Richard Pryor walks off stage in Vegas, films first stand-up comedy concert: Part 3

Realizing he couldn't be genuine performing in Las Vegas, Richard Pryor walked off the stage mid-performance. He moved to California in the ‘60s, using humor to express the turbulent decade.
8:46 | 01/17/20

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Transcript for Richard Pryor walks off stage in Vegas, films first stand-up comedy concert: Part 3
Vegas next to New York is the pinnacle of the comic world. It is where entertainment, live entertainment, lives and thrives. If you make it in a place like the aladdin, you've arrived. Vegas was everything. It was huge money in those days. All those cats were making money, and it was a fabulous lifestyle. Tons of women. It was a disneyland for everything. Welcome to the flamingo hotel in glittering Las Vegas. Richard has this great contract. He was going to make all this money, and he was gonna be in a showroom, appearing. You would think that would be enough for any comic. He's got this -- what should be, like, a big gig that opens things up for him. But it's also true that the Vegas audience is not like the audience that he's -- he loves the most. Imagine guys in sharkskin suits and women with bouffant hairdos. That's who the Vegas crowd is, right? This is not a mixed race crowd. This is Las Vegas circa 1967. It was an all-white town, period. And it was a very, very racist city, Las Vegas. There was no black people working in -- on the strip in Las Vegas. There were no dealers. There were no doormen. There were no managers. There were no hotel clerks. There were no cocktail waitresses. There were no blacks in the hotels on the strip. Well, Las Vegas was a place where high rollers went to see entertainment like the rat pack. But the kind of casual racial slurs that Dean and frank deliver on to Sammy with a joke and a kind of wink just seem appalling nowadays. I'd like to thank the naacp for this wonderful trophy. I was the opening act for the carpenters, abba, Joel grey, Petula Clark. You weren't opening for acts that brought in any black people. So, imagine Richard Pryor, and you're suddenly in Vegas, and you want to show them what you can do. You want to be the person that you are, but you got these rules. You can't curse. Everybody was told to be totally clean. No dirt at all. Otherwise you'll never work. You don't talk about being raised in a brothel. You don't talk about drug use and screwed up relationships. You don't. And then you look out in the audience, and it's all white people. You have to deal with that and figure out, wait a minute, what am I doing here? This is not -- am I supposed to be here? Am I supposed to be doing this? It just sort of doesn't gel. So there's this underlying, uneasy thing that happened with Richard in Las Vegas. You live being black in a black world, but when you start interacting in a white world, you had to put on a different attitude. You'd have to protect yourself. You'd have to be careful what you say and how you say it. I wasn't courageous or honest sometimes. I would get a laugh and feel safe there, and I wouldn't go any further. I would say It's hard enough to get this laugh. Leave it at that. And so, Richard was trapped in this world that certainly didn't fit his creativity or his imagination. And I think he had enough. In Pryor's case, there's a famous kind of epiphany. He was in Vegas, and he looked into the eyes of Dean martin, who was in the audience, and apparently, he said Dean was looking at him with this look of like, what the Are you doing? And Richard obviously internalized that question immediately and walked off stage. And I think in one fell swoop, in one moment, he just went, I got to let the genie out of the bottle. I can't do this. It's like a primal scream. He just went You know? That's not me. I'm sure the agent to this day is probably hanging in his office by a noose or something going, oh, my god, he blew all this money. At that point in his life, he was kind of spinning out of he had had some successes but they weren't satisfying to him. What he was doing was, like, guest spots on "The partridge family." I know it's none of my business, but I keep wondering why you want to beat up vegetables? Because that's the only thing I can bruise that won't bruise me back. That was the last thing he did, and he's like, "Is that what I want to be known for?" I could feel the stirrings of an identity crisis. It was coming on like the beginning of an acid trip. Make up, Richard. Yes, you're an ignorant jerk, pumping your -- like a cheap -- but you have a brain. Use it. If you choose to move to Berkeley you are dunking yourself head first into a whole different world. Berkeley is really the epicenter of both the counterculture at the time and of the black power movement. That period of time, the world was blowing up. Patty Hearst was kidnapped. The Chicago riots. There was so much going on. King's death. Kennedy's death. We were a nation divided along racial lines, divided over the war. And Richard Pryor came along into this angry soundtrack in American history and added a laugh track. Black power's just a word. You all get uptight. Black power's coming. Black power's coming! Anyway, you have nothing to fear from the black man except his thoughts. That's enough! The voice of those times was really heard in music. that was the new age, and that's what people were listening to. well, his music is his voice, is his comedy. Negroes can't go to heaven. They can get a promise of heaven. I was a Negro for 23 years. I gave that Up. No room for advancement. And it was alarming to people. But, you know, the hip cats in jazz type clubs got it, that this is a new world. He wasn't doing, you know, the Bill Cosby routines anymore. You know, "Live and smokin'" was -- he shot that in 1971, and that's hardcore. And you could see, "Oh, hell, we're in for a ride here." My daddy told me he don't want to see me into the city just because I stole his television. And that's when his jokes became more about what I did. Then it became personal. Then the jokes elevated, became real. His first initial appearances were so strong, so raw, it reminded me -- the closest I could think of is when Jimi Hendrix first hit the United States. People just went, oh, my god! What is this? Yeah, boy, I got some. I got some advice for your -- you better lay off that narcotics That made you null and void. Getting on stage is hard for anybody. But doing what Richard did was really hard, I think. Can't get arrested for drinking nothing. Richard talked about himself and his truth. Where he came from, where he wanted to go. Who he was as a human being. What America was. He came back smoking more joints than ever, doing cocaine, more women. But with that came a heavy, heavy drug thing. He was always doing drugs, but not like this. I'm really nervous because I ain't had no cocaine all day.

This transcript has been automatically generated and may not be 100% accurate.

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