Richard Pryor is arguably the greatest comedian that history has ever seen. His routines and acts influenced generations of comedians to this day. Some of Pryor’s memorable material centered around time he spent in the penitentiary. Incarceration was a life that he was familiar with from his younger years. Though he was a joke teller, he was not the one to fuck with.
Pryor’s early life was one of hardship. He grew up in a Peoria, IL whorehouse, run by his grandmother, Marie Carter Pryor Bryant. His mother, Gertrude, a troubled young woman, worked in it. Though his grandmother raised him, his mother still had an influence on him. In his 1995 memoir Pryor Convictions, he wrote about an interaction Gertrude had with his father, Buck Carter:
“The only person scarier than God was my mother. . . . One time Buck hit Gertrude, and she turned blue with anger and said ‘Okay, motherfucker, don’t hit me no more. . . . Don’t stand in front of me with fucking undershorts on and hit me, motherfucker.’ Quick as lightning, she reached out with her finger claws and swiped at my father’s dick. Ripped his nutsack off. I was just a kid when I saw this.”
Furthermore, at the tender age of six, Pryor was sexually abused by a young man in the neighborhood. Even with all of that going on, he found that he had a knack to make people laugh, mainly his classmates. At the age of eight, his teacher allowed him a five minute slot to do stand-up for his peers, as a reward for being punctual. However, in 8th grade, his teacher asked him to leave school due to his classroom antics. He entered the working class, securing a job at a packing plant. At the age of 17, he found out that his father was smashing a woman he was involved with and had enough. In 1958, Pryor joined the Army.
While in the service, Pryor was stationed in Germany, the setting for his first conviction. While watching the film Imitation Of Life by Douglas Sirk. ILoveOldSchoolMusic described the film:
It was a remake of the 1930s smash and for those who aren’t familiar with it- it was about an interracially mixed girl in the segregated south, and how that very light-skinned girl pretended to be White so she could be accepted.
Needless to say, there were racially-charged scenes in the movie. One young, White soldier found some of the scenes a little too funny and laughed a little too hard, much to the chagrin of Pryor and other Black soldiers. In response, Pryor and others beat and stabbed the White soldier. For the assault, Pryor spent most of his two years in the Army in jail.
That wasn’t Pryor’s last tie in jail. In 1974, he was locked up for ten days for income tax evasion. Nevertheless, though Pryor was funny ass Hell, evidenced by his actions in the Army, he was not the one to play with.
Read Hilton Als 1999 feature, “A Pryor Love,” in The New Yorker here.