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.
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.
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.
“‘ARE YOU FUCKING HIM?'”
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.
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:
CUT TO RICHARD’S P.O.V.
SCREEN GOES BLACK FOR A SECOND
KITCHEN—MEDIUM LONG—RICHARD, MOMMA, LEROY
MOMMA shoots again in fear and excitement, knowing that RICHARD has been stabbed. The bullet is wild and hits RICHARD ripping open his back,
SCREEN GOES BLACK
MOMMA is screaming, BETTY hollering, LEROY saying, “Oh God.”
RICHARD — Close-up
FREEZE FRAME OF RICHARD’S FACE, ZOOM INTO HIS EYES.
There’s a lot to remember when you’re dying, daddy.
SCREEN GOES BLACK*
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 added, “I really don’t want to talk about none of my real stuff. I mean, I like to talk about my comedy, but I don’t want to talk about my people and my friends, okay?”
Well, no doubt the interview was dumb. For one thing, I was not well prepared for it; when I had checked out the library and various newspaper files, I found that virtually nothing had been written about Pryor during his career. That in itself seemed puzzling. Even now his manager, Ron De Blasio, emphasizes that he turns down nearly all requests for interviews with Richard, but he doesn’t exactly say why. It may be that Richard feels his comedy, in writing and onstage, reveals more than enough about his personal life. But my hunch that Saturday was that there were things in his past he simply found too painful to discuss.
Certainly his act reveals a great deal of his life, but I was not then prepared to take it that literally. I mean, here he was, the perfect host in his hotel room—clean, sober, barefoot, playful, charming and sensitive. Yes, a Good Scout, and yet the night before, his act, as funny and revealing as it was, included a number of hard-core references to sex and violence. I figured one had to leave something to Pryor’s imagination. Well, during the interview he was pretty open about the sex. (“If I ain’t horny, I check to see if my heart’s beatin’,” he told me later.) But it was some time before I learned about the violence.
Still, he did divulge a number of, well, clues that, considered with his material, indicated that the life of this comedian has not been exactly funny. Richard grew up in Peoria, Illinois, having been born there in 1940. “I was born in St. Francis Hospital—I was meant to be a Catholic, you know,” he recalled. “That was pretty hip to be born in St. Francis, ’cause not many niggers was born in a hospital, in Peoria. Most cats was born at home, in the kitchen. We were very affluent — had the largest whorehouse in the neighborhood.”
“Really?” I asked. “Your mother and father …?”
“My grandmother. She was the madam. We had three on one block—313, 317 and 324 North Washington. My grandmother was the rule, the power base, a very strong woman. Still is.”
Richard was pretty evasive about his parents, saying only that they “did the best they could” and that his mother, a Catholic, died five years ago and his father, a gentleman, a year later. “He died fucking a 22-year-old chick,” he said. “She was a junkie, he was helping her get off dope.” Here Richard, as he often does when he’s fooling around, put on a stuffy British accent. “Not a bad way to go, ac-tu-al-ly.”
I wondered what it was like growing up in a whorehouse. Didn’t he see a lot more than the other kids on the block?
“Yeah … I could just see … like Nixon and them cats, when I was little, I knew they was full of shit; they had a facade outside, you know what I mean? I knew where they was comin’ from, so I had an advantage in that sense.”
“Were you looked down on?”
“A lot of niggers looked down on us. But, also, when it came time for an election, all the political people would come to the whorehouse to try to win votes, to tell all the whores that there wouldn’t be no busts and shit like that.”
Yet it wasn’t long before Richard received his first of many lessons in the untouchable qualities of a bad rep.
“I went to Catholic school for about three weeks, and then somebody said that my mother worked in a whorehouse, you know, so I got kicked out of school. It was a drag, ’cause that was the only school I was gettin’ good grades in. They were very polite.” Again, Richard turned British. “‘It’s not enough that he’s a nigger, but you see ….'”
Typically he would relate such tales of injustice without noticeable regret. “Wasn’t no big thing—’Well fuck them,’ that’s all you could say.” But later, when Richard gave me a copy of his screenplay, This Can’t Be Happening to Me, I got an idea of how strongly they remained in his memory. The play, which he wrote in Berkeley around 1970 following his mother’s death, is a surreal but extremely autobiographical comedy about a teenager named Richard who gets shot accidentally by his grandmother in a whorehouse fight and sees his absurd life flash-backing before him. While it’s impossible to separate the fantasy from the history, the play does, perhaps, reveal the intensity of some of Richard’s past suffering and certainly his ability to convert that suffering to theater. This excerpt, for example:
INT. ROOM IN WHOREHOUSE
RICHARD, HIS MOTHER, TRICK
This is an hallucination of Richard as he is dying. He goes to see his mother, who is a prostitute, in her room while she is turning a trick. A white dude is on top of her.
MOTHER AND TRICK — ANGLE FROM CORNER OF ROOM — HIGH
Why is it happening to me?
Life is like that, Richard. That’s the way life goes. Sometimes things just go down that way.
The TRICK is fucking her, and asking:
Is it really good?
Oh honey, there ain’t a white man in the world can fuck as good as you.
MOTHER indicates by her voice and face that she means just the opposite. She turns her head to RICHARD and continues talking to him.
OUTSIDE DOOR TO ROOM—RICHARD’S FATHER
RICHARD’S FATHER is watching through the keyhole. As RICHARD opens the door to leave, he sees his father.
EXT.—PRIEST’S OFFICE—PRIEST AND RICHARD—DAY
RICHARD has gone to talk to the PRIEST, since his mother is Catholic. He wants to ask why he was kicked out of school, just because his mother is part of a whorehouse. The PRIEST is very pious, and there are doves sitting all over his body while he listens to RICHARD. While the PRIEST talks to RICHARD, the doves shit constantly, all over the PRIEST. When RICHARD leaves, the PRIEST is covered with dove shit, but is still very pious about it all, even while spitting dove shit from his mouth, which has dripped from the doves sitting on his head.
Can I help you, son?
Why is this happening to me?
PRIEST’S OFFICE—PRIEST—CLOSE UP—PRIEST, DRAWING BACK TO MEDIUM
As the camera draws back, we see the PRIEST is in the process of jacking off, into a vat marked “Holy water.” RICHARD leaves the PRIEST’s office, and walks into the cathedral, which is very large.
INT. CATHEDRAL—RICHARD—LONG SHOT
RICHARD decides to pray, since he doesn’t want to die, and he kneels down to pray. He hears a voice:
Psst ……. Psst.
RICHARD looks around to see who is trying to get his attention.
That ain’t gonna help you. Praying ain’t gonna help.
RICHARD looks up and sees JESUS on the crucifix, whispering to him.
Help me get off and I’ll show you how to get out of here. Just get me off this cross, so I can get to the graveyard.
I’ve been hanging around here 2000 years, and they ain’t buried me yet, and I’m tired.
RICHARD pulls the spikes out of Jesus’s hands and feet, and helps him down. They talk for a little while.
Man, I can’t wear this shit out there, but I’d rather be out of here like this than hang around anymore. Just get me out to the streets.
It’s no problem, man, just come with me.
INT. CATHEDRAL—FRONT DOOR—RICHARD AND JESUS
As they are about to leave, all kinds of sirens and bells go off, like it was a prison break. Monks come out from everywhere and jump JESUS and RICHARD, and they fight back. It looks for a while like they might win, but eventually they are overpowered by the monks. They put JESUS back on the cross; he’s screaming, but they nail him to the cross again. They toss RICHARD out into the street.
MONK (to Richard)
Who’s going to believe you, nigger?
RICHARD (to himself)
Somebody will believe me.*
Pryor’s creative talents were first inspired by his early years in public school—inspired mainly by the boredom. He spent most of his school hours clowning around, jerking off and avoiding class altogether. I asked Richard if there was anything he liked about school.
“I liked wondering how the teachers—what kind of fuck they’d be,” he said. “I’d jack off in class; me and Andy used to have jack-off contests. I was jackin’ off once in art class, man, and everybody had a fucking desk with a front on but me. And I didn’t know that. I said, ‘Ain’t this a bitch?’ and here I’d thought I was slick.”
While he was in high school, Richard started performing after hours at a public recreation facility nearby called Carver Community Center, a place, he said, “to keep gang fights from happening.” There a supervisor named Juliette Whittaker encouraged him to do impressions and put together skits for various amateur talent shows at the Center. That was as formal as any training he ever received.
“It’s like, niggers train in a different way,” said Richard. “Like, they don’t have no theater groups, but niggers train on the corner, you know what I mean? Like when you hang out bullshittin’, and singin’ and shit? I mean, them cats trainin’ for when they get their groups together.
“We used to have good sessions sometimes. I remember once I came up with a beaut, man, I killed them one day. We was doin’ it all day to each other, you know? Bang bang—’Your shoes are run over so much, look like your ankles is broke,’ and shit like that. And I came up with, I called the motherfucker ‘The Rummage Sale Ranger,’ you know what I mean? ’cause that’s where he got his clothes. ‘The Rummage Sale Ranger’—that was a knockout, I saved that one for the last, that ended it.”
After Richard was kicked out of high school at the age of 14, for striking a science teacher named Mr. Think, he went to work “shaking hides” in a packing house. The thought of performing, being funny for money, never occurred to him at the time. “For a career, I always thought I was gonna end up at a Caterpillar tractor company with some steel-soled shoes,” he recalled. “You know, I was fickle. When I was in the Army, I got assigned to a missile base, and I wanted to learn about missiles. I was open-minded.”
Richard’s military career took place in the late Fifties, after he volunteered for the draft and was stationed in Kaiserslautern, Germany. There his heroic action included hitting a guy in the head with a pipe (“Really?” I asked. “An enemy or one of ours?” “No, a white cat,” he said. “One of yours.”), stabbing another dude seven times, and learning the proper procedure in the care and cleaning of a woman.
“I gave some head for the first time in my life when I was in Germany,” he remembered, his voice trailing off in reverie. “That was an experience. I’ll never forget how it felt on my head, her pussy… her heirs and all… I knew I would be doing it again.”
Pryor also appeared in several amateur variety shows for the Army, and when he returned stateside in 1960, he decided against a rewarding career in the construction industry and instead got his first job performing for money. It was at a low-rent place called Harold’s Club in Peoria. He told the owner, Harold Parker, he could play the piano and sing, which, of course, was jive since he knew about four chords and as many songs. But the comedy routines he did between songs went over well.
“It wasn’t that honed, but, you know, it was funny,” said Richard. “I’m a funny motherfucker; I was always funny. I enjoyed the stage, had command; I’ve never been afraid once I was out there.”
One routine was a take-off on Person To Person, a popular television show of the time in which Edward R. Murrow would visit celebrities in their elegant homes. Except Richard had him visit a poor black family in Mississippi.
Richard speaks softly, with long pauses of great dignity.
“Well, Mr. Murrow, this is my table. There my chair. ‘Course you seen the wallpaper.
“That’s my table. And chair.
“That wallpaper is newspaper, you know. We put that up there.
“You know, Mr. Murrow, this is a wonderful table. And this chair, my son made this chair. Here my boy now, he goin’ to college. Come on in here, boy.”
“Uh, good evening, Mr. Murrow, how are you?”
“Boy, we’re on television.”
The son’s voice and eyes light up like Stepin Fetchit’s.
“Hi, Mistuh Murrow!”
Also in 1960 Richard performed for the first time as a husband. Ultimately it didn’t work out, and he was married again in 1964 and again in 1967. All three marriages have ended in divorce, and he is currently unattached. (Other statistics include four children, aged 4 to 17, one of them born “out of wedlock,” as white folks like to put it.)
Buoyed by his success at Harold’s Club, Pryor soon moved on to the big time—a $70-a-week gig at Collins Corner down the street. For the first time he was starting to think seriously about an entertainment career… well perhaps not too seriously, considering where he is today.
“I came up in an area where there wasn’t ever gonna be no niggers on television, you know what I’m sayin’? Just working nightclubs, blackbelt nightclubs, and maybe someday MCing a rock and roll show.”
For four years he played such clubs. After Collins Corner, Richard split from his wife and went on the road, working at small nightspots around the eastern part of the country, sometimes making as much as $125 a week, meeting more and more people in the business.
“Let’s see, I worked at the Faust Club in East St. Louis, and some places in Canada, and Buffalo—the Shalimar, and in Youngstown, Ohio, what’d they call it?—the Zanzibar… Arabs owned it, I had to pull a blank pistol on the cat to get my money. And where else? Pittsburgh, a couple of places. Usually you’d be the MC for like four weeks, then they’d change.”
Occasionally his Army experience, the one with the woman, came in handy. “Like you’d suck a firedancer’s pussy in the dressing room, and in her next job she’d try to get you as the MC.” Richard laughed. “Shit, if I hadn’t been able to give head, probably still be in St. Louis, at the Faust Club.”
But in 1963 he was suddenly inspired to head for New York. “I opened Newsweek and read about Bill Cosby,” he said. “That fucked me up. I said, ‘Goddamn it, this nigger’s doin’ what I’m fixin’ to do. I want to be the only nigger, ain’t no room for two niggers.'”
After a month in New York, Richard began appearing regularly at the Cafe Wha? in the Village. Usually he would be the opening act for Superman Victor Brady and his Trinidadian steel band, but other artists and comics saw him there and liked what he did.
“Richie Havens was working there, Exuma, Bob Dylan. I didn’t make the Village scene, though, I never went to Figaro’s. I don’t know, I had the feeling people were very snobbish to me in the Village—I don’t know why.”
He also appeared periodically at Poppa Hud’s, the Improvisation, and various Borscht Belt clubs in the Catskills. “I knew I was good,” said Richard, “especially when we did improvs. I was very good at improvs.”
“Well, why didn’t you do improvs as your whole act?” I asked.
“I didn’t know about it, didn’t have no guts.”
Instead, he used mostly prepared material that was highly imitative of his arch rival, Cosby. “I wouldn’t admit it, though; but, you know, like Cosby did ‘Noah’—I did ‘Adam and Eve,’ you know what I mean? And like, a comic was set in people’s mind, what a comic was. He was a guy who came out and made you laugh. I mean it was that simple.”
