If comedians worshipped other comedians, this comic would be one of the top gods. Aside from being award winning, Richard Pryor had quite the reputation. He is a guy who is remembered for crying after he found out Martin Luther King Jr had been shot. He was known to be unpredictable on stage or in the writer’s room. He worked alongside the best including George Carlin and ran around with the baddest like Paul Mooney. At best, Pryor is known for transparency as himself all the time and winning the game that way.
Peoria, Illinois, a part of America’s Heartland, is the birthplace of Richard Franklin Lennox Thomas Pryor III. Born December 1, 1940, his mother abandoned Pryor at a young age, and his grandmother raised him in her brothel. His very dark childhood was grim with sexual trauma and abuse. He found refuge in seeing movies. His aspiration for stardom ignited. At age 12, the boy was casted in a local production of Rumpelstiltskin. Even in this early experience, Pryor displayed comedic talent.
Expelled from school at 14 years old, he joined the workforce early as a janitor, a shoe-shiner, drummer, meat packer, truck driver, and a billiard hall attendant. In 1958, he served a short time in the Army, and he began to perform in amateur shows which eventually led to cabaret gigs. Seeing how audiences responded to his routine, he toured the Midwest, and eventually, he moved to New York City. In 1964, television debut, On Broadway Tonight, aired. He did a bit about growing up in Peoria. The act was so good yet close to Bill Cosby’s that Cosby called all over town asking people if Pryor was stealing his act. Funny to consider when Cosby had previously been accused of taking from Dick Gregory.
By 1965, he opened for Nina Simone. His fan base spread, and Las Vegas came a calling. Vegas, filled with white tourist audiences, made the comic uncomfortable and censored. One day feeling fed up with it, as rumor has it, Pryor stepped up to the mic and said, “What the fuck am I doing here?” Immediately, he walked off. People were saying this was a New Pryor. Mooney claims it already happened a couple years before from performing at the Redd Foxx Club, where Foxx regularly performed. From watching him, Pryor remarked how Foxx was the same on stage as he was off stage.
His jokes became more real and more raw. He riffed about living on the streets, being black, doing drugs, having sex, childhood tragedies, and anything else he wanted to share. Pryor had plenty to work with too. He developed a cocaine problem, bad marriages, and frail health. He struggled, but he made it funny, “I had to stop drinkin’, cuz I got tired of waking in my car driving ninety.” When riffed, he had a lack of pretension.
Unfortunately in 1986, Pryor became diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a degenerative disease of the central nervous system. However, he kept performing. As his mobility slowed and had the necessity to use a wheelchair, his material covered it. On December 10, 2005, the legend died. While living and now after his death, almost any true fan of comedy will mention him. He left his impression and changed stand-up. He played it sincere and kept it unequivocally amusing.