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Richard Pryor: This Can’t Be Happening to Me

Inspired by a screenplay by the comedian

Richard Pryor

Richard Pryor in 1983.

NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

Something there is that doesn’t love a gun shop. Probably it’s a target. Like this duck perched in front of the semi-automatic carbines at Brass Rail Guns in Hollywood. Now, most people wouldn’t have considered the duck a target; quite likely they wouldn’t have considered it at all — just a dumb, stuffed and strictly ornamental dead duck. But Richard Pryor doesn’t think like most people. Standing next to the duck, his childlike black face as innocent and tight-lipped as a ventriloquist’s, Pryor perceived that the bird was in fact scared stiff, and quite able to talk about it.

“I’m scared shitless,” whispered the duck, afraid to move a feather. “I am a real duck and I’m just waiting to make my move and get out of this fucking place.”

Richard turned away and laughed, the sort of convulsive, repeater-action giggle he often rewards himself with after pulling off a good one. He had come to the gun shop this overcast March day to purchase two pistols, a Walther .380 automatic and a Colt .357 magnum. These he would add to a small home arsenal that already included an antique flintlock piece, a shotgun, some arrows Flip Wilson gave him that formerly belonged to “little pygmy people in Paris,” and a large wooden oar Richard once grabbed from a friend before it could be applied to the friend’s wife.

Yet as a smiling and friendly clerk named Bill checked Pryor out on the two new guns, the shy comedian seemed almost disinterested, nodding politely at this precision movement and that safety device, but asking few questions about what was actually a fairly complicated procedure. His mind was on something else. More targets.

“Could you tell me something?” Richard asked finally. “How come all the targets are black?”

Bill kept smiling, but now there was an embarrassment to it. “Uh, I don’t know, Richard,” he said, shaking his head. “I just …”

“No, I mean I always wondered about that, you know? Like, how come all the targets you ever see are black? You know what I mean?”

“Yeah, Richard, I just don’t know the answer to that one. I really don’t. Just the way it’s always been.”

Implied in the question, of course, was Pryor’s concern, not that all targets were black, but that all blacks were targets. Which is one reason he decided to buy the pistols.

“They just shot a couple of niggers down at Newport Beach,” he explained while driving back home. “They was with white chicks, and a couple of white dudes came by and shot ’em.” The crime of a nigger taking a white chick to the beach was not unfamiliar to Richard, and so he planned to keep the small Walther automatic in the glove compartment of his green Mercedes. “I guess the word would be apprehensive,” he said dryly. “Yes, I’m extremely apprehensive.”

Back at his house, a snug Hollywood Hills cottage that once belonged to the gardener of a famous hotel, Richard dumped the guns, some shells and two empty magazines for the Walther automatic on a coffee table and set about to load them. Each magazine held seven shells, at least they did at Brass Rail Guns, but now, goddamn, no matter how hard he forced the first bullet against the spring of that little bitch of a black box, shit, the crazy motherffffucker would, goddammit, slip out and pop back onto the table. Finally Richard shrugged, counted out 14 shells, picked up the magazines and the automatic and drove down to the gun shop again. There another clerk started loading the shells into the magazines as if they were coated with butter. Richard obviously felt foolish. “Ohhhh, I see now,” he said sheepishly. “I was doing it wrong. Thank you, thank you.” Outside he grinned and whispered, “Shit, I was putting ’em in backward.”

He returned to his car, in the center of a supermarket parking lot next to the gun shop, and as mothers strolled by with children and shopping bags, he finished inserting the 14 bullets. Then he took one of the magazines and jammed it into the gun. But not quite far enough. It sent a bullet into the barrel but not quite straight, so that when he pulled back the hammer it jammed and wouldn’t return. Which meant that for some reason the safety device wouldn’t lock. He yanked at the magazine but now it was stuck, too; it wouldn’t go in and it wouldn’t come out, the safety was stuck, the gun was loaded and cocked, women and children were all around the place, and suddenly Richard burst out laughing.

“You know,” he said, “this is just perfect for me. You know what I mean? This is just perfect for me. I mean, what the fuck am I doing with this thing?” He turned to an imaginary assailant and fumbled with the gun. “Hold it, could you wait a minute, please?” he yelled, knocking the hammer, tugging at the clip. “I just about got it here, could you hold it one more second?”

