Plugged Into the Socket of Life

Plugged Into the Socket of Life

Behind Richard Pryor’s jokes and barbs was a man yearning to be free.


This essay is adapted from Becoming Richard Pryor, to be published on December 9, 2014, by Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Copyright © 2014 by Scott Saul.

My grandmother is the lady who used to discipline me,” says a slender man in his late 30s, wearing a collarless red satin shirt, black slacks and gold shoes. “You know, beat my ass,” he adds with a chuckle. His face flickers between the confident look of a storyteller in control of his audience and the haunted look of a child who recalls how he was beaten more than why. It is December 1978, and before him, at Long Beach’s Terrace Theater, sits a crowd of 3,000. They’re watching what will become, after the film is released, the most celebrated stand-up-comedy performance of all time: Richard Pryor: Live in Concert.

“Anyone here remember them switches?” the comedian asks his audience. “You used to have to go get off the tree yourself and take them leaves like that?” A roar of “Yeah!” comes back at him. He demonstrates by reaching upward and groping to strip off a branch, suddenly a little boy agonizing over the task before him. For the rest of the sketch, he’ll flip effortlessly, with a jazzy rhythm, between boy and man. “I see them trees today, I will kill one of them motherfuckers,” he says. “I will stop the car—say, ‘Wait, hold it!’” He strides over to the microphone stand and starts throttling it with a rage that’s absurd—arbicidal. “You ain’t never gonna grow up! You won’t be beating nobody’s ass!

Then he pauses, returning to the perversity of his past and finding some belated pleasure in it: “That’s some hell of a psychology—to make you go get a switch to beat your own ass with, right? My grandmother said, ‘Boy, go get me somethin’ to beat your ass with.’ And that would be the longest walk in the world.” He pivots so that the crowd can see him in profile, a boy inching forward with a frozen look of fear on his face. “You be thinking all kind of shit, ‘cause you know you done fucked up, Jack.” The boy turns his eyes upward as if in prayer and whimpers: “Maybe it’ll snow before I get there. Maybe she’ll have a heart attack and won’t be able to whup me. I don’t want to get no whuppin’, ‘cause it’s going to tear it up….”

“You get them switches and they start cutting the wind on the way home,” the adult comic explains. “Make you start crying before you get in the house.”


“Ma-ma!” The boy’s whimper has opened into a full-on wail.


“Ma-ma! I don’t want… Mama, please! Mama, please!” The boy starts darting from one place to another, cowering while dodging blows that seem to rain over his entire body. “Mamapleasemamapleasemamaplease!” he howls, his voice the same pitch as a baby’s scream.

At this point, the routine takes the less expected tack. It would be easy for the comic, looking back at the beatings that framed his childhood, to paint his grandmother as the villain of this tale. He does not. When he plays her, his voice assumes a honeyed drawl, a more confident register, as if he were relishing her strength.

Get your ass out!” his grandmother hollers when the boy tries to escape her wrath by putting himself to bed early. “Put your hand up! Don’t you run from me! Don’t you run from me!” Then, giving one downward clout to her grandson’s body with every syllable: “Long… as… you… black, don’t… you… run… from… me!

The crowd roars at this last line—at the wallop of it, the double truth about the boy’s life that it relays. Try as he might, there’s no outrunning the twin forces of his fate: the squeeze of his race, and the squeeze of his grandmother’s discipline.

The next morning, the boy faces the woman who struck him and is given a lesson in the peculiarity of love. “Morning, Mama,” he says softly, his mouth fixed in a grimace from the welt that has taken over his face. “Come here, baby,” she says, then looks at his bruises tenderly, fixing them up. “You see, you shouldn’t do that, goddamn it. I told you not to—just sit still now.” She’s still administering to the bruises when Richard Pryor delivers the last line of the sketch in her voice: “And next time you do it, I’m going to tear your ass up again.”

The comedian laughs, waits for the applause to die down, moves on. The instabilities of his childhood—the confusions of love and violence—have shaped him into the kind of person who is never at home with peace. A tangle of competing impulses, he cycles not just through moods but through whole personalities, with the ingenuous child and the avenging adult figuring among the most prominent. Offstage, these personalities flow through him with a volatility that makes him hard to handle, if not bewildering. One of his many wives, a few months into their short-lived marriage, says that getting to know him is like getting to know “twenty-five or thirty different people.” Onstage, he is mesmerizing. You feel, in the audience, that you’re plugged into the socket of life—that you’re seeing not a single man but rather an entire world in roiling motion, animated through a taut experiment in creative chaos and artistic control.

