Two Television Interviews Spotlight How Richard Pryor Changed Comedy

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Tonight, Showtime premieres the excellent documentary “Richard Pryor: Omit the Logic.” This piece examines how Pryor changed the face of the modern stand-up comic, via two talk show interviews and a testy exchange with a comedy legend.

November 25, 1974. It is the first day of Richard Pryor’s week-long stint as celebrity co-host of the syndicated daytime Mike Douglas Show. The panel’s key guest is TV legend Milton Berle, there to promote his autobiography. Two segments pass, neither of them terribly memorable; Berle tells some stories, hawks his wares (“This is not a sad book, but there’s a lot of pathos in the book, do you agree on that?”), and tells some jokes, most of them not very good. Pryor laughs pleasantly, and tells the audience, “I’ve been on shows where all those young guys were dying, trying to get laughs, and Milton was there with cards, giving us jokes to help us out.”

Douglas chimes in, “I saw him do something so kind — ” but Pryor interrupts: “Oh, I never saw him do anything kind…”

Berle replies, “You mean, for your kind.” The line lands with a thud. The show goes to commercial.

When they come back, Douglas steers the interview towards the book’s revelation that Berle had a son, out of wedlock, with an actress girlfriend (referred to only by the pseudonym “Linda Smith”). Berle is immediately serious, but Pryor lets out a weird little guffaw; it passes, and Berle keeps going, explaining how the woman first consented to go to Tijuana for an abortion. And then Pryor, off-camera, laughs out loud. Berle turns to him, fuming. Pryor is apologetic: “I’m sorry, man, but just, I just, I just did it.” The audience chortles, and Pryor can’t stop laughing. He looks down at his shoes. Berle’s hand is on Pryor’s arm and chest; he puts his hand on the back of the comic’s neck and side of his face, somewhat patronizingly.

“I wish,” Berle says, with something resembling emotion, “I wish, Richard, that I could have laughed at that time at your age, when I was your age, the way you just laughed now, but I just couldn’t.” He tries to get the focus back, to continue the story, and Douglas helps, asking more questions about the actress, this “Linda Smith.”

“I told Linda Smith,” Berle says, “and I keep saying Linda Smith, and I’d better keep saying Linda Smith, because one of these days, I hope I don’t slip, and say who it is.”

And there, the audio track goes dead — as it did earlier, when Pryor slipped with a profanity. He is off-camera, so we can’t read his lips. But as legend has it, he takes a guess (“Eleanor Roosevelt?”), and the audience explodes with laughter. Berle is furious.

“Maybe I should tell the story another time,” he fumes.

Pryor is apologetic. “I’m sorry, Milton, that was out of line.”

“Richard, let me just tell you something, baby.” Berle looks up into the rafter lights for effect. “I told you this nine years ago. And I’m gonna tell you on the air in front of millions of people.” He takes a long, dramatic pause. “Pick your spots, baby.”

Berle looks at Pryor, who doesn’t skip a beat before replying, Bogie-style, “All right, sweetheart.”

The audience laughs, nervously. The two go back and forth; the exchange gets testier. Soon, Pryor is the one looking up into the lights. “I really love you,” he tells Berle, “but I don’t wanna kiss your ass.” That audio drops out, too, but we can see his mouth when he says it. The audience explodes in laughter; there’s a smattering of applause. It is a charged moment.

Berle turns to Douglas. “That’s why I asked you, all due respect to the ladies and gentlemen on the panel, if we could do this one-on-one… Because it is a serious situation, and I’d rather not discuss it anymore.”

Douglas soldiers on with the interview, but it’s over. There are no attempts at laughs, and there are none, from Pryor or anyone else. The next segment features a wrestler and his performing bear.

September 5, 1980. It is Pryor’s first visit to The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson since what was originally and strenuously called an “accident,” but which Pryor later admitted — on film and in print — to be an attempted suicide. That June, he capped off a long freebasing bender by dousing himself in cognac (or rum, the stories vary) and setting himself on fire, burning more than half his body.

That night, on Carson, the audience cheers long after Doc ends Pryor’s walk-on music. “They mean it,” Johnny says. Pryor, overcome with emotion, wells up and thanks them. He talks about the “accident,” his recovery, and the public outpouring of emotion and support with candor and humor; as always, he is both funny and vulnerable, though certainly more the latter than usual.

Towards the end of the interview, he talks about taking a bit of time off — but not much. “I can’t, I really can’t sit that long. It turns in on me. I have to get out and do something. But this is exciting for me. Just to know that, hey, man, it’s possible. Anything’s possible if you want to do something… I was lying there, and I had to find something in myself to make me live. And all I thought about was, get well. And you can do anything, people can do anything they want.” The applause that follows is deafening.

*

The two interviews are superficially similar: a beloved comic on a chat show, talking about a personal struggle. But the difference between how the two men conduct themselves — and how their audiences respond — speaks volumes about not only why Pryor was the most influential comic of his generation, but about the fundamental shift that occurred in comedy between Berle’s heyday and his. When Berle tells the tale of his bastard child, he gives it the weight of Shakespearean tragedy, but he’s not a good enough actor to make it play; he comes off as a showbiz phony, and he can’t sneak pass Pryor’s bullshit detector. When Pryor’s inappropriate joking punctures Berle’s act, the man deflates.

For Pryor, however, personal tragedy wasn’t a party trick to be trotted out in dulcet tones to push book sales. It was the raw material from which his comedy was built: the child of a broken marriage, raised in his grandmother’s brothel, sexually abused, time in an Army prison, time in LA County Jail, six failed marriages, two heart attacks, multiple sclerosis, and the drugs, all the drugs, culminating in that horrible thing, that “accident.”

But Pryor talked about all of it, spun his pain into his act — all of the fear and anger and bitterness and resentment and embarrassment, he used it all, gave it a voice, put it all on the line. He never merely “told jokes”; he brought his life on stage and laughed about it, because that was all he knew how to do. Entertainers of Berle’s generation saw comedy and tragedy as two separate entities, never to intertwine, but Pryor’s best work straddles that line between comedy and tragedy—he laughs, that he may not cry. Audiences recognized his honesty and his vulnerability, and that — as much as his precise timing and perceptive wit — is what they responded to in him. He seemed like your buddy, the guy working next to you on the line who did the wicked impression of the boss, or the neighbor out on the stoop Saturday afternoon, sipping a beer, making fun of passers-by, and telling you his troubles.

On stage, Pryor talked about politics and culture, but his favorite topic (and target) was himself. On New Year’s Eve, 1978, police were called to his California home when a drunken Pryor shot up his wife’s car. Some celebrities would have avoided talking about it; Richard got four minutes out of it on his next album and concert film. The freebasing incident would have sunk most public figures; Richard turned it into the entire third act of his 1982 concert film Richard Pryor Live on the Sunset Strip, and he killed with it, effortlessly blending pathos, confession, and big laughs. His life informed his art — and he was complicated, needy, and self-destructive enough that he would never want for material.

When Pryor walks out at the beginning of that Tonight Show spot, he embraces Johnny. When he does, you can see the scar tissue from the burns on the back of his neck. When he sits, his shirt is open to the third button, and that scar tissue is plain as day on his chest, all the way up to his neckline. He could easily have buttoned it up. But that wasn’t Richard Pryor’s style. He wanted his scars to show.