Well, of course, Richard had no choice but to return again to Brass Rail Guns, this time saying nothing, hanging his head, motioning the clerk to the rear of the store where no one was around, confiding to him under his breath like a defeated cowboy: “I hope you won’t mention any of this to the boys down at the range.”

Richard was right; the predicament was perfect for him, a perfect fuck-up and a perfect revelation of himself. “Nothing comes off real smooth just when I think it will,” he said later. “I just am doomed … like I was somewhere the other night at the screening of this fight. And George C. Scott said hi to me, he said, ‘Hey, Richard,’ like he knew me. And I couldn’t think of a fucking word, so I shook his hand and just turned and walked away. So after the fight was over I stood up to get his acquaintance, and I said, ‘Hi, George,’ you know? And I was gonna say, like, ‘The only reason I stood there was ’cause I didn’t know you knew my first name.’ But then he went east on me, right? He went like, ‘OhhiDick,’ like I was bothering him, and I said to myself, ‘I guess you only get one fucking chance to speak to that motherfucker.'”

The same sort of thing happened a few nights later during a party at Sammy Davis Jr.’s house. “I was petrified, just didn’t feel comfortable, all the movie stars were there. And he was in the bathroom with me — Sammy Davis was in the bathroom with me? I pissed all over my shoe!” Richard giggled painfully. “I couldn’t even get a semihard-on, so he could see I had a big cock or something, you know what I mean?”

One of Pryor’s classic fuck-ups occurred five years ago at the end of a major stage in his career. It was the wrong end of a stage at the Aladdin Hotel in Las Vegas, and Pryor decided to walk off it in mid-act. He had become increasingly disgusted with his life in Vegas, with performing what he considered mundane, white-controlled, gag-oriented material.

“It wasn’t me,” Richard recalled. “The current was happening, and every now and then I’d go in for it. And people would tell me, ‘You can’t do that.’ If I said ‘ass’ or something, they’d say, ‘Hey, you can’t have that in there.’ And I’d think, ‘Why in the fuck … ? Fuck these people, man, fuck this way of livin’, fuck it.’

“And then I went crazy one day. On the stage. I said, ‘What in the fuck am I doing here?’ and walked off — the wrong way. ‘Cause the panel at that end was like two times smaller than I was, and the guy’s saying, ‘No, you can’t get through there.’ And I’m saying, ‘Yeah, I can get through there, believe me!’ And I squeezed through that motherfucker ’cause I wasn’t going back ‘cross the stage.”

It was the turning point in his artistic development; Richard decided then and there that he would only do the material he wanted to do, the way he wanted to do it. Needless to say, such moments of truth are probably not understood and certainly not appreciated by most promoters and big-time club owners. He was instantly banished to the minors—the low-paying, no-cover hoot-niteries you find in some major cities and college towns. His income dropped drastically, and to some extent he is still suffering for his decision at the hands of the entertainment establishment.

“‘You’ll never work again’—that was the agency’s reaction,” said Richard. “‘What about us? What about our reputation?’ Everybody was worried about themselves. I said, ‘Fuck all you motherfuckers, I’m worried about me.'”

Nonetheless, his gamble at long last seems to be paying off. He has appeared in seven motion pictures, most notably in Lady Sings the Blues, but also in Busy Bodies, Wild in the Streets, The Mack, Hit, Wattstax and Uptown Saturday Night. His third album, That Nigger’s Crazy, has recently broken into the Top 30—an unusually high rating for a comedy record. He’s written five Sanford And Son television scripts and shares the writing credits for the film Blazing Saddles. And he’s currently performing on stages around the country, averaging 18 gigs a month in houses like New Jersey’s Latin Casino, New York’s Philharmonic Hall, the Oakland Coliseum and Harlem’s Apollo Theater. For the performances alone he is expected to net an estimated $300,000 by the end of the year.

