How Berkeley in the Sixties helped Richard Pryor find his voice

A friend and biographer looks back on a pivotal time for the legendary comic.

By Max Gibson

In the summer of 1969, Cecil Brown was teaching English at the University of California, Berkeley. That summer, chance and circumstance would bring him into contact with the man known as Richard Pryor. At the time, Pryor had found relative success as a comic, but had yet to tap into the vein of devastatingly sharp social criticism and fearless truth-telling that would eventually define his legacy.

Richard came to Oakland and Berkeley at the height of the counterculture era, and Cecil was a key figure for him during this period. In their conversations, Cecil helped Richard locate and contextualize his oratorical prowess within the legacy of black American storytelling. He watched as his friend and colleague rose to meteoric fame, not just by making people laugh, but by making them think hard and challenge their own basic assumptions about the world. In his 2013 book, Pryor Lives!, Brown offers a unique glimpse into that evolution. We spoke with him to learn what is was like to watch one of comedy’s greatest find his voice.

So you met Richard in Berkeley in 1969. Can you tell me a little about what the environment and the social climate was like in the city back then?

Well at that time, Berkeley was in revolt. In 1969, the silent majority was coming into power then. The university was closed periodically because of the protests against the Vietnam War. It was also closed because of the strike against the university, because they wanted to bring in Black Studies, Asian Studies, Ethnic Studies. But of course the university resisted it. And the students protested by not going to class. So they called in the National Guard. The National Guard formed a wall for them to get to the class. Then the third element to this was People’s Park.

People’s Park was turnt up huh?

Mmhmm! The people who really supported People’s Park were the students. The people who were really against People’s Park were the police, called the Blue Meanies. They had these blue hats on and they would kick your ass. People were killed by police in those days.

So in that climate is where you met Richard?

Yeah I was teaching at Berkeley in the English department, and I was going down to see Richard because someone told me that this guy was an incredible satirist. So I went down to see him because I wanted to know what brother was doing satire, and it was him!

And we met, we talked, and afterwards a bunch of people went up to his hotel room which was right on University [Ave.]. We were hanging out in his room in the hotel and we were talking for a bit, but I had to get back because I had class the next day. He invited me to come down the next day, which I did and in the afternoon we went out and had something to eat. We talked and talked, and we became friends. He hadn’t officially moved to Berkeley at this point, he was still living out of a hotel. And then next thing I knew he had an apartment and I helped him move his shit in. He said it was the first time he ever had a place to himself.

You said that Richard arrived at a time when Berkeley counterculture could respect a funny guy who had a hipster’s take on everything. How does that concept of hipness compare to today’s understanding?

His hipster mentality, the black hipster mentality, came out of the East Coast. It came out of the jazz era, came out of artists who were black, it was rooted in Southern black culture. So they were aware of everything. 365 degree hipness, it wasn’t hip on this or hip on that, it was hip on everything.

You could have a conversation on everything. Is that what you mean? Or they were just aware?

I would say the difference of course is that this so called ‘“white hipster” is an appropriation of the black hipster. The white hipster, or what I would call “the white negro”, is an appropriation of the hipster culture that came before, which was a black and richer culture.

You told me that Berkeley was where Richard found the key to unlock his door. What is it that he found in Berkeley that allowed him to unlock?

It had to do with taking pride in black verbal culture. He already took pride in things like desegregation and politics. Richard realized that we had another culture that was deeply embedded in black tradition, and this was storytelling. All of the things that black men used to express themselves amongst each other. Richard learned to respect that. He learned that that was also apart of a mainstream culture that had not been acknowledged.

So he discovered that in Berkeley?

He discovered it through me! Because I was teaching it! I was teaching Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes And so I would tell him, “Richard man, you know…the stuff you’re doing is what black people have been doing, like the poets, for generations!

He had no way of knowing this stuff for himself, but he saw a black man, at the university, teaching this stuff, telling him that what he was doing was something that came out of black tradition, and that it was so well respected. And I think he took pride in that.

You said you and Richard formed a bond almost instantly. What did Richard see in you, and what did you see in Richard, initially?

