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.”