In anticipation of BAMcinématek's hiatus-breaking, 18-film tribute to legendary comedian Richard Pryor, we’ve spent the past week collecting some of his most memorable one-liners on Twitter. But it’s important to clarify that quippy quotability was only a part of his complex legacy. With a style that encompassed autobiography, social commentary, and imaginative flights of storytelling and mimicry, Pryor reset the political and emotional parameters of American comedy in such a radical way that when the John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts established the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor in the late 1990s, he was an obvious choice to be its first recipient.
Growing up in his grandmother’s brothel in Peoria, IL, Pryor inherited an arsenal of profanity that would become a natural part of his speech and comic persona, and one of his trademarks was the perfectly timed deployment of the “f” and “n” words. As one of our program’s special guests Hilton Als noted in an in-depth New Yorker profile published in 1999, Pryor was the first black-American spoken-word artist to avoid the trap of pandering to white liberal tastes, and his repeated use of the “n” word (often to chilling effect) was part of this racial forthrightness. But it was the way he matched his outrage with flashes of vulnerability that allowed audiences of all races to connect with him.
“A Pryor Engagement” (Feb 8—13 & 19—21) features Pryor’s very best film work, but the cultural phenomenon of Pryor was built as much on his Grammy-winning albums and TV appearances. Below we’ve gathered a handful of our favorite non-film Pryor moments.
Before his ascent to superstardom in the 1970s, Pryor was a middlebrow entertainer whose greatest influence was Bill Cosby. Here he is performing on the Ed Sullivan Show—personable, endearing, and very funny.
Richard Pryor joins Sly Stone for this hilariously bizarre interview on the Mike Douglas Show.
Richard Pryor grunts and guffaws his way through the alphabet on Sesame Street.
And teaches the kids how to show emotion:
The drunken Mississippi philosopher Mudbone was Pryor’s most famous creation, and also the one he would most come to dread performing. Though the shtick got old for him, here it is in all its satirical-surreal glory on his Grammy-winning fourth album, …Is It Something I Said?
Marlon Wayans has been very vocal over the years about his interest in starring in a Pryor biopic. Here is his brother Damon’s dead-on impression of Pryor’s fraidy-cat mannerisms in In Living Color.
This series features some incredible music, so we’ll sign off with Rose Royce, Roberta Flack, and a clip from the Pryor-MCed Wattstax.
From Car Wash:
From Bustin' Loose: