The darkness behind the comic genius Richard Pryor

Pryor was much more than the intelligent, animative artist we remember him as, the comic genius had another side to him; a side riddled with darkness, angst, and pain


                            The darkness behind the comic genius Richard Pryor

"I am angry. I am angry because I am talented and I'll never get the recognition for what I do in the industry," one of the greatest and most influential stand-up comedians of all time, Richard Pryor, said during an interview in 1979. This was the first time a black comedian had highlighted the rampant racism in Hollywood and despite evident social obstacles, made it big.

Pryor opened a window for his audiences to get a peek into the insides of a less economically affluent black community — he relayed the dark truth and did it with humor. The acclaimed comedian played a powerful role in influencing the "woke" comedy we see today during prime-time late night comedy shows — of telling the facts as they are at a time when only "white bread" comedy was fit for television. Pryor took everything dark and made it light.

Pryor, however, was much more than the intelligent, animative artist we remember him as, the comic genius had another side to him; a side riddled with darkness, angst, and pain. The comic who grappled with drug addiction, alcoholism, and three failed marriages, always struggled to come to terms with his disquieting past.

Comic Richard Prior during one of his stand-up acts in the 1960s. (Source: I am Richard Pryor)
Comic Richard Prior during one of his stand-up acts in the 1960s. (Source: I am Richard Pryor)

Richard Franklin Lennox Thomas Pryor was born in Peoria, Illinois — arguably the most unchecked sin city in America at the time — and grew up in a set of brothels run by his grandmother Marie Carter. His mother Gertrude L. was a prostitute and his father was a hustler. He was sexually abused at the age of seven, routinely saw his mother have sex with strange men for money, and was forced to choose between his mother and grandmother during a troubling custody battle. He eventually chose his daunting grandmother. Richard Pryor was acutely ashamed of his past.

Pryor, who saw Bill Cosby from a straight-laced family make a mark in American television, could not risk revealing his past in public. The audience at the time was only comfortable with black artists with a good, happy family. There was definitely no space in 70s television for an African American bred in brothels. This is when he began introducing fabrications in his stand-up act, however, there was always an element of truth in it, albeit distorted.

American comic actor Gene Wilder, originally Jerry Silkman stars with nightclub comedian Richard Pryor in the action comedy 'Silver Streak'. Directed by Arthur Hiller, the film was chosen for the 31st Royal Film Festival. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
American comic actor Gene Wilder, originally Jerry Silkman stars with nightclub comedian Richard Pryor in the action comedy 'Silver Streak'. Directed by Arthur Hiller, the film was chosen for the 31st Royal Film Festival. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

"I was a kid till I was eight, then I became a n***o," Pryor said during one of his shows, eliciting raucous laughter from the audience. He suppressed his past but highlighted his brushes with racism. He consistently used the word "n****r" in his acts, however, made it clear, the way the word was used by the black community, was very different from its usage by others.

Pryor, during the 1960s, paved way for informative humor and witnessed his rise as a black comic. He gradually moved away from the quintessential "white bread" humor and relayed the stark reality of the world to his audience. However, Pryor at this point was living a dual life. While he was working with the likes of Ed Sullivan and others, he was also feeling the storms of change of the Civil Rights Movement. Pryor eventually resorted to drugs to alleviate his internal struggles.

Richard Pryor seen famously saying "Kiss my rich black a**" during a stand-up performance. (I am Richard Pryor)
Richard Pryor seen famously saying "Kiss my rich black a**" during a stand-up performance. (I am Richard Pryor)

"Drugs allowed him to be something else" his wife Jennifer Pryor said in the Paramount Network documentary 'I am Richard Pryor.' He took to cocaine to detach and escape from his consistently haunting past. However, the assassination of Martin Luther King became a turning point in his life. The black-rights activist's death made the black community more audacious and rightfully demanding of America.

Pryor, in 1968, famously walked out of a gig at Aladdin hotel in Las Vegas after seeing no black faces in the crowd. He was tired of American television censoring things and of people laughing at his pain without understanding it. He felt guilty for not speaking his truth and took a hiatus in 1970. During this period, he met with some of the black intellectuals of the time, the likes of Angela Davis and Ishamel Reed. He hung out with the leaders of the Black Panther Party, however, managed a maintained professional distance.

The comic made a comeback two years later and his comedy was changed: "I sucked a d**k once." Pryor embraced his past, talked about his mother being a prostitute, his grandmother's brothel and even taboo subjects like gay sex. The comic was relaying "politically incorrect" truths, American audiences were not ready for at the time. He became the narrator of the black condition and surprisingly saw himself rising to the top echelons in the industry. He was breaking barriers, desegregating Hollywood.

From left to right, actor Richard Pryor, director Mel Stuart and producer Forest Hamilton on the Croisette during the Cannes Film Festival in France, where they are promoting their film 'Wattstax', 15th May 1973. (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
From left to right, actor Richard Pryor, director Mel Stuart and producer Forest Hamilton on the Croisette during the Cannes Film Festival in France, where they are promoting their film 'Wattstax', 15th May 1973. (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Pryor's "That N****r's Crazy" record became an anthem of the black community, as he presented the bitter truth of police officers unnecessarily shooting black people — an issue he highlighted way ahead of our times with his dark humor. The record, which won him a Grammy (1974), made him the most dominant cultural comedic voice in the country with over 500,000 copies sold. Pryor, who played the nation's first black president on television, began working with excellent actors like Robin Williams for his show. 

The comic's rise in fame also fueled his interactions with drugs, however, the tipping point turned out to be his grandmother's death. Pryor was very close to his grandmother and considered her his anchor. Without her he was lost. He delved deeper into drugs, talked about his relationship with cocaine in his stand-up acts and eventually lit himself on fire, running on the streets in Los Angeles on June 9, 1980.

Santa Barbara, CA. Richard Pryor is kissed by wife Jennifer as he accepts the Lifetime Achievement Award during the Santa Barbara International Film Festival at the Granada Theatre. Photo by Dave Luchansky Online USA, Inc. (Getty Images)
Santa Barbara, CA. Richard Pryor is kissed by wife Jennifer as he accepts the Lifetime Achievement Award during the Santa Barbara International Film Festival at the Granada Theatre. Photo by Dave Luchansky Online USA, Inc. (Getty Images)

Pryor survived, however, his spark had gone. He married his long-time girlfriend Jennifer and gave his last striking performance at Sunset Strip. To the shock of his audience, he also announced that he would not use his trademark word "n****r" again. The troubled star also had brushes with domestic abuse resulting in his wife leaving him. He was later diagnosed with MS and died at the age of 65.

"I ain't ever gonna forget what America has done to me," Pryor said during one of his last comic performances, citing how black humor came from slave ships and how America ripped families apart.