Yesterday we featured one of the final performances of Lenny Bruce, the so-called “sick comedian” who was hounded out of work in the mid-sixties for his supposed obscenity. While Bruce was fighting and losing his legal battles, going bankrupt, and sinking into depression, one of his successors was just getting his start in New York City, playing Greenwich Village coffee houses alongside Woody Allen and Bob Dylan. Richard Franklin Lennox Thomas Pryor arrived in New York in 1963, leaving behind him a grim, abusive childhood in Peoria, Illinois and a very troubled army stint (most of which he spent locked in the brig). But watching Pryor’s early act—like the 1964 performance above—you’d hardly know that he came from such hardscrabble places as he did. We get the classic Pryor gestures, mannerisms, and expressions: the full immersion of his arms and malleable face in every punchline. But the jokes…. Well, it’s safe material. Tame one-liners and middlebrow, sanitized bits about childhood, bachelorhood, life in New York, and TV commercials. If there is a glimmer of the absurdism and tragicomedy of Pryor’s later wit, it’s a faint one. But who can blame him after what happened to Lenny Bruce?
But, as we all know, something changed. According to Pryor himself, he had an “epiphany” while standing onstage in front of a full audience (which included Dean Martin) in Las Vegas in 1967. Apparently, before he started his act, he looked out into the crowd, exclaimed into the microphone, “what the f*ck am I doing here?” and walked off stage. For the remainder of his career, he built his onstage act around the brutal, unsparing honesty–about race, poverty, drug abuse, his troubled past (and present), and everything in-between–that audiences loved. Even when the bits were painful, they were painfully funny (though not always so funny off stage). That he managed to cultivate such a profane and controversial persona while achieving mainstream Hollywood movie success is further credit to his versatility. He even did the alphabet on Sesame Street in 1976. But he never went back to the unthreatening and generic material from his early New York days. Even his roles in the most kid-friendly films had plenty of edge and that vein of dopey-but-dangerous craziness that ran through all of Pryor’s work after he found his voice.
For a vintage clip of the Richard Pryor we remember, take a look back to the 1979 film Richard Pryor: Live in Concert, recorded the previous year at the Terrace Theater in Long Beach, California. It’s NSFW, of course.
Josh Jones is a writer and scholar currently completing a dissertation on landscape, literature, and labor.