Most important, Richard Pryor has established himself as a rare and serious innovator, a perfectionist in the arts of comedy, mime, drama and, as the students at San Jose State College recently put it; in awarding him an honorary PhD, “black street history.” In the process he has expanded stand-up comedy to the dimensions of pure theater, and has accurately presented the times we live in, perhaps in the only way the times we live in can be presented accurately. Because of his ability to fragment his life and the life around him into bits and pieces, and to recreate those fragments onstage without contrivance, with intense feeling and absolute truthfulness, Pryor is considered a genius by many of his colleagues—for example, Mel Brooks, the producer/director of Blazing Saddles:

“Richard has almost Nietzschean ideals of what is good, what is powerful, what is superior,” says Brooks. “He just reports terribly accurately and does not stretch. When he does a junkie or he does a drunk, he does ’em fuckin’ right on; I mean, that’s it. He gets all the nuances; he gets the breathing right. You say, ‘I know that guy, that’s true.’ And that’s blindingly brilliant and amazing.”

Lily Tomlin, who performed with Pryor on her two remarkable television specials last year, says it a bit differently. In fact, she says it a lot differently: “To me, Richard is separate from anybody else. See, when I think of Richard, like the hours I’ve spent with him, and I see him improvise and tell me about his life, or people he’s known, or whatever impressions he’s had, or little moments and fragments and things, you know, it’s like … so uplifting. Just because of his interpretation of it, and in the way he’s perceived it. See, he doesn’t perceive it, he perceives it humanistically, you know, and then he himself, the fact that he exists or something, I don’t know what it is, but it totally, like, just uplifts me. I don’t know what I’m saying.

“It’s like believing that we’re all worth something, you know, when everything around us tells us that we’re not really.”

Now all that ain’t bad for a 33-year-old nigger with no formal training.

It goes way back. I first saw Richard Pryor somewhere in the mid-Sixties on Johnny Carson. The hippie thing was blooming everywhere, and I remember thinking that Pryor had something of the flower child in him. After he finished his stand-up routine, he sat down with the other guests and kept right on goofing, blurting out all kinds of spontaneous and crazy things that sometimes seemed profound and full of love. Character after character, perfectly and gracefully formed, appeared to flow out of his mind and into his body, upstaging the show in the process. As one might expect, Carson got sort of uptight about it.

My other impression that night was that as a black comedian, Pryor was far better, far blacker and truer to life than television’s official black comic of the time, Bill Cosby. During his stand-up routine, Pryor did his Rumpelstiltskin piece, about some frightened school kids performing the classic children’s story; Cosby was currently doing a number of bits drawn from childhood nostalgia, and I was struck by the difference between Pryor’s kids and Cosby’s. Pryor’s kids seemed very naturally and specifically black, whereas Cosby’s quite easily could have been white—that’s the feeling I had at the time. More likely it was just that Pryor’s kids were real—they completely took over his brain and body, while Cosby’s kids were caricatures, exaggerated and filtered through the paternalistic eye of a grownup.

At any rate I expected that Pryor’s talent would soon overshadow Cosby’s in the minds of America’s vast viewing public. But that has yet to happen, and, thanks to television and all other white-controlled media, I no longer expect it to.

Then in 1968, Pryor’s first record album was released through Warner/Reprise. It’s the one with Richard posed absurdly on the cover, squatting in the sand practically naked except for a ring in his nose, bones around his neck and arrows and a bow in his hand. Pryor is so versatile visually that merely to listen to him on record is always somewhat frustrating, but the album is interesting to go back and hear since it includes the sort of material he seldom does anymore. His characters are as well acted as today, but the situations tend to be more traditional and contrived — a TV panel show, a Superman parody (“Super Nigger”), a prison play. Yet his contrivances are extremely imaginative, and because they are less down-to-earth than the street action he performs today, they reveal a sense of nonsense and fantasy that he now mainly reserves for private displays. For example, the following excerpt from his panel show could only occur in real life if all the panelists happened to be Richard Pryor:

