Richard Pryor's interest in comedy grows, he begins to explore his voice: Part 2

Richard Pryor began stand-up comedy at a time when Bill Cosby was the only major black comedian. Unlike Cosby, Pryor didn't want to play it safe for white audiences.
8:29 | 01/17/20

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Transcript for Richard Pryor's interest in comedy grows, he begins to explore his voice: Part 2
For people with hearing loss, visit Sprintrelay.com. Richard Pryor growing up in Peoria, who was 90% white, he begins by going to the movies and being entranced by Jerry Lewis and movies like You better watch what you're doing. Stop the head, Al, stop the head. I don't like it here. I'm gonna quit. "Sailor beware" was the movie. There was 300 kids when we left the theatre going -- I'm like watching cartoon after cartoon and thinking "How can I imitate these cartoonish expressions on my face?" I think he looked at television and films different than other children did. Because in his early stages, his voices, his characters, they were from TV. So that's the comedy that he loves. It tends to be pretty zany, highly physical and antic. Did you know what you were going to be? Yeah. I was going to be Richard Pryor. Dun dun dun! I knew that. Something in me. Did you know it was going to be show business? Yeah. I knew show business even before that. I asked him, "When did you first find out you were funny?" And he said, when I was 4. Well, in the early '60s when Richard decides he wants to become a comic, it's very kind of formalized, right. You have the kind of rat pack world. You have standup comics have a certain variety. It's a lot of gags. At that time it was still the Alan kings, the henny youngmans, Rowan and Martins, those kind of guys like that. You never did meet my daughter, did you? Fern, this is Dan. Dank this is fern. Black people weren't on television, and if they were, um, they were usually trapped in this white version of black America. The world that Richard Pryor was coming up in as a comedian was the world of Ed Sullivan, white guys in suits, right? You have a kind of monoculture and like one path to take. Richard Pryor came up at a time where whoever the black man was, especially back in the day there was only one allowed, and that was Bill Cosby at the time. Bill Cosby was a college-educated African-American man. He was someone that white audiences at that time in the early 1960s could accept. He did comedy that had some racial elements to it, but it wasn't very confrontational. It was about families. People could relate to it no matter where they had grown up. And I looked at my face in the mirror, and I see little tiny hairs growing out of my face. And he's like, I can do that. I can do that. And he tried do that. Cosby wasn't threatening. Cosby was like the kind of guy that white people said, "Now, why can't you all be like this? This is a guy." He sees Bill Cosby and he thinks very clearly, "I want a chunk of that." And he is such a good impressionist that he basically becomes a version of Bill Cosby. Noah. Who is that? It's the lord, Noah. What are you doing, Noah? You're gonna build an ark? It's gonna rain 40 days and 40 nights? That's the silliest thing I ever -- Cosby, he talked about Cosby all the time and how cool Cosby was. We used to idolize Bill Cosby. Yeah. We used to go see him. He was hot. That was something. Do you ever, even unconsciously, pick up somebody's line and use it? Oh, on purpose. Oh, I see. That's more honest than I thought I was going to get. People say, "You sound like bill." I said "The hell you mean? This is my voice, jack." So no, I did that for -- I made a lot of money as Bill Cosby. Yeah. But he isn't like Bill Cosby. Bill Cosby made his comedy acceptable to white people. It was safe. There's nothing about bill Cosby's upbringing or life or career that has anything to do with Richard Pryor. Richard Pryor felt like, hey, man, I got to follow this And Pryor gets on this path and starts appearing on these talk shows and doing kind of standard comic stuff. He didn't wanna be a bill Cosby, and yet he could do bill Cosby in a second if he wanted to. It was all about getting "America" to be comfortable enough with you to give you Richard felt he had to pander to the white audience, and he hated himself for it. Do it. What? What? What, Mr. Griffin? A little tap dance. Make the toes click. He would fester and fester about what he had to do to be recognized. But he didn't want to be recognized for that shtick. Richard wasn't interested in being safe, ever in his life. Never. He kind of has two different acts. There are the acts, the skits that he's, you know, honing so that he can perform on Ed Sullivan or merv griffin, you know? And then there's the improv that he's doing at 11:00 P.M., and he's trying to figure out "How do I put these things together?" And when you're finding your own voice and you have to search for that, it's not easy. There's a price to pay. Because they want you to be who they were comfortable with. Here he is, our own little Richie Pryor. Richard! But you know you have something you want to do, and you have to do it. And so he goes down to greenwich village. Greenwich village starting in the '50s and moving through the '60s was kind of like bohemian ground zero in the united States. In greenwich village he finds a very interesting scene. You had a Lenny Bruce, who was working in the village. You had mort Saul, who was kind of doing topical humor. You had dick Gregory, another African American comic, who was trying to kind of push the boundaries of what was topical. You heard what Bobby Kennedy said about eight weeks ago? He said 30 years from this year a Negro can become president, so treat me right and I'll get in there and raise taxes on you. Those guys were the very hip cats at the time. Carlin was big. And along came like Elaine bousler. Suddenly people were thinking of coming out to see comedy. And it became a young thing. And Richard Pryor starts to listen to what he's thinking himself, and he just digs deep inside himself and goes for it. An arsonist down in Watts during the riots. Okay? All right get up to the wall, pew, pew, pew, pew, pew. He ain't the one? Well, let's go. He thought that through comedy, you could break a lot of barriers you couldn't in any other way. And he felt that Cosby had begun to do it. But he thought he was likable and Richard said, I remember the word, he said I'm going to be unlikable. I want them to fight me. Something inside me -- I think it's going to be something good though, when I get to it. At the end of the day, if proper society or mainstream media didn't embrace Richard it would not have changed what he was doing. Let's all give thanks on this first day of Thanksgiving, as we're all so thankful to be thankful we're thankful. I know you're thankful that I'm thankful, that we're all so thankful. Aren't you thankful? Yes, massa. Richard didn't get it until he let out what he had inside of him and became the real honest Richard Pryor. You better get it together. But he found it, didn't he? He found his way.

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

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