In 1966 Pryor started to make it nationally. He auditioned for a summer replacement TV show called On Broadway Tonight, hosted by Rudy Vallee, and appeared on it twice. Then on Ed Sullivan. In due time he did a number of spots on Merv Griffin and Johnny Carson. Spurred by this exposure and a recording he happened to hear by Lenny Bruce, Pryor began charting his own creative course, salting his act with wilder, more individual statements. Which caused him problems on two fronts: The critics said he was still too much like Cosby; television executives said he was too much like himself.
“I went to Roy Silver’s office,” recalled Richard. “Roy Silver used to manage Bill Cosby, and there was this cat, [the late writer/comedian] Murray Roman. Murray Roman gave me this speech: ‘The kind of colored guy we’d like to have over to our house, it’s more Bill Cosby. Now, I’d introduce Bill to my mother, but a guy like you…’ you know, and I’m buying this shit. ‘Don’t mention the fact that you’re a nigger. Don’t go into such bad taste.’ They were gonna try to help me be nothin’ as best they could.”
“What happened after that?”
“I made four or five hundred thousand dollars being like they said—then went crazy one day.”
Richard was referring, of course, to the Las Vegas incident, the time he cracked up onstage. He claims it was his professional life that was getting him down—his material, the pressures on him to keep it as clean and anonymous as casino money, and the realization that ultimately he would never be successful, that as a Cosby imitator he would always be the opening act for someone else:
“Shit, the life I was leading, it wasn’t me. I was a robot. ‘Beep. Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Sands Hotel. Maids here are funny. Beep.’ You know, the casino, the gambling routine, the finish. I didn’t feel good. I didn’t feel I could tell anybody to kiss my ass, ’cause I didn’t have no ass, you dig? My ass was on my face.”
Certainly his professional life may have been the root cause of his problems; but his personal life was also on a disastrous course. From 1967 through at least 1970, he underwent what might be called his Super Nigger period, a time when, perhaps, financial success went to his head, or more specifically, to his nose. Richard admitted that he was then heavily into cocaine—”Aw man, like I bought Peru, you know?”—and booze; and that in general he “wasn’t taking care of business.”
But more details recently were made public when Pryor was indicted for failing to file his federal income tax during those four years, in which he earned a total of $250,000. After plea bargaining, he pleaded guilty to one of four counts—1967—and on May 13th was fined $2500 and sentenced to ten days in jail, beginning June 4th.
Actually the sentence was light; Pryor could have been fined $10,000 and sentenced to a year. The judge apparently agreed with Richard’s attorney that “the rehabilitation process was already taking place.” After “a syndrome of irresponsibility,” said the attorney, the defendant’s career is on the rise, he is a contribution to the community, and he has paid off his past debts—including his taxes, child support, alimony, and a number of lawsuits which the defendant “let go by default.”
Later I phoned federal probation officer Marcus Woodard, who elaborated on Pryor’s syndrome of irresponsibility. According to Woodard, the comedian’s first legal hassle was in April 1967, when he was busted at the San Diego border for bringing in less than an ounce of marijuana. He was convicted of possession and placed on probation.
In July of that year he dusted off a desk clerk at the Sunset Tower motel in Hollywood, smashing him in the face and breaking his glasses. Richard was convicted of assault, fined $300 and placed on probation. (He had been previously convicted of assault and battery in Pittsburgh in 1963, after striking a nightclub singer on her face and body. He was placed on probation.) The desk clerk later sued and won damages in excess of $75,000, which Pryor never contested.
Another uncontested lawsuit was filed by an ex-wife who won $1000 a month in alimony and $1800 in medical expenses, incurred after Pryor beat her up.
Woodard, after emphasizing that “personally, I have nothing but admiration for Richard Pryor the entertainer,” said the following:
“In discussing the matter with me, he told me that during those years he did not take care of his tax obligations, that he was involved, rather heavily involved, in alcohol and narcotics. He said that he just simply wasn’t taking care of business, period. He said about the only person who got taken care of by him was his dope man.” (A writer who interviewed him three years ago for Ebony magazine recalled that Richard was so coked-up at the time, he was unintelligible; the tapes had to be thrown away. He said Richard was then snorting up $100 to $200 a day.)
Pryor now says he has sworn off drugs, and certainly, in the eight times I met with him—at home, backstage with fans and friends, at restaurants, during photo sessions—he seemed the perfect Mormon, consuming no mind-altering chemicals and refusing all offers. After the income tax sentencing, I asked him why he’d let things slip, why he hadn’t paid his taxes.
“I didn’t think about it,” he said. “I’d changed my mind about what I wanted to do. I was involved in leading a new life and that old shit didn’t matter.”
CUT TO RICHARD—LYING IN THE MORTUARY
FADE INTO PREACHER’S MOUTH—INTERIOR CHURCH
This is RICHARD’S funeral. The Preacher is preaching, and we hear (but do not see) the music being sung by a choir, with the mourners “Amen”-ing.