For the comedian, though, the stakes are more personal. Ever since he started to find his voice as a comic in the mid-1960s, the stage has been the place where he can set his contradictions in motion and try to play the full array of his many selves. If he’s having a good night—if the “comedy gods” smile upon him, if he finds his form—Richard Pryor can own all these personalities as much as they own him.

* * *

When invited to work with new collaborators in the early 1970s, Richard Pryor devised little experiments to see how his world would collide with theirs. With filmmakers like Mel Brooks, James B. Harris and Mel Stuart, he would remove some cocaine from, say, a tinfoil package as casually as one might unwrap a chocolate bar, snort a little himself, then offer the astonished onlookers a toot. (One did not need to take it to pass his test—just to refrain from judgment.) With the actress Lily Tomlin, who hoped that Richard might lend his talents as an actor to her first TV special, the tests were more elaborate. “I had to jump through hoops for him,” Lily recalled. “I’m sure he was testing if this white girl was OK to work with.”

Richard began with the neighborhood test: he took Lily to a black part of Los Angeles to observe how she behaved and was received. Lily had grown up in a working-class ghetto in Detroit, where success “meant, if you were a girl, not getting pregnant; if you were a boy, not going to jail.” On the streets of black LA, she was at ease—and greeted with cheers of enthusiasm. People recognized her from Laugh-In, the sketch-comedy show for which she had developed unforgettable characters like Edith Ann, the most audacious of 5-year-old girls, or Ernestine, the telephone operator, pinch-faced and punchy, snorting in self-amusement.

Satisfied with the results of Lily’s first test, Richard asked the loose-limbed actress to accompany him to a porn theater. He had probed her for any racial hang-ups; her sexual hang-ups were next. A committed feminist, Lily agreed to go, but only if she could pay her own way. So Richard escorted her, on this odd Dutch date, to the Pussycat theater on Santa Monica Boulevard. Nearby, a sign winked Nude Live Girls.

However Lily comported herself at the Pussycat, it worked. Soon after, Richard invited her to his Hollywood Hills cottage, where they brainstormed her TV special. “We had conversations that spiraled into the ozone,” Richard recalled. “In minutes, we’d create enough characters to populate entire neighborhoods.” Richard found in Lily a comedian who was wedded, like him, less to the pursuit of laughs than to the pursuit of character, and who was willing to lose herself in the act of imagination. “We are soul mates,” Richard reflected in 1977. “I mean the characters we do literally take possession of us. You’re OK as long as you keep an eye on what’s happening, as long as you don’t get scared and tighten up. Because then you lose control over yourself and the character takes over completely. I’ve never seen it happen to any other entertainers but Lily and me.”

The collaboration between these two soul mates was brief, beginning in late 1972 and ending a year later, but it left a considerable imprint on Richard’s psyche. Working with Lily enlarged his sense of himself: unguarded in her presence, he found new reserves of both fearlessness and tenderness. For the first time, he was working with a performer who was equally committed to the battle for free expression—who was willing, even, to lead the charge to create something sharp and poetic on prime-time TV. “The networks feel certain things don’t belong in variety shows,” Lily quipped at the time, “but what I’ve always hated about variety shows is that they have no variety.” Together, the two of them produced some of the most remarkable television moments of the 1970s: scenes of interracial affection that didn’t aim for movie-of-the-week “significance” and so, in their roundabout way, were able to achieve something more striking: they avoided the easy laughs and went for the hard ones instead. As the Los Angeles Times observed, Lily’s TV work made “the 11 o’clock news afterward seem like a situation comedy.”

* * *

From the start, Lily grasped Richard’s potential as an actor. She urged her creative partner, Jane Wagner, to write a sketch that could tap into the full array of Richard’s abilities, “something he’d be proud of.” A white Tennessean by birth, Wagner was nevertheless deft at capturing the flow and hardship of black life. She had earlier written J.T., an unusually bracing TV movie about a black boy who, estranged from his mother and school, devotes himself to nursing a wounded cat back to health. In a shocking departure from the usual formulas, Wagner had the cat get run over by a car. For Lily and Richard, Wagner delivered the ten-minute “Juke and Opal,” about a woman who runs a hash house and the man who drifts into her establishment looking for some mixture of companionship and drug money. Three decades later, New Yorker theater critic Hilton Als hailed it as “the most profound meditation on race and class that I have ever seen on a major network.” But when Lily submitted the draft of her special’s script to CBS, the script came back with “Juke and Opal” excised by the producer the network had selected.