Moderator (Pryor’s voice is low-key, laid back, FM jock): Let’s pose our first question to the professor. Professor, where did man come from?
Dr. Winston Stonewood (voice nasal and arrogant): Man … came … from the earth. Man was begot by raindrops, grew out of the ground, uprooted himself, and just walked away. Man was first a stump. After man pulled himself away from the earth, man went walking dragging, of course, the roots, leaving little seeds as he walked along, giving growth to other vegetation and creating more men-trees, as they were known in the early times.
The Rev. Arnold T. Perkins (voice timid and soft): Uh, isn’t it true, though, however … may I just say something here …?
Moderator: Yes, you may, Reverend. Reverend: … that God created man after Himself?
Dr. Stonewood: That’s not true. That’s a falsehood. God created Himself after Himself. Man created himself after God, after he found out who he was. See, God was a person from another place; he came here on earth and liked the place and decided he’d settle down. Knew he’d make a fortune here. He’s been cleaning up every Sunday for thousands of years with that religion crap. And we all know it’s puhtooty puhtooty, don’t we, don’t we know that, don’t we know that.
Black Nationalist (shouts angrily): I got somethin’ to say, man, you dig? I mean you cats been up there rappin’ ain’t said nothin’ about the real thing, y’know what I mean? Now I got somethin’ to say, man. Man, the black man, the real soul brother, firs’ was comin’ by hisself, he wasn’t no tree. I mean I don’t wanna hear it, man. You cats up here rappin’ about the Jews, but what about me, man? What about my people?
Dr. Stonewood (cowering): Uh, I don’t believe anyone said anything about the Jews.
Black Nationalist: You will. You will.
Dr. Stonewood: Maybe, uh, maybe Miss Dumtree would like to say something.
Miss Dumtree (quivering falsetto): Y-yes. I would like to say since I gave up narcotics I found God.
Dr. Stonewood: I, I, uh, I beg to differ, I don’t see the, the tie-in between narcotics and God.
Black Nationalist: God was a junkie, baby! God had to be a junkie to put up with all this, you know what I mean? You don’t just walk around feelin’ nothin’ behind all this is goin’ on, man. You ask the Reverend, he’ll tell you ’bout it. Tell ’em ’bout it, Rev, ’cause me and Rev was rappin’ backstage. Go on, Rev, rap.
Reverend: Well, I, I, my friend here probably is … probably is right. God probably did take some sort of … outside … medication. As it states in Chapter Six, Verse 32, “I will take unto myself what is needed.” If God, uh, didn’t want us to have it, I don’t think he would’ve created it. Amen.

As time went on, Pryor would occasionally appear on this or that TV talk show, but he wasn’t nearly as impressive. He seemed to have less to say and his material turned more and more predictable — the black preacher, the hillbilly preacher, his “cool run” in high school when he was too chicken to fight but still wanted to impress the girls. Finally, as the Sixties came to a close, it became almost impossible to catch him on anything.

Then about three years ago, friends told me he was living and working in Berkeley, across the bay, and I went one night to see him at a small club called Mandrake’s. The show was a splendid surprise. He had dropped the contrivances and replaced them with a host of true-to-life street people—drunks, dopers, hustlers, hookers, cops, pimps, virgins, killers—all the jive-ass motherfuckers that make up what is euphemistically called the human race. Richard had apprehended them intact from his own experience, had presented them onstage with few punchlines and no punches pulled, and with a black awareness far more explicit than in his earlier work. His performance was like a break of fresh wind—strong, honest and embarrassing—and that is how it affected members of the audience: It caused them to laugh and look at each other.

Not that they always laughed. Pryor ended his act that night with a long, grim dialog between an old wino and a young junkie, a piece he still often closes with today. For ten minutes these two mental cripples hazily rambled on in their separate unrealities; then the wino took a huge, gulping dose from his bottle and announced pathetically, “I’m gonna help you, boy, ’cause I think you got potential.” The sketch provoked as much silence as it did laughter, and by comparison it made most other nightclub comedy I’d seen up to then seem pretty forced and shallow.

“It’s like theater,” Richard said recently about his act. “It doesn’t matter whether they laugh or not as long as it’s interesting and it holds their attention.” It is like theater, and when Pryor appeared again on the Carson show last year, it became obvious just how brilliant an actor and mime he is. This time Carson was on vacation and Bill Cosby was standing in as host. From the start one sensed a friendly rivalry between the two comedians, although to me there was never any contest. They horsed around and adlibbed a lot, and at one point Cosby suggested they both mimic weight lifters. Cosby went first. As he lifted an invisible barbell, he let his body go out of control, acting all crazy and spastic like a veteran circus clown. He was funny, I guess; people, you know, laughed. But they laughed much more at Richard Pryor.

