Richard Pryor Does Early Stand-Up Comedy Routine in New York, 1964

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.

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