Book Excerpt: The Groundbreaking Transformation of Richard Pryor

Tomorrow, your film editor’s third book, Richard Pryor: American Id, hits shelves (a book, by the way, borne out of a post on this very website). What follows, rather than the customary book excerpt, is an “outtake” — a bit from the book, cut due to length, detailing Pryor’s transition from a vanilla mainstream comedian into the fierce voice of ‘70s black consciousness that America came to know, love, and fear.

In 1970, Marvin Gaye was at an impasse. “I’d been stumbling around for an idea,” he explained to biographer David Ritz; his marriage was in the toilet, and his close friend and frequent duet partner Tammi Terrell had died unexpectedly, so he wasn’t much in the mood to write and/or sing the love songs that had made him a star at Motown. His brother Frankie returned from a tour in Vietnam, and as he told Marvin about his time there, “my blood started to boil. I knew I had something— an anger, an energy, an artistic point of view… My phone would ring, and it’d be Motown wanting me to start working and I’d say, ‘Have you seen the paper today? Have you read about these kids who were killed at Kent State?’” In the face of the chaos around him, Gaye could no longer stomach the notion of “singing three-minute songs about the moon and June.” He recorded a loose, wandering, simmering, heartfelt album, articulating his confusion and anger at the world around him, and called it What’s Going On. Motown told him it was too complex and dragged their feet about releasing it; Gaye threatened never to record for them again. They put it out in May of 1971.

That summer, in a cheap one-bedroom house in Berkeley, California, furnished only with a bed (on the floor, no less), a television, and a turntable, Richard Pryor played What’s Going On, album which, later wrote in his autobiography, he played so often “it became the soundtrack for my life up there.

“’What’s goin’ on?’ Marvin would sing.

“’Fuck if I know,’ I’d answer.”

In that anonymous, austere living room in Berkeley, Pryor was at an impasse not unlike Gaye’s. He had achieved something resembling fame as a stand-up comic and occasional actor, positioning himself as a safe, jovial favorite favored by mainstream tastemakers like Ed Sullivan and Merv Griffin, benefiting from a generation of comedians before him (Moms Mabley, Redd Foxx, Pigmeat Markham, Slappy White) who’d slammed into the stand-up circuit’s color line, and contemporaries (George Kirby, Dick Gregory, Godfrey Cambridge, Bill Cosby) who’d crossed and then erased it. They’d ever so slightly adjusted the expectations for mainstream black humor, from minstrelsy and subservience to acerbic commentary and social satire.

Young Richard Pryor.

But Pryor wasn’t engaging in much of that. His initial act, honed in burlesques houses and nightclubs on the so-called “chitlin circuit” of black performers and audiences, was an equal mix of the silly and the scatological; his slightly off-color humor was less a function of his own voice than the venues he was playing, and the rowdy crowds he was thrown to. But not long after his arrival in New York City, he realized that “in terms of entertainment, white America wanted their black comedians colorless,” an impression driven home when he read a glowing Newsweek profile of Bill Cosby, whose observational comedy and childhood remembrances were, for all intents and purposes, pigment-free. “Goddamn it,” Pryor recalled thinking, “this nigger’s doing what I’m fixing to do. I want to be the only nigger. Ain’t no room for two niggers.” He went over to the Comedy Cellar to see Cosby work, and came out with his mind made up: “I decided that’s who I was going to be from then on. Bill Cosby. Richard Cosby.”

But it wasn’t just the material that was Cosby-esque. When you hear the old tapes or see his early television appearances, his delivery is just as jarring as the jokes — crisp, clean, “proper.” Coupled with his youth, he sounds like a different person; the transformation of the early ‘70s was a matter of finding his voice, both literally and figuratively. Yet what’s frequently overlooked about this 1960s iteration, this “Richard Cosby,” is that he was still fast, sharp, and frequently hilarious. He was always funny; it just took some time to figure out what made him funny. Yes, there are bits that are outright Cosby imitation (his rose-colored, wholly fictional childhood stories; bits about living in New York City and travelling on subways), but even before his legendary transformation, he was trying out rambling character sketches, pieces of outright experimentation (like “Mankind” or his full, audience-testing reenactment of 2001), and odd, lengthy playlets (such as “Black Ben the Blacksmith” or a dramatization of his first play, a grade-school production of “Rapunzel”).

What’s more, with the exception of the very earliest mid-1960s material, Pryor’s act was seldom as colorless as Cosby’s. His tales of childhood and teenage years were understandably ghetto-shaded; of his hometown, he joked, “Peoria’s a model city, you know. That means they’ve got the Negroes under control.” He describes a tussle with a police officer thus: “He didn’t call me a nigger or nothing, because there was a lot of colored cats hangin’ around. He said things like, ‘You, you dark person!”