Richard was subtle; he limited most of the action to his face—not much of a limit, really, since he has about a hundred of them. Actually his natural, at ease face is fairly nondescript; it’s not as handsome and distinguished as Cosby’s, although Richard probably could make it so if he felt in the mood. His eyes are the best part. Deep-set, burdened by dark, imposing eyebrows and a recurrent furrow, they normally look just slightly troubled. But at whim Richard can make them reflect a whole medical dictionary of contrasting mental states—defiance, innocence, ferocity, terror, ecstasy, confusion or plain old craziness. (“Them’s my eyes,” he admitted later. “I’m psychotic.”) His mouth acts real funny, too.

Anyway, by the time Richard had raised the barbell to his knees (about ten seconds), he had already gone through two dozen faces, each more painful and hilarious than the last. It was like watching a speedfreak’s screen test. Visually he was so fast, I decided that only by recording him on videotape, and by watching the tape over and over, would I be able to get him down accurately on paper.

On February 8th of this year, Pryor appeared at the Soul Train in San Francisco’s North Beach, and I asked Annie Leibovitz, the photographer, to come along and tape two of his sets with a Sony portable videotape recorder. Fortunately Richard chose that night to make up a new piece on the spot, a long, very personal account of the time his woman left him.

“There ain’t nothin’ like when a bitch leaves you and tells you why,” he began. “I mean, I’d rather anything than that. I mean, just kill me, but don’t explain the shit to me. Yeah, ’cause there ain’t a motherfuckin’ thing you can say but …”

Richard’s mouth drops open, his eyes stare ahead blankly as if he has been hit in the stomach. He tries to speak, but the words gag in his mouth. His eyebrows rise in pain, his head bobs to the side, throwing off a blow.

“Yeah, baby, but …”

He backs up, frowning incredulously.

“No, no, no, I didn’t mean that … no, see, what happened was … I know what I said but, see…”

His eyes gaze up ruefully, hopelessly; his mouth pouts.

“Goddamn, baby!”

He addresses the audience.

“And you won’t admit that, you won’t cry.”

Now he scowls defiantly. His mouth curls up in a sneer and his eyes glower and race left and right, as if he is seeking support from a jury of sympathetic, victimized men. His head rocks forward to punctuate each sentence.

“Well, bitch, leave! Who in the fuck needs it, know what I mean? Shit. I can take care of myself, I’m my own man, motherfucker! Kiss my ass, get out!”

Pryor blows sharply into the microphone; it sounds like a door slamming. Then for the next 35 seconds he says nothing, nothing verbally, but here’s what happens: He stares ahead, stunned and expressionless at first, but his face slowly starts to break down. The movements are subtle. Creeping upward at the center, his eyebrows again show pain. He bites his upper lip, licks his lower one as if it is dry. He winces, drawing his mouth up, tightening his cheeks, gritting his teeth. He nods his head forward several times, as if to say, “Yeah, this really just happened, all right.” He purses his lips, blinks his eyes and sighs. (By this time, incidentally, the audience is shrieking with anticipation and laughter.)

Now Richard hangs his head to the side and draws his right hand down the length of his face, erasing all expressions. He looks woefully to the left, as if to ask, “Oh shit, what am I going to do now?” Turning, he begins to pace the stage, shrugging, flapping his arms against his sides, shaking his head and letting out a low bombardier whistle. Suddenly he hurls the microphone stand to the floor and screams at it, his face in a rage.


He clenches his fists and stamps his foot in fury.

“You fucker!”

Again pacing the stage, he yells over his shoulder.

“Better not come back here, motherfucker … don’t you ever come back here, bitch … kill that bitch … motherfucker … ain’t that a bitch?”

He grits his teeth for one last explosion.


Regaining his composure, Richard casually dials an imaginary phone, making a sibilant dialing noise with his mouth, listening to the microphone and then talking to it.

“Hey … hey, Clarence? Hey, man, how you doin’? Richard. Yeah, man, been about a year, ain’t it? Yeah, whatcha been doin’?”

Richard pauses and looks down at the floor.

“Uh … you seen my old lady? She hasn’t passed by that way in the car, has she? Oh, no, she was just goin’ to the store, and I wanted to … have you run out in the street and holler at her … tell her to bring back some spinach. Yeah, I’ll be talkin’ to you ….”

Abruptly he jerks up his head, feigning happiness and running his sentences together.

“… Oh, everything’s fine—no, man, I’m not down, I’m up. I’m up, I’m up!” He shouts. “Feel great! Yeah, man, I feel … great. Oh, you … you got back with Janet.”

