King of Comedy (03:10)
Tracy Morgan, George Lopez, Louie Anderson, and George Wallace reflect on Richard Pryor's influence on their comedic acts. View clips from Pryor's first TV appearance in 1964.
Early Career (04:30)
Critical studies professor Todd Boyd and personal friend Cecil Brown discuss Pryor's "white bread" humor, inspired by Bill Cosby. His non-offensive physical style gained attention; he frequented Merv Griffin's talk show and was one of the first African-Americans on TV.
Despite his success, Pryor felt constrained on stage. During the 1960s, performers moved from physical to political comedy. In 1967, while performing in Las Vegas for a white audience, he realized he was losing self-respect and walked off stage.
Childhood Trauma (04:54)
Pryor was born in 1940 in Peoria, Illinois to a pimp and a prostitute. Both parents were alcoholic and violent; his mother abandoned him at age 10 and his grandmother raised him in a brothel. He mined material from his upbringing.
Star Ambitions (03:08)
Pryor escaped childhood trauma through Hollywood films. He joined the army in 1958, but was imprisoned for a racial incident. After release, he performed comedy at all-black clubs and moved to New York City.
Political Awakening (03:39)
After offending patrons in 1967, Pryor was banned from Las Vegas club. He went to Berkeley, California, at the height of the counterculture movement. He began protesting racial inequality and social justice through comedy and broached taboo subjects.
New Richard Pryor (03:52)
Pryor left Berkeley with a rejuvenated career, using vocabulary to fight the status quo. Comedians discuss his use of racially charged language to reference his upbringing.
Megaphone for African-Americans (03:05)
By bringing private conversations into the public, Pryor forced Americans to confront racial prejudice. Both black and white audiences purchased his platinum albums. His language paved the way for rappers.
Transitioning to Hollywood (03:49)
Pryor was cast to play opposite Diana Ross and Billy Dee Williams in "Lady Sings the Blues." Comedians discuss his natural talent for acting. Michael Schultz recalls working with him on "Which Way is Up." He also wrote for TV series.
Saturday Night Live (03:37)
Pryor was invited to host the inaugural show in 1975; NBC developed a five second delay to censor offensive language. Despite success, his temper and commitment to performance sabotaged seven marriages.
Drug Addiction (04:01)
Pryor was a heavy cocaine user. In June 1980, he was burned while free basing; some say he tried to commit suicide. He survived against the odds and returned to the stage in 1982.
"Live on the Sunset Strip" (03:52)
In a filmed 1982 performance, Pryor addresses his drug addiction. He also details a trip to Africa that changed the way he referred to fellow African-Americans. Some argue that he lost his humor when he became a mainstream Hollywood star.
Declining Health (03:06)
In 1986, Pryor revealed his multiple sclerosis on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. He was confined to a wheelchair after heart surgery in 1990, but continued performing. He passed away of a heart attack in 2005.
Friends and comedians discuss Pryor's contribution to stand-up comedy, use of language to address controversial subjects, and influence on American culture.
Credits: Richard Pryor: Icon (00:37)
Credits: Richard Pryor: Icon
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