fascinating
way he turned the most intimate details of his
personal torment into breathless laughter.