As viewers will witness on the Showtime documentary Richard Pryor: Omit the Logic, premiering tomorrow, the wild man from Peoria, Illinois was one of the most complex and talented comedians of his generation and beyond. A game-changer who—much like Charlie Parker and Jean-Michel Basquiat—became as well known for his drug consumption as for his art, Pryor was raised in his grandmother’s whorehouse and went on to transform American funny business with a unique perspective that was simultaneously raw, gritty and honest.
While Pryor later became famous for his work as an actor (Silver Streak, The Wiz), writer (Sanford & Son, Blazing Saddles), director (Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling) and film executive (Indigo Productions), it was his innovative early stand-up routines that established his name and fame.
Beginning his profession in Peoria dive bars like Harold’s Club and Collins’ Corner, he began developing his act in the early 1960s. A few years later, he moved to New York City and started making a little noise at Café Wha, the Greenwich Village nightclub where Jimi Hendrix also performed.
Producer Quincy Jones recalled being awestruck the first time he saw his future friend on stage at the venue. “I remember thinking that, for his art form, he was in the same class as Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington and Miles Davis,” Jones told a reporter in 2000.
Unlike most of the old-school jokesters who specialized in comical zingers, Pryor quickly grew out of being a one-liner kind of guy. While in the beginning of his career he tried following closely in Bill Cosby’s funny (but safe) footsteps, after suffering a supposed nervous breakdown onstage at Las Vegas’ Aladdin Hotel in 1967, Pryor reinvented his act the following year.
Coming out swinging like Muhammad Ali, in 1968 Richard Pryor wasn’t the only one going through changes; the entire country was on the verge of exploding. While the war in Vietnam raged, civil rights activists were marching and dying while longhaired hippies encouraged folks to “make love, not war.”
But after the murder of Martin Luther King Jr. caused riots in the streets and the roar of the Black Panthers became a familiar battle cry, America started changing. The country once thought to be safest in the world became scary, chaotic and unpredictable. It was from this turmoil and wreckage that the new Richard Pryor emerged.
I got my induction in the bugged-out world of Richard Pryor at a young age. I was 11 years old in 1974, the year Mom bought home Pryor’s now-classic third comedy disc, That Nigger’s Crazy. While I already recognized him from a guest appearance on The Partridge Family, and his classic dramatic role as Piano Man in Lady Sings the Blues, it was That Nigger’s Crazy that became Pryor’s breakthrough.
Initially lured by his use of the N-word in the title and the giant X rating on the back cover, I finally got the nerve to play the record one afternoon, when Mom left me home alone. I quickly put on the album, sat down on the couch and slowly slipped into Pryor’s wonderland of rowdy situations, characters and observations. “Hope I’m funny,” he begins, before launching himself into the comedy cosmos.
On That Nigger’s Crazy, Pryor riffed about racism, the strictness of his father, a strange encounter between Dracula and a wino, and how some Black woman stare at brothers who date White women. “Sisters look at you like you just killed your mama,” he quipped.
Reminding me of the first time I’d listened to the electric jazz of Bitches Brew or saw the surrealistic paintings of Salvador Dalí, I loved Richard Pryor’s material years before I really understood why. At first, many were titillated by his frequent swearing and use of the N-word, a brave move that later turned cliché with future Black comedians.
However, as his contemporary Dick Gregory, once observed, “If you take the cursing out of Richard Pryor’s jokes, they’re still funny.” I soon realized I was drawn to Pryor’s style, the way he told a story. Instead of reciting mere jokes, he weaved madcap narratives that reflected his own experiences growing-up in a midwestern ghetto.
“As a comedian, I couldn’t have asked for better material than the people from my childhood,” Richard wrote in his 1995 autobiography, Pryor Convictions. Drawing on the decadent lives of the hookers, hustlers and other ’hood royalty he knew personally, Pryor brought his various characters to life with storytelling skills that rivaled his brilliant writer friends Ishmael Reed and Maya Angelou, as well as your drunken uncle from the Fourth of July cookout.
In an unprecedented achievement, That Nigger’s Crazy reached number one on the Billboard soul/R&B charts for four weeks in 1974 and also won a Grammy Award. In addition, as a true king would, Pryor spawned a whole new school of funny guys that includes Eddie Murphy, Martin Lawrence, Robin Harris, Chris Rock and countess others.
Pryor, who died in 2005 at the age of 65 after a long battle with multiple sclerosis, went on to a celebrated, yet uneven, career that included films, television and more stand-up comedy albums (…Is It Something I Said, Live on the Sunset Strip). But That Nigger’s Crazy was the foundation on which brother Richard built his brilliant Tower of Babel. Almost 40 years after its release, no other comedy disc has come close to matching the combined humor and pathos of That Nigger's Crazy. Wherever you are Richard, that joint is still funny.
Cultural critic Michael A. Gonzales has written cover stories for Vibe, Uptown, Essence, XXL, Wax Poetics and elsewhere. He's also written for New York and The Village Voice. Read him at Blackadelic Pop and follow him on Twitter @gonzomike.