When Richard Pryor first came on the national scene in the mid ’60s, he was a comic who consciously followed the blueprint established by Bill Cosby. Never mind that Pryor, even when he was doing a clean act, lacked Cosby’s assured and relaxed self-confidence. No, Pryor’s demeanor was something else—anxious, hyper, caffeinated. But even after he achieved a degree of success doing his version of Cosby clean, Pryor began to question himself and his act (fellow comedian George Carlin experienced a similar transformation).
It would take years for Pryor’s mature comedic voice to emerge but as this excerpt from Scott Saul’s terrific new biography, Becoming Richard Pryor, shows, that change was underway as the events of the late ’60s spiraled into a kind of madness. Pryor had yet to become the volatile social satirist who unnerved white industry executives and delighted black audiences. He barely cursed in his act. But he had already begun to start speaking his truth, consequences be damned.
On January 13, 1968, Richard Pryor and Shelley Bonis were married in a quick impromptu ceremony at a small chapel in Las Vegas. They consecrated, in the city of Richard’s recent obscenity-laced flameout at the Aladdin Hotel, a relationship that sometimes played out as a political allegory of late ’60s America. Shelley was the white romantic, Richard the black cynic. It was Shelley who had avidly read Malcolm X, Angela Davis, and the Black Panthers, and who believed that a new day was dawning and that the love she felt for Richard was proof of it. Richard, meanwhile, had been hardened by his family and his struggles with school, the army, and show business—every institution he’d come into contact with. He tended to shield himself from disappointment by expecting the worst—of people and of his country.
Still, a piece of Richard longed to believe, as Shelley believed, in what was pure between them and how it might spill beyond their cottage in Laurel Canyon—and here, again, the two lovers were emblematic of larger hopes and tensions. Around the country, the Black Power movement and the largely white counterculture were engaged in a delicate, circling dance, as each group wondered what they might give to, or gain from, the other. In Los Angeles in 1967, white hippies had sought to bring together “the city’s two hip communities” by organizing two “love-ins” at parks in Watts, with tellingly mixed results. The first love-in drew a crowd of seven thousand whites and blacks, who danced together to a mix of blues and rock groups; the alternative paper Open City raved that the hippies “short-circuited the ghetto’s mental hate syndrome with smiles, freaky renaissance clothes … and an open attitude which became contagious.” The second love-in, more poorly attended, was disrupted by a stone thrown at a white photographer and a “get whitey” speech from the stage—and the hippies, discouraged, left Watts for good.
Richard’s stand-up was one of the great beneficiaries of this dance between Black Power and the counterculture. In 1968, performing for Troubadour audiences that, for him, were half white and half black, he invented a style that was as far-out as Frank Zappa and as defiant as H. Rap Brown.
For their part, black militants looked at the counterculture and saw two things at once: some of the least racist and most engaged people in America, and some of the most privileged and committedly naïve people in America. A case in point: the Los Angeles Free Press and Open City ran some of the most detailed and sympathetic coverage of the Watts riots and the Black Power movement, but they also published articles like “Hippie: The New Nigger” or “Diggery Is Niggery,” which appeared to turn black suffering into someone else’s plaything. H. Rap Brown expressed a typical ambivalence when, in a 1967 interview, he called the hippies “politically irrelevant,” but added that he wished “all white Americans were like the hippies, because they ARE peaceful, and that’s more than can be said for most honkies.”
Richard’s stand-up was one of the great beneficiaries of this dance between Black Power and the counterculture. In 1968, performing for Troubadour audiences that, for him, were half white and half black, he invented a style that was as far-out as Frank Zappa and as defiant as H. Rap Brown, and was catalyzed by the fusion of the two movements. On the one hand, the freewheeling ethic of the counterculture shaded Richard’s act with irony, making his more political moves seem provisional and subject to revision. On the other, the militancy of the Black Power movement sharpened his zaniness, giving it a point: his improvisations could cut you open with their poignancy or shock you with their bitterness. For years, Richard’s comedy had set itself apart from the conflicts of the times; now it drew on the energy of those tensions and played them out in spectacular fashion.
He needed his art because, offstage, the chaos was sometimes too much. When news of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination reached Richard on April 4, 1968, he was between sets at Mister Kelly’s nightclub in Chicago. The second set was immediately canceled, and everyone was warned to take caution and head home. Richard did the opposite. He smoked a joint with Jeff Wald, the booker at Mister Kelly’s. Then the two hopped in a car and “drove around Chicago like lunatics,” Wald remembered. They felt aimless, high on grass and miserable about the state of the world, and were curious to see where their careening would take them. Richard was sobbing uncontrollably; he couldn’t believe how crazy America had become. The two heard shots fired around them but raced through the streets anyway. It was the beginning of a riot that would wreathe the streets in smoke and tear gas, and leave at least nine black Chicagoans dead.
The death of King reverberated in Richard. He canceled a scheduled appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show and returned to Los Angeles, where two weeks later he performed in front of an audience of ten thousand at a Martin Luther King Jr. memorial benefit at the Hollywood Bowl. The tone of the King event was set by actor Rod Steiger, who proclaimed that “we are here today because of a man with a purpose and a dream. We are gathered for one reason and one reason alone—to raise money to help fulfill that dream and that purpose. We mean to guarantee that a future shall exist without ignorance and without prejudice.” These were high-minded thoughts, and Steiger was joined in his solemn tribute by entertainers ranging from Jimmy Durante and Edward G. Robinson to Bill Cosby and Barbra Streisand.
“All these people here are giving money,” he observed, “but if your son gets killed by a cop, money don’t mean shit.”
Richard punctured the mood. He looked out at the largest live audience of his career, one assembled to mourn one of the most grievous losses in American history, and spoke with the brazenness of his father at his stepmother’s grave. “All these people here are giving money,” he observed, “but if your son gets killed by a cop, money don’t mean shit.” There was a collective gasp at both the four-letter word and the bitter sentiment it carried. The show, after all, was meant to embody King’s vision and raise money for King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Urban League, two organizations that represented the civil rights establishment. Richard, meanwhile, was refusing to turn the other cheek. He was pointing his audience’s attention to those, less sainted than King, who had been killed by police bullets in the riots following King’s assassination, and he was refusing to forgive.
For Richard, it was almost like a public “coming out”: no one with a decent pair of ears could mistake him for Bill Cosby any longer. Forty-five KLAC listeners withdrew their pledges in protest at his remarks.
Excerpted from BECOMING RICHARD PRYOR Copyright © 2014 by Scott Saul. Excerpted by permission of Harper Books, a division of HarperCollins Publishers. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.