Here his voice starts to break crazily, sometimes sounding like two voices, one a high falsetto. His mouth turns downward, but he tries to control it, gritting his teeth and managing an occasional stiff smile.

“That’s … that’s good. Yeah, she’s really makin’ you feel happy now, huh? That’s wunnerful, man. Oh yeah, we’ll come by for dinner sometime—well, not tonight …”

His eyes shut tight, fighting back tears.

“… she’s out of town — well, she drove out of town to the store.”

A sob slips out, but he forces another smile.

“I was laughing at a little joke. Take care, my man, ah ha ha ha.”

As Richard hung up the phone, he was greeted by a wave of applause and affectionate laughter. He continued his sad tale, waking up that night to the blues of an empty bed, suffering the humiliation of meeting the woman with another man a month later, meeting her again at home when she returned to pick up some stuff:

“The bitch walks in the door, and you say, ‘Gawd … damn, the bitch never looked that good when she was with me!’ She sits down. And then you ask the big question.”

He pauses, then lunges forward, shrieking hysterically.


During the two sets that Friday night, Pryor centered much of his material on the cultural differences between blacks and whites. That sounds like a lecture topic, but Pryor didn’t lecture; he simply recreated everyday situations in which racial differences were both obvious and hilarious—eating, getting a traffic ticket, fucking and, perhaps most revealing, jiving.

“Niggers is beautiful, Jack,” said Richard. “Got their own rhythm and shit, you know? And play their own games. Whitey don’t know how to play, right? He don’t play the dozens, he never signifies. You say, ‘Fuck you, go fuck yourself, man.’ A white cat, he goes:”

Richard’s voice turns nasal and uptight; he opens his eyes wide, then blinks them repeatedly in nervous righteousness.

“‘Huh? Now, I’m the supervisor here, and I … I don’t deem that kind of language necessary. We have a policy here at the company ….’

“Don’t be talkin’ about they mommas: ‘Yo’ momma—’

“‘My mom? My mother’s a fine woman ….'”

Perhaps the racial differences were best illustrated by the audience itself, which, as one might expect at the Soul Train, was 90% black. When Pryor opened the second set with a few off-the-cuff comments about Patricia Hearst, who had been kidnapped only a few days earlier, the audience loved it. Yet the remarks, as harmlessly specious as they were, would probably have offended most white audiences, no matter how “liberal.” One of the rules of white etiquette is you don’t kid around with the victims of tragedy, especially if the victims are white and socially prominent. Fortunately, Pryor had no reason to obey the rules. After calling Randolph Hearst a dog and a jive motherfucker for his newspaper’s reactionary editorials, Richard commented:

“I’m sorry about his daughter, though, ’cause a dumb white bitch with a bunch of niggers just drives you nuts.” (The audience applauds.) “I know them niggers is ready to get rid of that who’e. She’ll do anything—I’ll bet she’s doin’ some helluva tricks, trying to psych ’em out and shit. I’ll bet the bitch is really dumb enough to do that.”

His voice sing-song and innocent. Richard comes on like Shirley Temple seducing the Miami Dolphins.

“‘I bet if I give you guys some, you’ll let me go.'” Actually this last example is somewhat out of context; Richard’s treatment of whites was not that frequent, and, in fact, the race he most poked fun at was his own—particularly the pretense and bravado of the street scene he’s observed in various black pockets of the land. For instance, there was Oilwell, the “dangerous nigger” who liked to fight the police. When Oilwell spoke, he delivered his phrases with the force and complex motion of a major league pitcher, winding up his head, slinging it around and forward, his mouth curled open at one end for volume, his eyes wide and round like periods at the end of each sentence. To make sure the police knew who he was referring to, Oilwell repeatedly pointed to his chest with all ten fingers.

“Say, Mistuh Officer, do you know who you’re fuckin’ with? I’m Oilwell—six-foot-five, weigh 245 pounds uh man … and know how to handle it. Understand, Mistuh Officer? ‘Cause I got scars on top my head, leg damn near shot off in Nine-teen Fortyfour, boy … from fuckin’ with people like you gonna fuck with me. Why don’t you call downtown and ask for Lieutenant Wilson in homma-cide ’bout me.