CAMERA DRAWS BACK FROM PREACHER
We see that the PREACHER is clean, with diamond rings and all, and that there is no one else in the church, except Richard, who is sitting there, naked. Richard gets up, and walks into a furnace and is cremated.
INT.—WAKE AT SOMEONE’S PAD—PREACHER—CLOSE
The PREACHER takes RICHARD’s ashes and mixes them into a large pot containing about ten pounds of cocaine. He gets it all over his hands.
CAMERA DRAWS BACK—PREACHER AND OTHERS AT WAKE
The pad is full of RICHARD’s friends: pimps, whores, dudes; and they’re all snorting the coke the PREACHER just cut with RICHARD’s ashes. They begin to reminisce about what kind of a dude RICHARD was.
EXT. THROUGH WINDOW—RICHARD’S P.O.V.—RICHARD
RICHARD is standing outside the window, digging the wake. He is wearing his Super Nigger suit. He turns away from the window and walks away. He pauses and turns toward the camera.
RICHARD— CLOSE UP
Cocaine is visible on his nostrils and upper lip.
Everybody knows Super Niggers can’t fly.
Richard’s Super Nigger suit has no ass in it as he walks away from the camera. The departing shot is of Richard walking off into the darkness with his ass hanging out of the suit.*
In his room on the 14th floor of the Hyatt Regency, Richard Pryor propped his bare feet on top of a table of leftover afternoon breakfast dishes and discussed the new life he began in 1969.
“That was hard, coming back, you know? ‘Cause the same audience would come to see me and get shocked — when I just decided hey, man, this is where I’m gonna be. And the clubs started falling off.” The first one, said Richard, was Mr. Kelly’s in Chicago, then owned by the late George Marienthal. “I saw what it was gonna be like when Marienthal called me up on the phone two weeks before I was comin’ in the club and said, ‘Now Richard, we don’t want that shit on our stage!’ I said, ‘Mr. Marienthal, this is what I do now.’ ‘You know we don’t want that shit, now!’ I said, ‘Well look, man, I won’t even come, rather than cause a lot of trouble, ’cause I like you and I don’t want to go up against that.'”
The only club that would book Pryor at the price he had been getting was the Cellar Door in Washington D.C., so he was forced to find work in smaller, cheaper establishments. That was the cost of his new freedom, but he was more than willing to pay it. For the first time in many years, he was happy with himself. “‘Cause I started meeting real beautiful people—ugly in features — but beautiful. At the Village Gate I met an old black woman; I knew that bitch was ugly in other circumstances, but the fact that she’d never been backstage before in all the time I’d ever worked, I knew, hey, I’m doin’ it right, now.”
In 1970 Richard moved to Berkeley, where he holed up for two years, keeping pretty much to himself except when performing. “That was the most exciting time,” he remembered, “’cause I got an apartment, $110 a month, and it was mine; and every fucking piece of furniture in there was mine; I bought it. I didn’t have nobody in that house I didn’t like, you know what I mean? Didn’t no motherfucker come near I didn’t want there.”
He also had sole possession, of course, of mounting tax debts and a still-healthy coke habit, but professionally he was taking care of business. He performed in clubs, made a second live album, “Craps” After Hours (terribly recorded, but a good example of his material then), wrote scripts and acted in films—the most public medium he was least likely to be censored in. Eventually Richard’s interest in acting made him dissatisfied with his act, and he again quit the stage, moving to Hollywood and devoting the next two years exclusively to films and writing.
Not until this year did Pryor, influenced, no doubt, by his film experience and a desire to apply it to an even deeper, more personal comedy, become excited enough about his act to return to the stage.
“I want to drop things—try to develop new shit,” he explained, “things like I did last night, when I get that spark, like that piece about breaking up with your old lady. I’d been thinkin’ about it, you know, and I said now I know it’ll work, so I’ll just develop that into a strong piece, and that’ll take the place of something else. I want to get a lot of those.
“I’d been thinkin’ about it ’cause I felt so funny when she left me, and I laughed so much when we were back together, when I was telling her how I felt. ‘Cause it was an experience. All the things I talk about is experience, of somebody’s or mine, or some story somebody told, or something in the papers and the news. What people really be thinking and don’t say, you know—that’s what I usually try to do; and then they laugh, ’cause they say, ‘Yeah, I think that.’ Like last night, when I did that thing about the kidnappers, a cat came backstage and said, ‘Yeah, man, all them motherfuckers was thinking that, that’s what I’m thinking.'”
Richard seemed confident about his art and his future. “I don’t want people be able to take me for granted and feel safe, ’cause they’re gonna have to deal with me, ’cause I’m gonna say some shit maybe make them think, too. ‘Ah he tricked us, I thought he wouldn’t hurt us.’
“I feel strong about it. I feel good, inside and outside. I fly now, on the plane, I’m not afraid to fly anymore.”
“You used to be afraid of flying?”
“To death. Had a lot to do with taking off of the ground, being in the air, with some guy who didn’t get laid last night. I called my uncle once, told him I was afraid to fly. He said, ‘Man, you better get tight with J. C., baby.’
“But, you know, I just feel strong. I just want to take it as far as it’ll go, I want to turn into pure energy one day on-stage.”
Pryor started talking with some friends who had come to visit him at the hotel. One of them was Cecil Brown, a young playwright and author of the novel The Life and Loves of Mr. Jiveass Nigger. At one point Brown spotted a copy of that morning’s San Francisco Chronicle and examined the front page, which pictured police sketches of two black men and a white woman suspected of kidnapping Patricia Hearst.
“Hey, Richard, look here,” said Brown. “These dudes look like everybody in Berkeley. Everybody in Berkeley knows at least one of these guys, and they know a chick that looks like her that’s been raped by him.” Richard and Cecil cracked up at the thought of it.
A few minutes later, Richard switched on a radio to catch the afternoon news. And though the news was rather sad, well, he just had to laugh. A 20-year-old man was in custody for the brutal slaying of three persons inside an Oakland funeral home. San Francisco mayor, Joseph Alioto, his wife just returned after disappearing for 15 days to “punish” him for neglecting her, urged fellow Democrats to embark on a campaign to gain more opportunities for women.
With each item Pryor sat back and chuckled in disbelief. Then this news came over the air:
“Berkeley police today reported they have been swamped with hundreds of phone calls from Berkeley residents claiming to identify FBI composites of three suspects in the kidnapping of newspaper heiress Patricia Hearst….”
Richard looked at Cecil and they both lost control, laughing wildly and—slap, slap—giving each other five. Richard had said he got some of his material from the news, and I wondered if this last bit would soon become part of his act. Sooner than I expected, it turned out, when I caught him again at the Soul Train the following night:
“San Francisco — some crazy motherfuckers up here,” he remarked from the stage. “Did they let the woman go yet, the dudes in the Symbionese Army? Some bad niggers. The shit in the paper—them niggers look like everybody. A nigger read the paper, be talkin’ about, ‘That nigger look like, uh … uh … shit, that look like me! I did it.'”
Not that Pryor draws from the news that much, but when he does, it’s often the most spontaneous part of his act, an act that is extremely free-form to begin with. His ability to improvise, to adapt his act to a particular audience or circumstance, is remarkable. Later that night he was heckled during one of his wino bits, and Richard simply worked the heckler into the routine:
Between long, thirsty hits from his jug, the wino shouts with profound authority, cocking his defiant head forward with each outrageous fact. The wino, as Richard explains, knows everything.
“I know peoples. I was the first colored man in the FBI. That’s right, 1907. J. Edgar Hoover appointed me pos-thu-mously. Needed somebody on the railroad to watch the Mesicans. That’s right, people couldn’t speak Mesican talk, but I did; I walk up to ’em and say, ‘Watcha say, motherfucker?’ They tell me.”
The heckler starts yelling in the audience, and the wino turns and addresses him contemptuously.
“What you want, nigger? You just hollerin’ and actin’ all ignorant, you black motherfucker!”
Members of the audience scream and applaud, and the wino introduces the heckler to them.
“That’s a bad nigger, though. Whupped five polices. That’s right, took their badge and their pistol downtown. Shoulda took some friends, ’cause they beat the shit out of him when he got down there.
“I fought Jack Johnson 17 rounds, you know. That’s right….”
The heckler interrupts again; the wino turns back to him.
“Nigger, I understand. There’s definitely a problem in your heart. See, you’re fuckin’ with entertainment, now.”
More applause, people yelling “woo!” and “right on!” Then Richard talks to the man in his normal voice.
“No, I know, man, I used to be like that. You know, just want to express yourself. What is it, man? Go ahead. What is it you wanted to say?”
The man’s bluff is called, and he retreats, saying, “No, keep on brother.” But Richard won’t let him off that easily.
“No, man, you got to speak, now. You don’t say somethin’, we gonna kick yo’ ass! Notice I threw a ‘we’ in there. That’s all right, man, are you enjoying the show, though? All right, can we enjoy it?”
Finally, the wino returns, picking up exactly where he left off.
“I’m a vet’ran, I was in World War I. The Battle of the Chateaubriand….”
When the routine was over, Richard told the group, “You all been a beautiful audience. I know a lot of you all want to express yourself, but it’s very hard when a nigger’s in the middle of his shit, and the nigger say, ‘Hey, man, ’bout your momma!’ But I held in there, you gotta admit, nigger, I held in there.”
The audience applauded him warmly. Then Richard remarked to the heckler, “I used to be crazy, man. You gettin’ better, now, ’cause you’re speaking in public. Couple of years, you’ll be fine.”