For this first special, titled The Lily Tomlin Show, Lily and Richard were left mainly with a more limited sketch, one that put Lily’s Tasteful Lady and Richard’s neighborhood wino together in an elevator for a short and unpredictable ride. The premise was simply to watch these two characters— a snob and a derelict with dignity—duel in an enclosed space. At rehearsal, the network was horrified at Richard’s improvised sallies. “You ever kiss a black man?” his wino (here named Lightning Bug) teased. “You better get off of here before you get pregnant.” To make matters worse, the staging of the sketch coincided with the premiere of the music documentary Wattstax, for which Richard had styled his hair in cornrows with white leather braiding, and he played up the unfamiliarity of his coif. “He was telling people it had been tied up with some white people’s skin,” Lily recalled. “And it made all these people in suits just blanch. They didn’t know what to do.”

The sketch’s most provocative moments—the ad libs that invoked the specter of interracial sex—were edited out, but the larger sketch survived, and with it a quick portrait of an unlikely intimacy. “I don’t believe a thing you’re saying,” sniffs the Tasteful Lady, to which Lightning Bug responds: “I don’t, either.” The sketch ends on a promising note, the Tasteful Lady softened by Lightning Bug’s roguish charm:

Lightning Bug: I may be a wino, but I am a gentleman, believe that. I’m going to give you my card and if you’re down Philadelphia way—a little expression—I want you to look me up. My motto is, “You can always share a jug with Lightning Bug.”

The Tasteful Lady (saving the card in her purse): Keep in touch, Mr. Lightning Bug.

The courtship is improbable but believable, since these two socially distant characters share a hidden affinity. Like so many of Pryor’s and Tomlin’s characters, they are misfits who speak their own truth, and with a beguiling confidence and authority. “I always want them to be strong,” Lily said. “I never like to do anybody who’s defeated…. The person I love most of all is somebody who conventionally looks out of place, and who thinks she’s wonderful. There’s nobody more beautiful than that.” She might as well have been speaking of the headstrong characters who populated Richard’s stage, from his wino to his chippies to the members of his own family—characters who, through the force of their personality, acted as if no stigma were attached to them. By trapping the Tasteful Lady and Lightning Bug in an elevator together, Lily and Richard dramatized the secret solidarities that can cut across class lines.

The Lily Tomlin Show was a winner in the Nielsen ratings, a solid eleventh for the week, and when CBS asked her to deliver another show in the fall, Lily was determined to leverage her success and gain more artistic freedom on her second special, this time titled Lily. She brought in new writers, such as Off Off Broadway playwright Rosalyn Drexler and future Saturday Night Live producers Lorne Michaels and Herb Sargent. The “Juke and Opal” sketch, she decided, would not be cut this time; the producer who’d deleted it from the first special was not invited back. Plotting her moves strategically, Lily also decided to bring back “War Games,” an antiwar sketch that network execs had previously quashed, scandalized by the idea of a mother telling her son, who is playing soldier in the backyard: “Come on—leg or no leg, supper’s on the table.” Perhaps Lily could use “War Games” as a bargaining chip if the network tried to block “Juke and Opal” for a second time.

As on the previous special, Richard’s improvising spirit put him at loggerheads with CBS. In a new sketch, featuring Lily as Edith Ann and Richard as a young kid, the latter made up the guileless riff: “I have titties bigger than your titties…boys have titties—first, boys have titties… then girls.” The network reps panicked and put a stop to the scene, and Richard felt so deflated that he left the soundstage. Lily met him in his dressing room and urged him to give it another try, but Richard said, “I can’t do no more.” He told a journalist later: “I can’t go onstage and it be in my mind that this kid can’t say something, ‘cause the kid is wrecked, as a kid. I mean, I was ready to cry as a kid, ‘cause I was the kid, you dig. That’s the way I see kids; I just get fascinated talking to ‘em, ‘cause it’ll be honestly sweet, and whatever they say is innocent. And if they say ‘tittie,’ you can’t tell a kid you can’t say ‘tittie.’ They deal with real shit.” The sketch was scrapped; Lily performed Edith Ann solo instead.

