Life story

Richard Pryor’s Uncensored Life Story

If Richard Pryor seems far-sighted, it’s because he was the black comedian whose confrontational monologues addressed police violence and the racism pervasive in American society. But at the same time, he denounced homosexual activists and was abusive, even violent, towards women. Political correctness, whether in the 20th or the 21st century, was something he didn’t care about. He was not filtered on stage.

“The Ultimate Richard Pryor Collection: Uncensored” is a 13 DVD box set that lives up to its name promise. The ensemble brings together his four feature films in concert; his NBC special and the four episodes of his short-lived series; his autobiographical film Jo Jo Dancer, your life is calling you; five episodes of his crazy children’s show; clips of guest appearances on talk shows; and no less than two feature-length documentaries, among others.

One of these documentaries, I am Richard Pryor (2019), is essential to put everything in context. The furious and hilarious commentator on the American condition he remembers is far from the easygoing character who made his national television debut in 1964. Pryor began his rise impersonating the only acclaimed black comedian in everything. the country at the time, Bill Cosby, who presented himself as smooth and non-threatening. In a first sketch seen in the documentary, Pryor sounds more Bortsch Belt than Chitlin Circuit. But his success was false compared to his own experience. The Pryor who emerged in 1970 after spending time with the Black Panthers was a defiant noir, determined to transmute his lived experience into comedy.

Pryor grew up in isolated Peoria. His mother was a sex worker, his father was the executor of the brothel, and his grandmother, mainly responsible for his education, was the owner of the joint. The first white people he met were customers and some thought they could hire him too. As his last wife, Jennifer Lee Pryor, put it I am Richard Pryor, he was deeply in conflict with women, but was a kind and vulnerable man when he stayed away from cocaine.

Perhaps cocaine along with ambition explain Pryor’s 1970-80 marathon, zigzagging between Hollywood movies, stand-up tours, and comedy albums. He faced entrenched racism in Hollywood, but his live-action vibrancy stole the show in many otherwise mediocre films. He cemented his reputation as “difficult” with the 1974 LP This It’s crazy about N *****, followed by 1976 Bicentenary N *****, a provocative finger raised in a year of sentimental patriotism. However, Pryor has learned to modulate himself for Hollywood comedies while maintaining enough attitude to stay true to himself.

Sadly, Pryor will also be remembered for setting himself up in a freebase crash. Friends and associates surveyed for I am Richard Pryor agree that he subsequently refused to be an actor, even before being diagnosed with MS. Some said he was uncomfortable in his role as the spokesperson for blacks, but like everyone else, he awakened the conscience of whites in a way they liked. Humor can be the best form of protest.

David Luhrssen

David Luhrssen has taught at UWM and MIAD. He is the author of The Vietnam War on Film, Encyclopedia of Classic Rock and Hammer of the Gods: Thule Society and the Birth of Nazism.

Read more about David Luhrssen

08 October 2021


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