The biggest misconception about my father, Richard Pryor, is that he knew he was “big time.” Today, celebrities know where they stand. We have social media, which only emerged as my father’s health was declining. Which meant he didn’t have a visual gauge that told him whether he was hot or not. He was about his comedy, because it’s who he was. A comedian.
Once, when we were out, a veteran approached Daddy: “When I was in ‘Nam, it’s your comedy that got me through some ugly times. I want to thank you, sir.” Dad’s eyes welled up with tears. He turned to me and said, “I did that?”
Born in Peoria, Ill., in 1940, my father spent his early years doing stand-up at clubs and writing for TV shows. He found success appearing on shows like Ed Sullivan and Mike Douglas.
Then, one night in 1967, during a regular gig at the Aladdin Hotel in Las Vegas, he walked off stage mid-set, after he realized he was performing for mostly white tourists. His own words, to me, were that “most of the audience is white folks and I feel inauthentic.”
Daddy was fired after that night. It might have been the best thing that could have happened to his comedy.
After years of working for white men within the system, and performing for white audiences, he had had enough. He wanted to be true to himself, and his identity as a Black man. Most importantly, he wanted to be himself. He went to Berkeley, and was influenced by the Black Panthers as well as the growing counterculture and anti-war movements.
Richard Pryor was liberated. He was ready to rage against the machine.
His political and social transformation changed his comedy—and comedy itself—forever. By taking on topics like police brutality, racism, sexuality, slavery, and street culture, he brought an essential and honest truth to his comedy. My father was able to use comedy as a vehicle for others to see their own defects and vulnerabilities, and laugh together instead of being divided.
His life changed when he made a conscious decision to stick it to the man. He refused to stay shackled by white men in Hollywood—a decision that allowed him to become one of the richest Black men and to run his own production studio at Columbia.
My father decided to strip away what “they” wanted him to be, and became the Richard Pryor we know today. This was significant for him and freeing.
Despite all of this, Daddy never viewed himself as being a trailblazer. He saw himself as working to do what he knew and loved. He saw himself as breaking free (once again) from small town Peoria, and “The Man,” to do more of what he desired creatively. He never intended to make a prolific mark. That just happened because he was willing to take risks.
I have a profound sense of pride and admiration for his contribution as a Black man in America, who was able to rise above the odds and become a director, producer, and writer, with a studio office in the ’70s and ’80s. That he was a man able to face his demons and share his vulnerability at a time when Black men were still struggling to be seen as predominant in a white supremacist society.
Without Richard Pryor, there is no Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock, Kevin Hart, or Dave Chappelle.
He’s now rightly acknowledged as one of, if not the, best stand-up comedians of all time: He released multiple chart-topping and Grammy Award-winning albums and starred in hit movies.
But he didn’t do it for fame or awards. He saw comedy as a profession, and it was what he did for a living. He was a surgeon called to the operating room. He was a standup to his core, and never really saw himself in the same light as his fans saw him.
He was a Black man from Peoria who was lucky to have made it out, and become a success. Sure, he had platinum and gold albums on the walls, but it’s not like he admired them when he passed them in the hall. At home he was introspective, and spent time watching sports and discussing politics. On stage, he was electric and free, a Black man speaking his truth.
Pryor appears in Right to Offend, a two-part television series which honors the history of Black comedy produced by TIME Studios and airing on A&E on June 29 and 30 at 9 p.m. ET.
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