“Juke and Opal” had no off-color language to which the network could object. It was remarkably restrained as it tracked the arm’s-length intimacy between Juke, a man struggling to throw off a heroin addiction and get a job, and Opal, who operates her diner with a mix of sensitivity and bottom-dog wit. (“Don’t hand me that jive about job training,” she tells Juke. “You trained, all right. You highly skilled at not working.”) Still, “Juke and Opal” was troubling to the network for other reasons. During its taping, Lily was standing on the set, waiting for another take, when she noticed that everyone else had left. “I go into the hall, and everyone is standing around in a huddle,” she recalled. “They had just got the word to ‘stop taping this. We don’t want this on the air.’”

* * *

What had so inflamed the network’s executives? A critic later praised Lily as “probably the most radical departure from television and comedic conventions we will see on the tube this season,” and “Juke and Opal” was Exhibit A for how wayward the special had become, how much it purposefully ran off the rails. “Everybody kept saying it wasn’t funny, but we wanted to do little poems,” Jane Wagner said.

As a “little poem,” the sketch doesn’t explain—much less overexplain—its two main characters. The nature of Juke and Opal’s relationship is subtly enigmatic, starting with the question of Opal’s racial identity: Lily deliberately left Opal’s race open-ended, disguising her hair behind a scarf and giving her a clipped accent that could be either poor white or poor black. (Some viewers thought Opal was mixed-race or black; others assumed she was white.) The two might be former lovers or prospective lovers. They’re reaching, albeit gingerly, toward some new intimacy: Juke plays Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” on Opal’s jukebox, and after she turns down his invitation to dance, she hangs back behind the counter, looking at him slyly and dancing with herself. Both of them have a generally wounded look to them, but we can’t tell whether they’ve been wounded by each other or simply the world. “The world” arrives at Opal’s diner in the form of two young social workers, a pair of well-meaning types who would never enter her place for the food. Here, they come armed with a community questionnaire. As soon as they arrive, an invisible thread snaps: the dancing comes to a halt, “Let’s Stay Together” fades out. We feel the fragility of what Juke and Opal have, and the value of Opal’s diner as a haven for irregulars, a warm spot in a cold city.

Opal has a wry working-class knowingness to her. When one of the social workers, defending himself, says about his questionnaire: “Try to understand—we don’t make up these questions,” she quickly counters: “Try to understand—we do make up these answers.” Yet Opal also looks beyond her world. Her greasy spoon is named, with who knows how much irony, Opal’s Silver Spoon Cafe. The sketch begins and ends with a similarly free-floating juxtaposition: the hash-slinger Opal watching, on her TV, a Julia Child–like chef instructing viewers on how to prepare a cold lobster sauce and bananas flambé.

As Juke, Pryor was at his best as an actor. He modulated the junkie character he’d performed in his stand-up, preserving that character’s vulnerability but making him more multifaceted. With the social workers, Juke is acerbic; he steals the questionnaire out of their hands and puts them on the defensive with improvised questions like “Who’s Pigmeat Markham’s mama?” With Opal, he’s undefended, transparently working through his conflicting needs. He wants both her affection and the heroin he craves, and for most of the sketch, he’s willing to leverage the former for the latter, angling to borrow $10 from her so he can get high.

By the end, though, a gear has shifted in Juke’s mind; he has started to see himself through Opal’s watchful and loving eyes. He gives her back the $10 and makes a modest promise: that he’ll try to stay clean. The end of the sketch is filled with similarly small but meaningful gestures; nothing is italicized for our benefit. Juke leans in and the two kiss briefly, their faces obscured by the camera angle. Then, exiting the diner and heading into a swirl of cold wind outside, Juke leaves her musing on better times to come: “I’ll think about you. Be glad when it’s spring, flower.”

