The Night That Changed Richard Pryor’s Comedy Forever

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. 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?”

My father was born in Peoria in 1940. He spent his childhood doing stand up at bars and writing TV scripts. His success was evident on TV shows such as Ed Sullivan Mike Douglas.

One night, 1967, during a routine gig at the Aladdin Hotel Las Vegas, he took his shoes off mid-set after realizing that he was performing to mostly white tourists. His own words, to me, were that “most of the audience is white folks and I feel inauthentic.”

After that evening, Daddy was fired. This might have been his best comedy moment.

Pryor at Comedy Store, Sunset Boulevard.

Evan Hurd—Corbis/Getty Images

He was tired of performing in front of white people for years. He wanted to remain true to himself and to his Black heritage. But most importantly, he was himself. He studied at Berkeley where he was heavily influenced both by the Black Panthers, as well as growing countercultures and anti-war movements.

Richard Pryor got out. He was prepared to wage war against the machine.

His political and social transformation changed his comedy—and comedy itself—forever. His comedy was honest and open to the truth, as he tackled topics such police brutality, race, sexuality and slavery. My father could use comedy to allow others to recognize their weaknesses and share in the laughter, instead of being split.

He made the conscious choice to stand up to him and his life was transformed. 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.

Ed Sullivan, host of the Show, greets Richard Pryor in February 1966.

CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images

My father decided to strip away what “they” wanted him to be, and became the Richard Pryor we know today. For him this was significant and liberating.

Daddy did not consider himself a trailblazer despite this. He saw his work as doing what he was passionate about. He saw himself as breaking free (once again) from small town Peoria, and “The Man,” to do more of what he desired creatively. He didn’t intend to become a huge success. It just happened because he was ready to take chances.

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. It was his ability to confront his own demons, and to share his vulnerability in an era when Black men still struggled to make it as dominant in a white-dominated society.

Richard Pryor would not be able to create Eddie Murphy or Chris Rock without him. Kevin Hart and Dave Chappelle are all possible without his help.

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.

Richard Pryor with guests, as Pryor Receives a Hollywood Star at Walk of Fame in Hollywood Boulevard in Calif. 1993.

Ron Galella—Ron Galella Collection/Getty Images

But he didn’t do it for fame or awards. He considered comedy a profession that he could make a living doing. He worked as a surgeon, and was often called into the operating rooms. He was an uncompromising man, who never saw himself the same as his friends.

Peoria’s Black man was fortunate to be able to make it, and was also a successful entrepreneur. 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. He was introspective at home and enjoyed watching politics and sports. His stage presence was electric, freeing, and he spoke out his truth as a Black man.

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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