How Richard Pryor Changed Comedy

Richard Pryor's award-winning comedy broke down many barriers. His death Saturday at age 65 marks the end of one of the most influential careers in recent entertainment history.

Copyright © 2005 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Richard Pryor, a comedian who said things on stage that no one had dared before, died Saturday at age 65. He was known for his stand-up and also his movies. NPR senior correspondent Juan Williams has these thoughts on the impact Richard Pryor had on American comedy.

JUAN WILLIAMS reporting:

The liberating politics of Pryor's comedy began with his use of what we call today the N-word. Pryor used the word again and again, getting laughs out of juggling verbal dynamite.

Mr. RICHARD PRYOR (Comedian): I went to jail for income tax evasion, right? I told the judge, I said, `You know, I forgot.' You know, he said, `You'll remember next year, nigger.'

(Soundbite of laughter)

WILLIAMS: Early in his career, Pryor didn't use the N-word. By his own account, he was trying to be Bill Cosby; a clever, clean comedian who riffed on black family life. In the late '60s, Pryor broke with the Cosby mold. The key was his embrace of the N-word. He gave himself license to make fun of everyone, poor blacks and rich whites. Here he is in a 1974 interview with Rolling Stone magazine.

(Soundbite of 1974 interview)

Mr. PRYOR: I think that people should say what they feel. I mean, you know, I don't give a (censored) if it's racism or whatever ism it is. I mean, whatever, man. Just to be yourself is such a nice thing. I like to be accepted, you know, but usually in order to be accepted by white people, you have to compromise so much from your hello.

WILLIAMS: Pryor was unlike other black comedians in that he dared to tell white people in his audience what he thought of them.

Mr. PRYOR: And when I say white, man, I don't mean everybody. You know who you are.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Man: You're lucky I've got a sense of humor.

Mr. PRYOR: I'm lucky you have, too, because I know what you white people do to us.

(Soundbite of laughter)

WILLIAMS: Pryor wasn't bothered by complaints about his mocking humor directed at white people. Here he is in the Rolling Stone interview.

(Soundbite of 1974 interview)

Mr. PRYOR: Ain't no nigger's ever said to me, `I think you're a racist 'cause you portray white folks so funny.'

WILLIAMS: And when people complained about his profanity, especially his use of the N-word, Pryor had a not-so-funny response. Here he is in a 1983 interview on the "CBS Morning News."

(Soundbite from "CBS Morning News," 1983)

Mr. PRYOR: You know what's obscene to me? The presidents of the United States stands on television and tells people that we are helping to fight communism in South America by killing the people. I would never do that.

WILLIAMS: Pryor was never active in the civil rights movement, but I remember seeing him when he came to Washington in 1983 to speak at a Reagan administration Martin Luther King Jr. birthday celebration. The funnyman began to cry when he spoke of what he called `the courage of people who acted in the face of racist violence.' Pryor pledged to stop using the N-word after a trip to Africa. He said he didn't find any `N-word people' there. They still had their dignity.

Mr. PRYOR: Anyway, you have nothing to fear from the black man except just thoughts. (Makes musical sound) That's enough.

WILLIAMS: Pryor never reverted to a Bill Cosby-like persona. His comedy retained that edge. By the time Pryor stopped using the N-word, an entire generation of black comics had come to rely on it. Pryor's use of the word was groundbreaking. He shocked audiences into thinking. By contrast, today's comics seems to use the word as a crutch. It shopworn and offensive. Juan Williams, NPR News, Washington.

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

Copyright © 2005 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.