All told, “Juke and Opal” was closer to the best stage drama than the usual sketch comedy, and CBS hoped to have none of it. A CBS executive, upon seeing the special, called it a “$360,000 jerk-off.” “Juke and Opal” in particular was objectionable in so many ways: it was too long, it wasn’t funny, and, to top it off, it smuggled in a kiss between a black man and a white woman. Lily negotiated like Talleyrand to preserve the sketch. She offered to can “War Games” if she could keep “Juke and Opal,” and the network agreed to this lesser of two evils—under the condition that she sweeten the sketch with a laugh track (so that viewers would think it was, indeed, funny) and move it to the end of the show (where it wouldn’t spoil the ratings). Lily took the deal.

* * *

Lily premiered, with “Juke and Opal” intact, on November 3, 1973. To CBS’s chagrin, it attracted few viewers, ranking fifty-first out of sixty-six shows on prime time that week. Yet those in the know noticed. Six months later, Lily picked up Emmy Awards for best comedy-variety special and for the best writing on a comedy-variety special. A year after that, Lily writer Lorne Michaels used Lily’s specials as a model for his own Saturday Night Live, inspired by how she threw together “political stuff and mood pieces and moments of truth.”

It was probably no coincidence that Richard and Lily’s two sketches together revolved around courtships that were bold but hazy: their own relationship had the same tenor. For Richard, Lily was one of his few unrequited adult crushes. “I love Lily,” he told Rolling Stone in 1974, then confessed: “I’d like to ball her in all them different characters she does sometimes. Wouldn’t you? I mean, have her around the house and have her do all that—be Ernestine one minute. (Imitating Ernestine) ‘Oh (snort, snort) just put it in the proper place. Thank you’ (snort, snort).”

Witnessing Lily’s creativity was “sensual” for Richard: “the deeper and funnier it got,” he wrote of their collaboration, “the more I wanted to get in her pants.” Fortunately, one might say, Lily didn’t return those particular affections. Though instantly seduced by Richard as a performer, she was never seduced by him as a man: by 1973, she had been committed to Jane Wagner for several years and would remain so. As a consequence, Richard and Lily had a less troubled connection, uninflected by the possessiveness that Richard felt toward the other women in his life.

The only strains in their relationship, in fact, came when Lily was acting not as an artist onstage but rather as a feminist in conversation, questioning the prerogatives of men. When, at one point, Richard took her to an after-hours joint, she engaged some working girls with a rap about how they should consider keeping their earnings for themselves. Richard hustled her out, intuiting that she was taking them, and herself, to a dangerous place. And when she trespassed on Richard’s own prerogatives, even his darling Lily wasn’t granted a free pass. At a restaurant on Sunset Boulevard once, she started talking feminism with Patricia Heitman, Richard’s companion at the time. Richard became so incensed that he turned their table over, letting the dishes clatter to the floor, and stormed out of the restaurant.

For Richard, there was life onstage and life off, and onstage was where he had the license to check his ego and admit his vulnerabilities. Collaborators like Lily Tomlin and Jane Wagner offered him the equivalent of an airtight alibi: with them, he could flow into characters and explore his better self, with no worries of getting caught. It was no easy thing to bridge these two worlds—even Lily, who had a more integrated sense of herself than Richard, acknowledged the difficulty of being at home with her variousness. When an interviewer asked her how she felt when she saw herself on TV, she shot back a riddle of her own: “What does a chameleon see when it looks into a mirror?”

* * *

Richard’s collaboration with Lily was a shaft of light in an otherwise dim time for his career. In 1972, he had worked on six movies; after the caper film Hit! wrapped in February 1973, he worked on none for nine months, and the only role he could anticipate was a small, low-paid cameo in Sidney Poitier’s Uptown Saturday Night. The stalling of his film career puzzled him. “I’ve been trying to be a booty star,” he said in October 1973. “I was in about three movies and thought, ‘Shit, you get one movie, you get a whole bunch of motherfuckin’ movies.’… I ain’t had a motherfucker call me about nothin’.” Richard had done more than simply wait for the phone to ring. Fresh off his work on the Blazing Saddles screenplay, he wrote and tried to peddle The Black Stranger, a revisionist western in which a black gunfighter and a voodoo woman drive out a villain who acts, suspiciously, a whole lot like John Wayne. The Los Angeles Times announced that Richard was setting up a production deal, but none materialized publicly.