“His problem is he has many choices, he’s rich in choices, and so that inhibits him. Dumber people don’t have many choices, so they pursue their goals more easily than Richard does. In order to be free and rich and as emotionally abandoned as Richard is, you have to give up certain safeguards; you risk banana-land, and he risks it every day. He gives himself to each moment in life, totally, without a governor, without a superego clocking every moment. The one thing that Richard is devoid of is vanity — he is the least vain man I know.”
Well, those are certainly some nice things for Mel Brooks to say about Richard Pryor. Still, Brooks seemed at times to be praising with faint damns; his choice of words occasionally raised bothersome questions.
“He hasn’t even scored heavily yet,” he said. “It’s like he’s a terrific athlete, and he’s been up to the majors and back to the minors. We know that once he settles down and he shakes off a couple of, you know, anxious, uh, emotional traits, he’s just gonna be one of the great ballplayers of all time.”
Anxious emotional traits? We’d heard this rumor—that Richard Pryor had at one time been considered for the lead role in Blazing Saddles, Brooks’s last film, but that he blew it while working as a writer on that film by indulging excessively in coke and booze. (The role — a slick, Gucci-tailored black sheriff in a town of shabby white bigots —went to Cleavon Little.)
Brooks emphatically denied that this was the case. “I heard of that reputation.” he said of Pryor’s past drug history, “and it proved to be wrong when I was working with him. He was always in and working on our job, and there was no audience waiting to love him — it was just fucking hard work, you know, and he was there. So I’d say from my experience that he’s sensationally dependable, and I think that if it was worth it — like a movie — I promise you he would have been there every morning at 6 AM, and he would have worked until 10 at night, faithfully, six days a week, until that movie was over. He’d never goof off on something that important to him.”
However, Brooks also denied that Pryor had ever been seriously considered for the part, “That’s a studio choice. Very simply, they’re afraid to go with an unknown, unknown as far as they are concerned, vis-a-vis dollars and the public. I knew there was no chance of ever getting Richie Pryor.”
Yet Pryor, somewhat bitter that he didn’t get the role, had told me that Brooks had wanted him to have it. Brooks started hedging. “Oh yeah, when we were writing it,” he said, “before I even, you know, thought of anybody. When we were writing it, it was so natural; I mean he was just acting out so many things so beautifully. But it was just simply out of the question. They weren’t gonna risk all that money on an unknown. And ten minutes later they were proved incorrect, because he did Lady Sings the Blues while we were filming the other one. Had Lady Sings the Blues come out much earlier, yes, I think he would have had a chance to gain their attention.”
But now, as I talked with Brooks, Lady Sings the Blues had been out for a year and a half. Pryor had acted in two more films, had appeared on and helped write Lily Tomlin’s two TV specials (the second special recently won two Emmys, one of them for its writers), had performed on the Flip Wilson show and various other TV one-shots, had given up drugs and was currently in the middle of a strenuous and what seemed to be highly successful road tour. So what “anxious emotional traits” was Brooks referring to? What is there about Pryor’s reputation today that still may be causing him trouble? Why is this innovator, this “genius,” still unknown by so many, particularly by whites?
One could argue that a kind of conspiracy exists, however impersonal, against Pryor and all black artists—namely television and its narrow band of tight-assed executives and advertisers who, for reasons I do not fully understand, continue to foist a white-washed and ultimately bogus picture of reality upon the public. Pryor does not handle television well. “The things that I have to do in order to be on just destroy me too much,” he says. “It’s really weird, like they make me feel like thanking them for letting me degrade myself. So I try not to do it. And it’s hard to tell Ron [De Blasio], ’cause Ron, in his mind, he sees other shit, he’s lookin’ at them bucks or something. I say, ‘But Ron, this ain’t right for me, this ain’t gonna work, there’s no looseness,’ you know?”
There are times, of course, when Richard has performed brilliantly on TV. He himself feels one of the best things he ever did was on Lily Tomlin’s second special, when he played a junkie in a soul food cafe. Yet there are times when he has refused to perform at all — as the cameras were set to roll. On that same special, Richard walked off the set during the taping of a dialog between two kids—Lily’s Edith Ann and Richard’s Billy. Lily followed Richard to the dressing room and urged him to continue, but he told her, “I can’t do no more.” The piece was scrapped.
“I felt ridiculous,” Pryor recalled. “My kid couldn’t get into it. He said, ‘I have titties bigger than your titties … boys have titties — first, boys have titties … then girls. …’ And they said, ‘No, we can’t have that.’ So I can’t go onstage and it be in my mind that this kid can’t say something, ’cause the kid is wrecked, as a kid. I mean, I was ready to cry as a kid, ’cause I was the kid, you dig?
“That’s the way I see kids; I just get fascinated talking to ’em, ’cause it’ll be honestly sweet, and whatever they say is innocent. And if they say ‘tittie,’ you can’t tell a kid you can’t say ‘tittie.’ They deal with real shit.”