“Remember last summer when the 15 po-lice come to get that crazy nigger? And nine or ten of ’em got fucked up? That’s me.

“I’m talkin’ ’bout fightin’ yo’ ass. You unnerstand, boy? You hit me with that stick, I’m gonna bite your dick!”

Needless to say, Oilwell got the shit beat out of him before he could finish his verbal assault.

Pryor ended his first set with an autobiographical dialog between his inner and outer selves that probably best indicated the complexities and remarkable insight of his own racial identity. It was the reenactment of an acid trip he once took in the Sixties “with my daddies. I was gonna be as bad as these white dudes I was hanging with; I was the only nigger in the group so I had to do extra shit.” Pryor later explained to me that the trip, which occurred about the time of his crack-up in Las Vegas, revealed to him the essential beauty of all human beings … or something like that. Indeed, there is an element of love that he applies to his characters that somehow makes them funny and human no matter how fucked up the characters themselves might be.

To be sure, the trip he performed for the audience was not as deep as all that. Parts of it were silly; parts of it were extremely pretty to watch—it was like a ballet, his hands floating slow motion out of control, his head jerking this way and that as if possessed. But anyone there who had ever taken acid knew Richard was right on the mark; you could actually see the acid coming on, as his face changed from cynical disbelief (“This ain’t shit”) to gleeful awe (“I’m catching my hand, man!”) to terror, his eyes frantically trying to spot the soft, low voice beckoning him from within:

“Nig … ger.”

Pryor tries to answer but succeeds only in emitting a questioning, electronic-type sound.

“Whawhawhawha ….”

The voice continues in an ominous, God-like fashion, cascading downward in melodious octaves.

“You ain’t no nig … ger. You ain’t no nigger, you ain’t no nigger, you ain’t no nigger. You … are … a being. A beautiful … be-ing. Can you dig be-ee-ee-ee-ing? As opposed to … not being?”

Richard emphasizes these last words with his fingers stretched straight out, as if striking a chord on some giant organ. Now the voice becomes harsh and cackling.

“Ha ha, we trapped you, Richard. We got you. You startin’ to under … stand: It’s gonna be a funny, funky trip for you, Richard …”

The voice starts to whisper furiously.

“… ’cause I’ve been waitin’ in here, motherfucker. I’ve been waiting for about 22 years to meet your ass. You been bullshittin’ me, you know, with all that old jive nigger shit? You know, hidin’ behind them shields and shit? Instead of coming forward with a this energy?

“You been layin’ back, posin’ an’ shit, bullshittin’, motherfucker, well you’re DEAD tonight. You are gonna die—me or you, one of us is gonna survive, and only the strong survive, Richard, so the bullshit’s got to go!”

Again, Richard tries desperately to answer, his voice high-pitched and terrified.

“I … don’t … know-oh … I … don’t … know-oh … I … ca … an’t talk….”

Viciously the inner voice cuts right in.

“Motherfucking right you can’t talk! ‘Cause you’re full of shit, nigger. Can you dig it?

“I’m gonna free you, brother. I’m taking over where I rightfully belong; you givin’ up all that phony psychology you didn’t learn.”

Finally, Richard cries out in agony.


Now the voice is gentle and reassuring.

“You becoming a man. You just born. But I’m afraid … you won’t be a nigger no more. But you won’t be ignorant, either. “The truth … is everlasting.”

Well, of course, it’s not every day a so-called comedian ends his act with a little ego death, and the audience seemed to appreciate the fact, giving Richard a long round of applause and shouting. As Pryor waved and left the stage, one of the few white members of the crowd loudly voiced his approval in a single word:



MOMMA shoots again in fear and excitement, knowing that RICHARD has been stabbed. The bullet is wild and hits RICHARD ripping open his back,

VOICES (o.s.)

MOMMA is screaming, BETTY hollering, LEROY saying, “Oh God.”
RICHARD — Close-up
RICHARD falls.

RICHARD (o.s.)
There’s a lot to remember when you’re dying, daddy.


The day after his opening night at the Soul Train, I went to interview Richard Pryor in his hotel room at the Hyatt Regency in San Francisco. It was a somewhat frustrating two hours; Richard was friendly and in good spirits, but his manner was shy, and he seemed particularly reluctant to discuss in detail certain parts of his personal history. At one point he said, “This seems dumb to me, you know?” Later he add