It was out of desperation that Richard came back to stand-up comedy. “I was starving to death,” he said, explaining why he’d returned to the stage after years of avoiding it. “Kiss my ass, Jack! I have to get back to work.” His manager, Ron DeBlasio, had a more sanguine view: he saw Richard as a breakout performer who, given the increased recognition for his film and TV work, should now play concerts, not club dates. DeBlasio booked him for a midnight concert at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. It was an intense scale-up in capacity, from a DC club like the Cellar Door (220 seats) to the Kennedy Center’s stately Concert Hall (2,465 seats). Richard wondered if he was ready.

As preparation for the Kennedy Center show, Richard played a series of woodshedding dates at LA’s Comedy Store in October 1973, and you can hear his nerves and rustiness as a performer on the recording of his first show there. He opened with “Wino and Junkie,” a routine that had customarily been his closer, and raced through it at a jumped-up clip. Then, for apparently the first time, he welcomed the audience with what became his signature greeting during his heyday: “Hope I’m funny… ‘cause [this] audience has been known to kick a little ass.” Later, perhaps, this line became a mere reflex, but at this point he truly feared having to face the music. His new routines were untested or unelaborated, his old routines polished past the point of feeling fresh to him. Half an hour into the show, he made another unprecedented gesture: he asked the audience for requests. “Whoa, horsey,” a line from “Rumpelstiltskin,” the oldest and tamest of his routines, bounced back at him from the audience—reminding him why he never asked for requests. They lashed him to an older version of himself, one he’d long tried to outrun.

Richard barely made it to DC for his Kennedy Center gig, delaying his trip to the LA airport till the last possible minute. In the run-up to the show, he was “a nervous wreck,” according to DeBlasio. He couldn’t eat; he was irritable; he turned away from conversations or joined them to deliver insults. Backstage at the Kennedy Center, though, he came upon some head-turning news: his midnight concert was a sellout. In DC’s black community—and especially among those for whom the witching hour marked just the start of their Saturday night—the name “Richard Pryor” was golden.

Onstage, Richard beheld an almost exclusively black audience packing the lower level, box seats and two balconies, and he kicked into gear. He rode the crests of laughter, loosely switching between his established routines and his riffs on the news of the day, such as the energy crisis: “Ain’t gonna affect us, ‘cause I don’t know no nigger buys more than $2 worth of gas anyway.” The Washington Post’s reviewer wrote that Pryor kept the audience “guffawing in the aisles” and also couldn’t help observing that “his scatological, outrageously lewd humor struck an interesting note of contrast in the Center’s sedate Concert Hall.” Never before, it’s fair to say, had a comic speculated frankly on a president’s sexual prowess (or lack thereof) from its stage.

The tide was turning for Richard. Shortly after the concert, DeBlasio fielded a phone call from Murray Swartz of Queen Booking, possibly the top agency representing black talent and certainly the top black-owned agency. After drifting nearly four years without an agent, Richard signed with Queen and found himself in the illustrious company of Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Sammy Davis Jr., and Gladys Knight and the Pips. Soon, he was routinely selling out large venues like New York’s Lincoln Center and playing still-bigger arenas like the Oakland Coliseum. But it wasn’t simply Queen’s muscle that opened doors: Richard’s breakthrough as a stand-up was powered by a live show that slayed audiences, and by a little album that forever altered the DNA of American comedy.

* * *

That Nigger’s Crazy was recorded in February 1974 at a San Francisco nightclub operated by Soul Train host Don Cornelius, and in front of an audience that was 90 percent black. Richard’s instructions to DeBlasio, who was in charge of producing the record, were minimal but insistent: “Remember black people.” After his experience with his first album, he wouldn’t allow his material to be cherry-picked for the so-called mainstream. Richard himself came up with the album’s title (sometimes forcibly abbreviated in ads as That N—— Crazy) and the album’s cover, on which his face opens up in a grin that falls halfway between impish and diabolical. Shamelessness was his starting point and his forte.

That Nigger’s Crazy was an Everlasting Gobstopper of an album, changing flavors the more one savored it. On the first pass, it simply floored contemporary listeners with its audacity. When Richard confessed how he prayed to God after a too-quick ejaculation (“Lord, don’t let her know… just let it stay heavy if not hard”); when he imitated a cop in naked love with his power (“Put your hands up, take your pants down and spread your cheeks!”); or when, in the character of the swaggering Oilwell, he taunted a cop (“Boy, you hit me with that stick, I’m gonna bite your dick!”), he was uttering the unutterable. As the “crazy nigger,” he gave voice to repressed anxieties, affronts, wishes—things too painful to remember or too dangerous to dwell upon.