There are times, even, when Richard has rebelled against the censorship through outright sabotage. Like recently when they were taping a tribute to Redd Foxx on ABC. Pryor was MCing the show and apparently not too happy about it. According to a writer who was there, “He would say ‘fuck’ and ‘shit,’ you know, and they’d have to cut it and say, ‘All right, let’s tape it again for the benefit of Mr. Pryor.’ And then he would deliberately repeat these four-letter words, even louder and clearer. Now, why does he do that, why does he have to pull that sort of thing?”
No doubt that question is a common one asked by television executives who would regard Pryor as a temperamental troublemaker and a bad risk. And no doubt his unruly nature is, in the most immediate sense, self-destructive; it can only impair Pryor’s access to television and a potentially much wider (and whiter) audience.
But there are other questions that should be asked. What was the Las Vegas decision all about? Why should Pryor be expected to retreat from a commitment for which he has already suffered so much, a commitment to realism and honesty as a form of comedy and comedy as a form of theater? Why should he yield to a pack of humorless, racist lizards who systematically force blacks to act white just to get on TV?
Do the networks, the advertisers, know whom they are protecting? It’s hard to believe that in these times there still are people genuinely offended by certain words, who genuinely feel that language by itself can be harmful; if they do exist, they certainly are a small, perverted minority—not the sort of people you’d want to have over to your house or marry your daughter. Yet the television industry has given these religious fanatics complete control over the language. There isn’t a celebrity on television, from Dan Rather to Wolfman Jack, who’s not forced to talk like these nuts — these queers! — who’s not forced daily to perform unnatural acts, simply to be allowed to “communicate.”
A few months back, Richard hosted The Midnight Special, presumably at an hour when most fundamentalists and other children are asleep. Richard appeared nervous, and you could see why; he was constantly having to censor himself. He did one bit that he often performs onstage, about a broken-down, weekend drunk who gets beaten up in a bar, vomits on himself, cries all the way home, yells at his woman, defiantly vows to her, “I’m gonna fuck you tonight, baby,” then falls into a blind, snoring stupor. Of course, on television the line became “I’m gonna make love to you tonight, baby” — completely out of character for the situation. It was ludicrous and sad to watch.
Well, what is Pryor supposed to do under the circumstances? How can he maintain his artistic integrity and yet submit to an industry that makes its most original craftsmen check their tools at the door? Richard has not fully resolved that question, and I learned one afternoon, while we were having coffee at a Copper Penny in Hollywood, how deeply it troubles him.
We were discussing Blazing Saddles and his disappointment at not getting the lead. I mentioned the rumor about his coke habit and another report about his failing to show up last year for a scheduled seminar on comedy at the Sherwood Oaks Experimental College in Hollywood. Richard shrugged and said nothing.
“What, you don’t want to talk about that?” I asked.
“No, man,” he said sourly, “I don’t want to talk about it.”
I explained I was bringing the matter up because there was this riddle I couldn’t understand. Here he was, one of the most innovative comedians around, and he obviously knew it. I mentioned that during our interview he had indirectly compared himself to Miles Davis, that he had said, “I think I’ve had a lot of influence on the scene. I see a lot of comics working different, in dealing with themselves. After a comic comes and sees me, I don’t think he could do anything less. It’s like a young trumpet player go watch Miles, you know, and he either goes to drums or he practices.” And yet, for some reason, Richard wasn’t getting the full recognition he deserved.
For several moments Richard was silent, his face silhouetted by the harsh, late afternoon sun streaming in through the coffee shop window. Finally he leaned forward over the table, his forehead furrowed all crazy, and said haltingly, “Frustration … is the worst thing, you know?” He lowered his head, studying the table, his mouth open and grasping for words. When he looked up, his eyes were filled with tears.
“Sometimes …” Richard’s voice broke off, and now the tears began to flow like rivers down both sides of his nose. “… it seems there just ain’t no way. …” But the words stopped coming. He wiped his eyes slowly with a paper napkin, held the napkin out in front of him, looked at it and for some reason let out a quick, hysterical laugh. Then he lowered his head again and continued crying, silently, for another minute.
It may be that Richard Pryor, in his ability to laugh at a paper napkin stained with tears, has discovered a secret to survival in these jive times. So far he seems to be surviving well, but his problems could continue for some while. And, because of the bold artistic route he has chosen, they are problems he must handle pretty much alone.
Just before Richard was to enter prison, probation officer Marcus Woodard said this about him:
“Interestingly, he told me he visits his grandmother in Peoria, Illinois, occasionally. I asked him if, when he goes back, the town sort of throws the welcome mat out for him since he is a success. He told me that there is no such treatment for him, that many of the people that he knew, that he grew up with, are no longer living. Either they have been killed by police during the commission of crimes, or some of them have overdosed and are no longer living.
“He seems to feel that the people back there who are living, that he grew up with, just don’t care for him, that they’re a little offended by the fact that he got away from there and made a success.”