Richard Pryor was one of the most prominent stand-up comedians of the 20th century. He achieved international fame and was celebrated for his clever examinations of racial issues and witty outlooks on contemporary political turbulence.
His comedy was saturated by vulgarity and an in-your-face attitude, and he amused the audience with his storytelling. Jerry Seinfeld named him “the Picasso of stand-up comedy,” and numerous other comedians acknowledged him as their primary inspiration.
However, Pryor’s early life was rough and full of unfavorable circumstances, and his easy-going and relaxed attitude developed when he left the hardships of his past behind him. His alcoholic mother abandoned him in his early childhood, and he was raised by his grandmother. His grandmother owned a brothel, and he ended up being a victim of severe sexual abuse at the age of 7.
He was expelled from school at the age of 14 and joined the U.S. Army in 1958. He thought that he might pursue a career in the army, but ended up serving only two years. He spent these two years in the military prison because of an incident that occurred while he was stationed in Germany.
Namely, Pryor and several other African-American soldiers were enraged because a young white soldier laughed too hard at racist jokes from Douglas Sirk’s movie Imitation of Life. The group severely beat and stabbed the young soldier: he managed to survive, and the attackers, including Pryor, were arrested and imprisoned.
After this incident, Pryor decided to turn his life around and dedicated his life to stand-up comedy. He moved to New York in early 1960’s and began rehearsing for solo performances. At first, he earned money as a drummer in a nightclub band, but then he finally decided to share his comedy with a wider audience.
During the 1960’s he was regularly sharing the stage with performers such as Bob Dylan and Woody Allen. His early years were marked by crippling stage fright, which caused him to suffer anxiety before every performance.
The person who was responsible for helping Pryor in his battle against stage fright was none other than the legendary singer Nina Simone. Pryor performed alongside Nina Simone at the famous nightclub The Village Gate in Greenwich Village, New York. Nina Simone noticed Pryor’s anxiety and decided to help him get over it. While recalling the nights at The Village Gate, Simone stated:
“He shook like he had malaria, he was so nervous. I couldn’t bear to watch him shiver, so I put my arms him there in the dark and rocked him like a baby until he calmed down.
The next night was the same, and the next, and I rocked him each time.”