On the second and third hearing, That Nigger’s Crazy revealed itself as a set of variations on a theme that Richard announced twelve minutes into the record: “white folks do things a lot different than niggers do.” Here he was less the crazy nigger than a sort of comic anthropologist, elaborating on the cultural divide between white and black America. The terms of that divide were familiar—whites were repressed, blacks uninhibited; whites were brittle, blacks unflappable (“nothin’ can scare a nigger after 400 years of this shit”)—but Richard’s examples were fresh and vivid, with no plaster saints or tinhorn villains in sight. He directed much of his attention to black folks who were earthy, homegrown characters. There was his Aunt Maxine, who sucked a neck bone with such gusto that, by the time she threw it to the family dog, he looked at it, puzzled (“What am I supposed to do with that motherfucker?”). There was the wino who, chancing upon Dracula in the ghetto, told him to hightail to an orthodontist. There was the black preacher who, transposed into a black version of The Exorcist, informed the Lord that “the devil is just acting the motherfuckin’ fool” and asked, “Could you exorcise this motherfucker to Cleveland [or] someplace?” And so on: characters whose bravado came from embracing their idiosyncrasies. Black comedians in the generation after Richard—whether they performed on Saturday Night Live or Def Comedy Jam, MADtv or the “Kings of Comedy” tour—have drawn upon the example that he set here.

Less obviously, perhaps, That Nigger’s Crazy operated like a set of neon-lit folktales, shaking insight and laughter out of the harshest of predicaments. Just as folktales often surprise us with their ghastliness—stepmothers who banish their children, ogres who feed on a diet of bones—so Richard captivated the listener with a vision of the world that, from one angle, was beyond bleak. Thus the final line in his story of a black man getting frisked while out on the town: “What nigger feel like having fun after that? ‘Let’s just go home, baby.’ You go home and beat your kids and shit—you gonna take that shit out on somebody.” He dramatized the desperation and violence of the world, which wasn’t simply color-coded by race. In an absurdly grim scene, his junkie vomits in the unemployment bureau, then argues with a black security guard about who should clean up the mess. “You don’t clean up this shit,” the guard threatens, “I shoot your ass.” The junkie replies, “Well, who gonna clean up the blood, nigger?” and laughs with self-satisfaction. For the moment he has, like a modern-day Br’er Rabbit, bested the guard by outwitting him.

That Nigger’s Crazy was unquestionably a comedy landmark, but it might have been better still, more searching and provocative, if it had included Richard’s routine on dropping acid for the first time. Richard first developed “Acid” sometime in late 1973, and while he later performed it on Saturday Night Live and recorded a dazzling version for 1976’s Bicentennial Nigger, the original version probed deeper. In both versions of “Acid,” Richard hits many of the same marks: he takes the drug with bluster (“Baby, I can handle any motherfuckin’ thing!”); feels a trippy rush; falls into terror (“I don’t remember how to breathe!”); then loses himself in a parallel scene of a mind unspooling, the climax of 2001: A Space Odyssey. In this last section, Richard’s personal voice drops out, and for a long minute his stage routine has the suspended-in-air pacing of the Kubrick film. His audience is made to sit mute with concentration as Richard performs the scene in which Dave the astronaut deactivates HAL the computer:

(The sound of labored breathing, Dave in a spacesuit.)

HAL (gently and matter-of-fact as ever): Dave, don’t. I’m losing my mind, Dave.

Hi, my name is HAL 9000. I was embedded in 1992. My teacher taught me a song. Would you like to hear it?

One critic described Richard’s performance as “like a ballet, his hands floating slow motion out of control, his head jerking this way and that as if possessed.”

In the original version of “Acid,” Richard added an extra existential twist to the tale. During his reckoning with the abyss, a powerful voice comes out of a howling wind and assails Richard, urging him to let go of his identity as a “nigger”:

Voice From Beyond (whispering furiously, with an accusatory tone): I’ve been waiting for about twenty-two years to meet your ass. You’ve been bullshittin’ me, you know, with all that old jive nigger shit? You know, hidin’ behind them shields and shit? Instead of coming forward with all this energy?

You been layin’ back, posin’ an’ shit, bullshittin’, motherfucker, well you’re dead tonight… I’m gonna free you, brother. I’m taking over where I rightfully belong; you givin’ up all that phony psychology you didn’t learn.

