comedian Richard Pryor grew up bombarded by mixed messages.
Pryor's grandmother owned a string of brothels, his mother
was a prostitute, and his father was a pimp; still, they
raised him to be honest, polite, and religious. Living in
one of the worst slums in Peoria, Illinois, Pryor found
that he could best defend himself by getting gang members
to laugh at him instead of pummelling him. This led to his
reputation as a disruptive class clown, though at least
one understanding teacher allowed Pryor one minute per week
to "cut up" so long as he behaved himself the
rest of the time. At 14, he became involved in amateur dramatics
at Peoria's Carver Community Center, which polished his
stage presence. In 1963, Pryor headed to New York to seek
work as a standup comic; after small gigs in the black nightclub
circuit, he was advised to pattern himself after Bill Cosby
-- that is, to be what white audiences perceived as "nonthreatening."
For the next five years, the young comic flourished in clubs
and on TV variety shows, making his film bow in The Busy
Body (1967). But Pryor was frustrated that his black pride
and anger at the white power structure was being suppressed.
One night, sometime between the years 1969 and 1971, he
"lost it" while performing a gig in Las Vegas;
he either walked offstage without a word or he obscenely
proclaimed that he was sick of it. In the next few years,
Pryor found himself banned from many nightclubs, allegedly
due to offending the mob-connected powers-that-be, and lost
many of his so-called "friends" who'd been sponging
off him. Broke, Pryor went "underground" in Berkeley,
California in the early 1970s; and when he re-emerged as
a performer he was a road-company Cosby no more. His act,
replete with colorful epithets, painfully accurate "character
studies" of street types, and hilarious (and, to some,
frightening) hostility over black-white inequities, struck
just the right note with audiences of the "committed"
1970s. Record company executives, concerned that Pryor's
humor would appeal only to blacks, were amazed at how well
his first post-Berkeley album, The Nigger's Crazy!, sold
with young white consumers.