OPINION: Part two of our series on the history of Black comedy examines how Richard Pryor became the greatest comedian of all time by bringing Black comedy to the masses.
Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.
Wherefore I say unto you, all manner of sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven unto men: but the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost shall not be forgiven unto men.
This is how my Uncle Rob—a septuagenarian sports historian who can list the teams and the most valuable player in every NBA Finals—begins explaining why placing anyone above the winningest player in the history of North American team sports is akin to taking the Lord’s name in vain.
If winning, athleticism, clutch play, defense, or leadership is the measure of greatness, then no one has ever been greater than Bill Russell. No one has ever faced him in a championship series or a winner-take-all game and emerged victorious. James Naismith invented the sport, but Russell invented the way basketball is played. He is credited with introducing verticality to the game. That is a measurable fact. Still, my uncle doesn’t cite Russell’s championships, his two NCAA tournament trophies or the Olympic gold medal to explain why Russell is the GOAT. Uncle Rob’s centers on something else entirely.
“…Of all time.”
Time is infinite. It exists before the beginning and extends past forever. Michael Jordan soared past Magic Johnson and Larry Bird to become the best of his generation. When LeBron James was in high school, it was evident that basketball greatness was in his future. But from the moment when Russell stepped onto the court at the University of San Francisco to the day he raised his 11th NBA championship trophy, there wasn’t a single second when Bill Russell wasn’t the greatest player who ever lived and breathed. When he began playing, everyone who played before him ceased being “great.” Anyone who has ever been or will ever be considered a “great basketball player” has played basketball like Bill Russell. He is the Alpha and Omega. The beginning and the end.
This is a story about the greatest comedian of all time.
Richard Pryor and the Holy Ghost
Just as Bill Russell’s verticality, athleticism and innovation redefined what it means to be a “basketball player,” Richard Pryor is the template for all stand-up comedy. Not only was he better at making people laugh than anyone has ever been at anything, but his greatness is also as incomprehensible. It can’t be contextualized by watching his stand-up or looking at his career accomplishments. Even those old enough to remember him at the height of his illustrious career cannot grasp how funny he was. Richard Pryor was the greatest. Richard Pryor is the greatest. And as long as people stand on stage and attempt to make people laugh, Richard Pryor will always be the greatest. His greatness overflows the concept of time.
Charles Case invented what you know as stand-up comedy. But everyone you consider great at telling jokes into a microphone is doing comedy like Richard Pryor.
Richard Franklin Lennox Thomas Pryor Sr. was born in 1940 in Peoria, Ill. His father was a pimp, and his mother was a sex worker. He did a stint in an Army prison for stabbing a man. Richard Pryor Live in Concert was the first stand-up comedy concert released in movie theaters. He was the first Black actor to earn a million dollars for a movie. He has won five Grammys for best comedy album and the Lifetime Achievement Award. He was the first Black host of Saturday Night Live. He died in 2005.
But this article isn’t about Richard Pryor. It’s about stand-up comedy.
At the beginning of his comedy career, Pryor was confronted with a decision that all Black artists must eventually make. He could pursue fame and notoriety by appealing to mainstream (pronounced “why-yitt”) audiences or become a “negro comedian.” Performing “Black comedy” offered the artistic freedom of authenticity that would make him indispensable to Black audiences. Or, to get his big break, he could create a sanitized version of his art palatable to white audiences. To be fair, there is a good reason Pryor didn’t even consider entering the realm of “white comedy.”
There is no such thing as “white comedy.”
Again, all comedy is Black. Since the day the first Blackface minstrel covered his face in burnt cork to mimic plantation performances, stand-up comedy has been a Black art form. There are white comedians, and there are comedians who perform for white audiences. But, like every primary American genre of expression (jazz, dance, baking macaroni and cheese…), enslaved Africans planted the seeds of American-style stand-up and cultivated the roots until it was monetized and inevitably appropriated by “trailblazing” white comics.
Redd Foxx was selling out the Apollo and had already sold 15 million records with his X-rated act when Lenny Bruce “innovated” the genre by using the same forbidden language that Black comedians had used for decades. George Carlin didn’t become a superstar until he used comedy as a platform for social commentary, essentially becoming a white version of Dick Gregory. They were already legendary. But in white America, Foxx was just an opening act for Dinah Washington, and Dick Gregory was just a guy who worked a day job at the post office. “Blacks could sing and dance in the white nightclubs but weren’t allowed to stand flat-footed and talk to white folks, which is what a comic does,” Gregory explained.
Hoping to carve a path to success, Pryor reluctantly put on Paul Laurence Dunbar’s mask and began emulating clean, straight-laced Black comedians like Bill Cosby. After relocating to New York, he started building his career alongside white comedians such as Woody Allen and Bob Newhart. It was apparent to everyone that Pryor’s star was rising, but those who knew him could tell something was eating away at his insides.
“Opening the show was a young comedian, Richard Pryor,” wrote Nina Simone in her autobiography. “He shook like he had malaria, he was so nervous. I couldn’t bear to watch him shiver, so I put my arms around him there in the dark and rocked him like a baby until he calmed down. The next night was the same, and the next, and I rocked him each time. He never stopped being nervous—at least not while I was there.”
By September 1967, Pryor had made it. Even with his anxiety, he was headlining one of the largest rooms on the Las Vegas strip. During the gig at the Aladdin Hotel, Pryor walked onstage to do his squeaky-clean act. As he peered into the all-white audience and noticed Rat Packer Dean Martin sitting in the front row, he had what he described in his book Pryor Convictions as an “epiphany.”
Pryor knew he was good but he knew he wasn’t a clean-cut, educated storyteller like Bill Cosby; he was the son of a pimp and a prostitute who dropped out of high school. He wasn’t a neurotic-but irreverent jokester like Woody Allen; he had stabbed a man for laughing at a movie. His life was dark and violent and unfunny, but it was real. Comedy had saved him, but his art didn’t reflect that because it wasn’t art. He wasn’t just a sinner; he was a blasphemer.
“What the f*ck am I doing here?” he muttered into the microphone before walking offstage.
And just like that, white comedy ceased to exist.
The death of the white comedian
“To ask which comedians Richard Pryor influenced is not a serious question. The answer, of course, is all of them…[A]ll the stand-up comedians who came after Richard Pryor do what they do because of him, whether they know it or not.
– David Henry, author of Furious Cool: Richard Pryor and the World That Made Him
Most show business and comedy experts will explain that Pryor’s genius resides in his unrepentant truth-telling that rendered moot all previous forms of stand-up. They will tell you that Pryor’s greatest gift to comedy was that he gave us Richard Pryor—with all his flaws and imperfections. But this is because most show business and comedy experts are white. Understanding how Pryor changed stand-up comedy does not require any knowledge of Richard Pryor. One can simply watch any comedian who was considered excellent before Richard Pryor and see his impact on the genre.
Again, Black people invented comedy; white people copied it.
Before Richard Pryor changed the game, most white acts performed “comedy routines”—a pre-rehearsed collection of written material designed to make the audience laugh. They were actors reciting lines. But the most critical subtle difference in early stand-up comedy is that it was impersonal and derivative. Set-up. Punchline. Setup. Punchline. White comedy was so unoriginal that comedians often “borrowed” each other jokes. The rare comic that infused a little bit of their personality and showmanship into their act was entertaining, but the audience could still see they were playing a character. Watching comedy was the equivalent of watching the NBA All-Star Game before Black players entered the league.
But, for the entirety of its existence, Black comedy has been a platform for truth, social commentary and Rumplestiltskinning shared Black pain into golden laughter. By playing the secretly clever but outwardly ignorant negro, Black minstrels were making fun of white people. Vaudeville comedians like Pigmeat Markham were mocking white people. Red Foxx, Moms Mabley and others had totally different acts for Black audiences. They knew Black humor has always been dark and daring. When they performed for white audiences, they understood that they could not be their true authentic selves, so they created a version of Blackness that white people could digest. So, when most people speak of Pryor’s rare comedic genius, it is because they think that Black genius is rare. Perhaps Pryor’s greatest innovation was to show the world what a fully realized Black man sounded like.
For Richard Pryor so loved the world that he gave it his unapologetic Blackness.