Richard (speaking as if trapped in a slow-motion film): Wha-uh-tin-the-fu-kis-sap-ning-to-me-ee?

Voice From Beyond (calm now, comforting): You becoming a man. You just born. But I’m afraid… you won’t be a nigger no more. But you won’t be ignorant, either. The truth… is everlasting.

In this version, Richard was pushed to be reborn—and into a startling discovery about the fictions that ruled his life. In the mid-1960s, he had been Mr. Congeniality onstage; then, after his identity crisis at Las Vegas’s Aladdin Hotel in 1967, where he had refused to bow to pressures to censor his act, he had come to embrace the persona of the “crazy nigger,” a persona that allowed him to speak his own truth and violate whatever taboos required violation. Or so he thought. But what if “nigger” itself were just another mask, just another bit of jive? What if being “that crazy nigger” were a mere gimmick, designed to keep the deepest of anxieties at bay?

For a different sort of artist, this moment in “Acid” would have been unthinkable or untenable—the equivalent of those cartoon scenes where a character saws away at the branch he is sitting upon. But for Richard, “Acid” was a fulfillment of his larger program as an artist and a “crazy nigger” both. Once he settled on a truth, he was compelled to unsettle it. Once the foundation seemed solid under his feet, his mind turned to thoughts of earthquakes, quicksand, dynamite.

* * *

For a seeker like Richard, there was no easy resolution to the contradiction: race was both the thinnest of fictions and the hardest of truths. During an acid-induced dialogue with a voice from beyond, it might seem a mere illusion. But in the world, it raised your blood pressure, kept you unemployed, and got your ass strip-searched and hauled off to jail.

In early March of 1974, Richard was in Washington, DC, for a set of concerts when he was approached by a friend who’d just been released from the Lorton Correctional Complex in Fairfax County, Virginia. The inmates, his friend said, were Pryor fans and wanted him to perform inside. Would he consider playing there?

A few days later, Richard was in a packed gymnasium at Lorton, surrounded by a thousand inmates; he’d coaxed the promoter behind his DC shows to whip together a concert, and now he was on a bill with a local go-go band, a model and Inner Voices, an inmate singing group. The inmates in the audience wore Lorton’s unofficial uniform—wool caps, fatigue jackets, jeans, work boots or sneakers—and sat with the utmost attention for this rare reprieve from prison routine.

The men of Inner Voices filed onstage, some in long white robes, one in black, another without a shirt, and sang the just-released ballad by the Stylistics, “You Make Me Feel Brand New.” The lead singer reached out, at a tender moment, to one of the two women in the hall, and a wave of applause filled the room. On every other day at Lorton, there were no women to serenade.

Richard started weeping and didn’t stop. “Look at these guys,” he told Ron DeBlasio. “They’ll never get out. Look at the life they lead, how terrible it is.”

When he took the stage, Richard connected with the men in the crowd, animating a set of characters familiar to them from their life before prison. With his pitch-perfect impersonations, he gave them a taste of the families in which they’d grown up, the players they’d known, the electricity of the streets they’d left behind. It was as if, through the magic of the stage, he had smuggled the world outside into Lorton.

The full show lasted three hours, or as long as the warden would allow. When it ended, an inmate presented Richard with a painting he’d done. “We wish we had more,” he announced, “but we give you our love, and this is a token of it.”

After the show, the inmates “crowded around Pryor and the other performers,” according to The Washington Post, “talking, touching, exchanging addresses.” Then they exchanged something more: Richard had been wearing an expensive studded leather shirt, and he traded it for the shirt worn by a young inmate.

Richard left Lorton wearing prison denim. Seven weeks later, he arranged to have Inner Voices transported—with a contingent of armed guards for security—to the Apollo Theater in Harlem, where they served as his opening act for four nights of performances. Richard introduced them personally at the Apollo, an unusual move for a headliner.

Seven weeks later still, Richard Pryor was Prisoner No. 2140-875 in the Los Angeles County Jail and wearing prison denim not by choice. He was serving a ten-day sentence for tax evasion, the result of the early years of his career, when he had acted like his grandmother in her brothel and kept his earnings—an alleged $250,000 over four years—off the books. The judge, making an example of Richard around tax season, had mandated prison time.

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