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Club hears about comedian Pryor’s history

Nicki Schoenl

Fourteen members attended the fourteenth virtual meeting of the Club’s 2020-2021 year. President Mary Croxton introduced Mrs. Nicki Schoenl, presenting her paper on Richard Pryor.

Richard Franklin Lennox Thomas Pryor is widely regarded as one of the greatest and most influential standup comedians of the 20th century.

He was a master at probing deep-seated social issues that many in white America preferred to pretend didn’t exist. He dealt with topics such as racism, American politics, Afro-American culture, human sexuality, religion, and the inequalities of the criminal justice system. From the years 1967 through 1997, Richard Pryor starred or appeared in forty-four films. His body of work includes over twenty-one records. Over the course of his career, he won an Emmy Award, five Grammy awards for best comedy album, two American Academy of Humor Awards, the Writers Guild of America Award, and the Lifetime Achievement Award in Comedy. Richard Pryor was the first recipient of the Kennedy Center Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. He was listed as number one on Comedy Central’s list of the all-time greatest stand-up comedians; he was awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award a year after his death; and in 2017 “Rolling Stone” magazine ranked him first on its list of the 50 best standup comedians of all time.

Comedian Jerry Seinfeld referred to Richard Pryor as the “Picasso” of comedy and Chris Rock called him comedy’s “Rosa Parks.”

Bob Newhart said that Pryor was his favorite comedian. Comedian George Lopez called Pryor his guiding light. In a roast in 1977, Robin Williams concluded that: “all I can say is this man is a genius, who else can take all forms of comedy, slapstick, satire, mime, and standup and turn it into something that offends everyone?”

Actress and comedian Lily Tomlin said she would never forget the first time she saw Richard on the Ed Sullivan show. She says she was mesmerized by his heartbreaking wit, full of hurt and truth.

Pryor was born on Dec. 1, 1940 in Peoria, Ill. He had a tragic early life, experiencing things no child should have to endure. Richard grew up in a brothel run by his grandmother, Marie, who looked after a bevy of sex workers. Richard was raised primarily by his grandmother who would beat him frequently. His mother, Gertrude, was an alcoholic and a prostitute employed by his grandmother.

His father Leroy, “Buck” Pryor was a former fighter and notoriously brutal pimp. Buck would knock Richard out if he disobeyed and Richard remembered a number of times seeing his mother, nearly beaten to death by his father.

When Richard was a young boy, he was playing by himself in an alley by the brothel and was sexually abused by a teenager. Richard had a difficult time in school. In attempting to connect with other students, he often entertained his classmates with wacky pantomimes and skits. His comedy was appreciated by his classmates but not so much by most of his teachers. He was dismissed from school at the end of ninth grade. Richard went on to work at various jobs, spending his free time writing sketches and practicing comedy routines. After a short stint in the army, he began performing standup in a few different clubs in Peoria and later worked throughout the Midwest.

He eventually took a shot at New York City. He ended up performing as the opening act for such legends as Richie Havens, Bob Dylan, Woody Allen, and Nina Simone. He made his television debut in 1964 on Rudy Vallee’s summer variety show “On Broadway Tonight”. Early in his career, Richard modeled his work on the reigning black comic, Bill Cosby. He spoke politely, told middle-class jokes, and did impressions of businessmen and tourists. Richard loved Red Skelton and Sid Caesar and was especially inspired by Jerry Lewis and his child-man persona. Richard’s near weekly appearances on the Merv Griffin Show, and frequent performances on Kraft Music Hall and Ed Sullivan, made him a rising standup star by the mid ’60s.

In 1967, despite his meteoric rise to fame, the burden of pretending to be cut from the same non-controversial comedic cloth as Bill Cosby proved too great, too constricting. To remake his persona, Richard went into a self-imposed exile in Berkeley for several years.

The release of a new Richard Pryor album in the seventies became a major event. Soon Hollywood producers offered Richard a career in film. Along with his records and acting in movies himself, he wrote for many movies and television shows. Along with Mel Brooks, he helped write the film classic, “Blazing Saddles”. Richard’s own variety show was canceled after only four episodes largely because Richard was unwilling to alter his often-controversial material. In his short-lived series, he took on such topics as gun violence, sexual stereotypes, and portrayed the first black president.

Richard Pryor was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1986. He continued to make movies and perform standup, entertaining in a wheelchair in his later years. At the time of his death, Richard had a net worth of $40 million. On Dec. 1, 2005, on his 65th birthday, he passed away.

Richard Pryor’s standup challenged moral righteousness and created new spaces to talk about issues previously off limits. His memorable representatives of both black and white worlds, his acute social observations, and his autobiographical self-parodies are timeless. Richard Pryor’s comedy opened up a world that needed to be made visible.

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