An Iconoclast Remembered: Richard Pryor
By Jason McGahan
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 culture.
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 comedians.
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 them!’”
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.