Richard Pryor: True Stories And Famous Jokes Of A Legend
Comedian Richard Pryor (1940 - 2005) performing on stage at the Auditorium Theater in Chicago, Illinois, July 28, 1978. (Photo by Paul Natkin/Getty Images)
Richard Pryor was one of the great standup comedians of the '70s and '80s, his raw and risque style serving as an inspiration for many who followed. Pryor's comedy was often based on his real life, stories and jokes that nobody could tell in quite the same way. Every comic that came before him was rendered obsolete and everything after him was changed forever. His comedy was both for the intelligensia and those of us who preferred the basest of humor. His over the top stories about drugs and alcohol blended perfectly with his trenchant critiques of society. All of Pryor’s work, regardless of the subject, came from a sensitive and beautiful place. He was responsible for some of the most important pieces of comedy of the ‘70s, and in spite of his demons he brought joy to his audience whenever he took the stage.
Seeing Dean Martin in his audience made Pryor change his act
Before Pryor adopted his real deal style of comedy he was more of a clean cut comedian who modeled his style after Bill Cosby. It was miles away from his in your face persona that pulled from his real life and was much more family friendly, and was meant to appeal to the lowest common denominator. Things changed for Pryor while he was performing in Las Vegas and realized that he didn’t want to keep censoring himself. He abruptly walked off stage and stopped performing for a few years while he worked on a new act and found himself. When he returned to the stage he had an iconic new style.
He was responsible for the five second delay on "Saturday Night Live"
If you know anything about Richard Pryor it’s that his work tends to be straightforward and to-the-point. He speaks like a normal person and doesn’t mince words. While some comedians try to make their act family friendly, Pryor swings the opposite way and tells adult stories the way adults tell them. This is exactly what freaked out NBC when he was tapped to host Saturday Night Live in 1975. In order to get Pryor as the host, Lorne Michaels (the show’s producer and guru) had to pretend that he was quitting. NBC blinked, and Michaels got his way. His one compromise was to put a five second delay on the show so the censors could edit out any coarse language that the comedian might use. The story goes that Pryor didn’t know about the five second delay and that if he had he would have walked off the show. Thank goodness he didn’t because this episode gave the world the famous “Word Association” sketch with Chevy Chase.
In “Wanted: Live in Concert” he turned his pain into comedy gold
Much of Richard Pryor’s life was marred with tragedy. He grew up in poverty and was raised by sex workers, and even after he became a successful performer he was still dealing with his own demons. His album from 1979, Wanted: Live In Concert, covered one of his most upsetting incidents, when he fired a gun into a car containing his wife and her friends as they were fleeing his New Year’s Eve party. No one was hurt in the shooting, but Pryor had to get court ordered therapy. On the album Pryor jokes, “All I did was kill a car.” While making light of his situation Pryor made some of the most moving and insightful comedy of the 20th century. One of Pryor’s daughters, Elizabeth Stordeur Pryor, told PRI that Wanted: In Concert makes her feel close to her father:
It is the album that I feel most connected to my father. I recognize the person talking, I know the stories, I was there when they happened… My father told me that any time I saw a performer whose work I admired, I should let them know. We’d walk down the street and people would be like ‘Hey Rich!’ out of the cars and stuff like that. And I remember asking my father if that bothered him, if it was too much, and he said ‘No, I think it would really bother me when they stop yelling out of the car.’
Pryor just wanted to be himself
Pryor’s groundbreaking work was incredibly important to fans, but the way he spoke truth to power definitely upset people. While speaking with Rolling Stone in 1974 he said that he didn’t care what people thought about him because he just wanted people to be honest about who they are because that’s how he lived his life:
I think that people should say what they feel. I mean, you know, I don't give a [censored] if it's racism or whatever ism it is. I mean, whatever, man. Just to be yourself is such a nice thing. I like to be accepted, you know, but usually in order to be accepted by white people, you have to compromise so much from your hello… And when I say white, man, I don't mean everybody. You know who you are.
He was an important part of “Blazing Saddles”
One of the greatest comedic films, or just films, that’s ever been filmed is Blazing Saddles by Mel Brooks. And while the film is distinctly a work of Brooks genius, so much of the film was shaped by Richard Pryor. Brooks said that he didn’t want to make the movie without the comedian, specifically because of the overt racism spewed by the bad guys in the films. He said:
I called up a friend of mine, this guy who was a brilliant writer and the best stand-up comic of all time: Richard Pryor. I said, ‘Richard, read this, tell me what you think.’ He read it and said, ‘Yeah, this is good … this is real. I like this.’ I asked, ‘Right, but what about the N word? We can’t say this so many times…’ ‘Well, Mel, you can’t say it. But the bad guys can say it. They would say it!’ Then I asked him to come write it with us, and he said sure.
Aside from writing initial jokes on the film, Pryor was supposed to play the Black Bart but Mel Brooks says that the studio was afraid to cast him. Rather than just ditch Pryor, Brooks kept his friend on as a screenwriter for the film. He told Rolling Stone:
I almost quit the movie because the studio was scared of casting him. He was the original Black Bart. But Richard said, ‘Mel, don’t quit — I still have two more payments coming to me from the Screenwriters’ Guild, let’s make the movie. I have to get paid. We’ll find a good Black Bart, let’s just do this.’ We saw about 20 different people before we saw Cleavon. The minute he read for us, Richard and I just said, ‘This is the guy.’ He was so laid-back and took his time with the jokes.
Pryor’s genius was in his honesty
It’s not just that Richard Pryor was a great comedian, a lot of people can write functional jokes, his greatest ability was being honest about himself to his audience regardless of how it made him look. One of Pryor’s closest friends and collaborators, Paul Mooney, told NPR:
When he told a story, it was like a movie. You believed it was happening. When he did the drunk, you believed you were seeing a drunk. When he talked about the deer in the woods, you believed it. He made the sounds. He was brilliant at telling stories, and some people are brilliant at losing themselves. That's why Richard could play characters. That's why Eddie Murphy can play characters. They can remove themselves from who they are, you know? It's hard for me. For me, I can do, like, attitude. I have such an ego 'cause I'm a double Leo. I can't let go of me, you know, so it's very difficult for me to be somebody else and not me. I'm so into me. I know I'm being crazy now, but it's the truth. And Richard used to say that, too, but Richard loved to lose himself. He could become the character because then he didn't have to be Richard, you know?
“Mudbone” was one of Pryor’s greatest bits because it was so real
There are hundreds of amazing Pryor bits, but his most important and well known bits was “Mudbone,” a homeless alcoholic who told equally bawdy and poignant stories that blended the surreal with the all too real. The inspiration behind classic bits like “Little Feets” comes from Pryor’s young life growing up in a brothel outside of Chicago. The Mudbone bits were more storytelling than they were stand up, but the bits are so engaging that they keep audiences rapt regardless of how dark they get. Pryor had so many bits that it’s hard to pick his best moments, but Mudbone is absolutely transcendent.
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