Well see, when I told Richard that I had written a book, he asked me what the name of it was. When I told him he was like, “oh yeah, I’ve heard about that.” And that made him think that I was about something. And I had just heard [his standup routine], and what he did was fantastic to me. So that woke me up!

One interesting thing that Richard said was that you don’t need that many people to get over.

Mmhmm, that’s right. Because he didn’t have that many people (laughs). When Richard went on to perform at the Mandrake, that place wasn’t much bigger than from here to there [motions small area with his hands]. It was small and everybody in there was white except me and maybe a few people. Richard said that he didn’t need that many people. Because what he had was devoted fans. No TV, no big entourage. He had people that would come see anything he did. But that handful would turn dividends for him because it gave him confidence. For Richard it was literally a case of being discovered, because he had something that was authentic. Because he had something he liked.

Tell me about Live at the Sunset Strip.

That’s when he came back. The first night was a disaster, the second night was brilliant. The first night he didn’t get laughs. It was the most pathetic thing in the world. He was really upset about it. The next night, I went into the dressing room, he asked, “how does it look out there.” I said, “It looks great.” He said, “Man I’m nervous.” I said, “That’s it,” you need to start talking about that! Start talking about how nervous you are.” And he did. All the stars were there. And he connected with the audience. And that’s when the shit went boom. When the crowd left that night, they were sayin’ things like, “Richard is really back.” This was when he had an audience exclusively of Hollywood famous people. He was so accepted by Hollywood after his burning incident, that people like Burt Reynolds, and all these square as people were in his corner.

Why did he get that love from Hollywood after that incident?

Because everyone in Hollywood identified with Richard. He was rich, he was famous, and he was still kinda unhappy. And they all saw that as their profile.

I’ve hear that from a lot of people. The money doesn’t make them happy ultimately.

It doesn’t make you happy because you got people pulling on you for your money. Wives, ex-wives, girlfriends, kids—everybody pulls on you if you got money to give. You get money and fame but you don’t get contentment, because people want you, but not for you. They want you because you got something that they want.

Yeah, that’s crazy.

Yeah, I think that’s what Robin Williams went through, I think that’s what Jimi Hendrix went through, I think that’s what Janis Joplin went through. They all wanted to express themselves, but the result is that you’re famous and when you’re famous, it’s very difficult to express yourself fully. And that’s an American phenomenon, because you know, in other countries, you don’t have this instant fame.

The fame monster.

It destroys you man. It eats you alive.

There’s a section of the book where you liken comedians to shamans — the role they play in exposing the vices and insecurities of the audience.

You’ve heard of Mudbone right?

That was one of Richard’s characters right?

Actually Mudbone is a character from the Peoria tribe. Richard is from Peoria, Illinois. Peoria is the name of the Native American tribe there, and in their tribal folklore they have a character who’s upside down. He’s a shaman. And when he turns upside down he sees the world from an upside down position. The true vision of the world. And Richard picked up on that. Richard picked up on the idea that a shaman is really like a cosmic comedian because he twists the world upside down. Where you and I may look at something this way, he looks at it, head down, feet up. That’s Mudbone. So Mudbone, the old black man in Richard’s sketches, is legitimately connected to a shaman tradition from the Peoria Indians.

Richard was very much into that stuff. Richard knew that his white audiences would come in, and some of them would be holding back… heckling him, saying stuff.. But once he got them in, they were going on the same trip. And when he finished, they’d be unified with him. They’d be behind him! When he was out there on the stage he’d be leading them through a journey! And to the end of the journey they’d be with him.

And he would lead this journey through laughter?

Yes! Through laughter. Laughing is healing! Laughter also erodes differences between people. It takes away the hostility. sometimes Richard would say, “Wow, this is so great, I wish we could be like this all the time.”

Cecil Brown is a writer and educator, and the author of Pryor Lives!: How Richard Pryor Became Richard Pryor. He currently serves as a professor in the Department of History at UC Berkeley. Cecil’s book documents the rise of Richard Pryor, from his humble beginnings, crashing at friends apartments in Berkeley, to his meteoric fame as one of Hollywood’s elite.

Pryor Lives! is available here.