Black characters show up even in early bits, though the more aggressively black of them (the black poet whose entire poem is, simply, “BLAAAAAAAAAAAACK!”; the militant guest on “The Talk Show”) are seen as ridiculous, or at least pompous. A tape from May of 1968 captures him in a dialogue with a rather nasty (white) audience member, who responds to one of Pryor’s racial cracks (When I say ‘white man,’ I don’t mean everybody — you know who you are”) with a loud “You’re lucky I got a sense of humor.” Pryor immediately responds, “I’m lucky you have too, because I know what you white people do to us.” He’s joking, but there’s an edge; later, he assures the audience, “You have nothing to fear from the black man except his thoughts.” A quiet moment follows, which he fills with a high-pitched tone, followed by the presumptive voice of an audience member: “That’s enough!”

But these moments were the exception, not the rule. “A point of view was percolating beneath the surface,” he later wrote. “I just didn’t know enough to put the pieces together.” What’s still noteworthy, and even brave, about the choice he made at the end of the decade is that he walked away from something that was working. He was appearing regularly on television and in films, and making plenty of money doing so—enough to support an already expensive cocaine habit. (“I made a lotta money as Bill Cosby,” he told Johnny Carson years later.) He was, by most standard measurements, a success. And he was willing to flush it.

“I was a Negro for twenty-three years,” he would later joke. “I gave that shit up. No room for advancement.”

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Richard Pryor on "The Ed Sullivan Show"

The story of Pryor’s onstage meltdown and bridge-burning on a Las Vegas stage has been told enough times to have entered the realm of legend, particularly in the world of stand-up comedy. The oft-repeated myth holds that he was performing at the Aladdin Hotel, in either 1969, 1970, or 1971 (the story varies), before VIPs of either celebrity or organized crime stripe (the story varies), when he realized that he couldn’t do it anymore, walked off-stage in mid-performance, high-tailed it to Berkeley, and re-emerged angry, profane, and fully formed into the “Richard Pryor” we all know and love.

The truth isn’t quite that simple. A sharper sensibility, more tuned in to the turbulent times and his own racial identity, was seeping into the act as much as three years before his Berkeley exile. But even the Vegas breakdown itself has been mischaracterized; in his excellent volume Becoming Richard Pryor, biographer Scott Saul places it not only all the way back in 1967, but as “two different incidents: an onstage nervous breakdown and a bold, if kamikaze-like, career move, separated by ten days of normal routine.” According to Saul, after walking offstage and fleeing to L.A., Pryor returned to Vegas to fulfill his contract, and was subsequently released from it early by the Aladdin — as punishment for the profanity that had invaded his sets.

The story that his onstage breakdown got him blackballed from the industry is, per Scott, likewise apocryphal; he made numerous, (mostly) incident-free appearances afterwards on Ed Sullivan, The Tonight Show, The Pat Boone Show, and even back in Vegas, at Caesar’s Palace. But the seed had been planted; he would spend the next couple of years spinning his wheels, but “my days of pretending to be as slick and colorless as Cosby were numbered.”

Berkeley, according to longtime resident Greil Marcus, was “a lookout and a hideout.” As such, it was the perfect place for Pryor to disappear from February to September of 1971 and get his head together. Movements were assembling; revolutions were percolating. Pryor fell in with a group of black intellectuals, among them authors Cecil Brown, Claude Brown, and Ishmael Reed. He read their books, and books they recommended; he voraciously consumed the collected writings of Malcolm X, and when he reached the end of that volume, he flipped to the beginning and started over. He hung out in neighborhood bars and barber shops, listening to people talk, and created new characters and routines, which he tried out at hip clubs like Berkeley’s Mandrake’s and San Francisco’s Basin Street West. He had a regular radio gig, and made experimental recordings out in the wild; in one of them, early that summer, he spoke these words with a hushed intensity:

Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolfman, the Invisible Man, and Hercules don’t scare me. The FBI, the anti-American committee, J. Edgar Hoover, President Nixon, President Johnson, Martha Mitchell and her husband, or her man or her woman, Ethel Kennedy, all the Kennedys, Bank of America, Chase-Manhattan, Rockefeller, none of these people scare me. What scares me is that one day my son will ask me, ‘What did you do, daddy, when the shit was going down?’

He could’ve easily carved out a life in Berkeley, like his new intellectual friends, writing and performing and preaching to the choir; he could’ve even gotten a university gig, like his pal Cecil Brown. Instead, he packed up his few belongings and headed back to Los Angeles, to do what Eldridge Cleaver described in Soul on Ice. “I attacked all forms of piety, loyalty, and sentiment: marriage, love, God, patriotism, the Constitution, the founding fathers, law, concepts of right-wrong-good-evil, all forms of ritualized and conventional behavior,” Cleaver wrote. “I pranced about, club in hand, seeking new idols to smash.”