His transformation into a comedy GOAT began when he started hanging out in Berkley, Calif., and surrounded himself with Black writers and thinkers like Ishmael Reed, Huey Newton and Cecil Brown—artists and activists who were unafraid of baring their brazen Blackness. When Pryor emerged from his “underground period” for a performance at Mandrake’s—a smoky bar where legends such as B.B. King and Big Mama Thorton could be found hanging out on any given night—he had not only deconstructed his act, he had erased the line between pretense and comedy. He spewed expletives. He began using the stage as a confessional and a pulpit. He was Black.
“I had heard this kind of humor all my life,” said Brown, author of Becoming Richard Pryor, “but never in public.”
In his autobiography, Pryor explains how he decided to take “the most humiliating, disgraceful, ugly, and nasty word ever used in the context of Black people” and use it to make people laugh.
And so this one night I decided to make it my own.
I decided to take the sting out of it.
As if saying it over and over again would numb me and everybody else to its wretchedness.
Said it over and over again like a preacher singing hallelujah.
Hello, I’m Richard Pryor. I’m a ni**er.
It was the truth and it made me feel free to say it.
Richard Pryor, Pryor Convictions
By extricating himself from the pampering of white fragility and allowing himself to be Richard Pryor, he had forever eliminated the pretense that had created a color line in his art form. Black comedians would no longer have to suppress their Blackness for white audiences. “You have to understand,” said Joe McDonald, a local musician who was also there that night. “People had never heard the word ni**er before in a context that wasn’t racist.”
And, contrary to the pervasive narrative, it wasn’t Pryor’s use of foul language and the n-word that revolutionized comedy. The idea that Pryor vaulted to success by simply being profane and Black is understandable, although insidious. No, it was his brilliance and his Blackness that transcended every funny thing that existed before him. When he wrote for television, he won an Emmy. When he performed a clean version for network television, NBC gave him his own show that was basically the template for Chapelle’s Show. He co-wrote the cult hit Blazing Saddles. As a storytelling comedian, he was unrivaled. His Mudbone character was an Inception-like invention that told stories inside stories. His one-liners are so ubiquitous that they’ve been used by the greatest rappers and award-winning uncles. His social commentary was biting because it was insightful. He was Black and he was better at every part of comedy than everyone else. By refusing to suppress the Black part and, instead presenting himself as a human being in the presence of human beings, he singlehandedly catapulted the medium into the category of high art.
Before Richard Pryor, stand-up comedy existed somewhere between cartoon characters and carnival barkers. After Richard Pryor, the entire genre was in technicolor and surround sound. No longer could white comedians ride in the elongated wake of Black comedy; those who did became dinosaurs. Because of him, comedy is no longer an extended monologue of recitations. Even clean comedians who don’t talk about politics, race or controversial subjects must adhere to the template created by Pryor. Everyone who came after him—from Jerry Seinfeld to Dave Chapelle…is doing an interpretative performance of the greatest.
…Of all time
“The mark of greatness is when everything before you is obsolete and everything after you bears your mark”
Dave Chappelle on Richard Pryor
So, my colleague Touré is not blaspheming against Pryor’s name when he says that Dave Chappelle is the best stand-up ever. But “best” is different from great. Best is the superlative form of “good.” To reach the conclusion that Chappelle is the “best ever” only requires comparing Chappelle to all the good comedians. “Ever” doesn’t include the future; the entire notion is constrained by the past and the present. It acknowledges the possibility that a better comedian than Chappelle may one day exist.
But the second Pryor walked offstage at Mandrake’s, every stand-up comic immediately became less great simply because of Pryor’s existence. At the time he transcended the earthly plane and became an ancestor, he was still considered greater than any comedian who lived and breathed. He is still living in the art of every comedian who came after him. His greatness cannot be diminished. It is everlasting.
Richard Pryor was great. Richard Pryor is great. And even if the Earth stops spinning, the sun fades to a flicker and time stands still, Richard Pryor’s greatness will “denote an extreme or unsurpassed level” that extends into “every member or individual component’ of the “measurable period” that comedy is performed.
According to the dictionary, that is the literal definition of the greatest comedian of all time.
Michael Harriot is a writer, cultural critic and championship-level Spades player. His book, Black AF History: The Unwhitewashed Story of America, will be released in 2022.
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