Richard Pryor‘s widow, Jennifer Pryor, isn’t holding back recalling her memories of the late, great comedian in the new documentary, I Am Richard Pryor. Jennifer sat down with uInterview exclusively at SXSW in Austin, Texas, to share the warts-and-all story of Pryor’s crazy life and art.

Richard grew up in a brothel and “his grandmother was a madame and his mother was a prostitute, hoe and daddy was a pimp,” Jennifer told uInterview. “I think it was the paradox of that kind of growing up is, that is painful as that was and that could have been. And certainly was that you get great humor and the great characters, so you know it was a blessing and a curse.”

Richard initially started out doing tame “white” humor, but had a revelation while doing standup in Vegas one night. After seeing Dean Martin’s face in the crowd peering at him “quizzically,” the comedian asked himself “what the f— am I doing,” Jennifer explained. “Ideas, Black panthers, the poets and writers and other artists, and they all looked at Richard, like Ishmael Reed you know, ‘you gotta be you dude.’ What are you bringing to the party other than this straight white comedy. You gotta do you. And when he started doing Richard, that’s when he found the Richard Pryor as we know and love today. That brand of comedy. Which was the fire brand, pun intended.”

Pryor tried to work within the Hollywood system and even had a short-lived show on NBC. “He had a good support system,” Jennifer said. “He had some good managers and people who were really rooting him on. And the NBC show wasn’t cancelled – he walked off, yeah, because of censorship. And as he said in that clip, you can’t keep doing what people keep telling you, you can’t do this you can’t do that, what’s the point right?”

Jennifer first met Richard when she was helping to decorate his L.A. home. “Everyday I’d show up for work, the woman were coming and going. You know, it didn’t bother me. I’m like this, this is an interesting guy, but we got to know each other, which is a lesson for all women,” Jennifer said. “Don’t get in bed with somebody at the jump, wait to get to know somebody. It really matters. It does.” 

I Am Richard Pryor premieres tonight on Paramount Network at 10 p.m. ET/PT.

Read the full interview transcript below:

How did Richard grow up?

Oh, and it does inform who he was and his art was definitely informed by growing up in a brothel. His grandmother was a madame and his mother was a prostitute, hoe and daddy was a pimp. And so many of his uncles were as well. Richard’s name, full name, is Richard Franklin Thomas Lennox Pryor. Thomas was his mother’s maiden name, but the other names were a couple of his uncles working in the hoe house, in the brothel. I think it was the paradox of that kind of growing up is, that is painful as that was and that could have been. And certainly was you [that] you get great humor and the great characters, so you know it was a blessing and a curse.

How did his comedy evolve?

That what was so interesting and why I love this documentary and think such a great job was done here. Because it really shows the arc of his life and the evolution of his art which is fascinating in and of itself. I mean he was doing that brand of comedy the Bill Cosby, Oreo-cookie stuff. Very white bread, inoffensive, very gentle and all the white audiences in Vegas. And he looked at Bill as a model, a template for himself.

And he did it very well and it did get him gigs in Vegas, but he couldn’t do it anymore. He said he was looking out at the sea of white people and he could see Dean Martin’s face. Dean was looking at him sort of quizzically, and Richard really said to himself, “what the fuck am I doing here” and walked off stage. And then he went to Berkeley and hung out with black intellectuals and people with big ideas who were doing things. Ideas, Black Panthers, the poets and writers and other artists and they all looked at Richard, like Ishamel Reed, ‘you know you gotta be you dude.’ What are you bringing to the party other than this straight white comedy. You gotta do you. And when he started doing Richard, that’s when he found the Richard Pryor as we know and love today. That brand of comedy. Which was the fire brand, pun intended. That was the angry predator stalking the stage talking about race and topics that really, he ripped the covers off black people as well as white people. He talked about race in America that was never discussed and his own anger about it. It was a revelation and it really changed creative culture.

How did he challenge the Hollywood system?

Well I think, even though there was a lot of people saying, “you cant do this.” Remember when he was saying that? Everybody is telling me I can’t do this I can’t do that. But he couldn’t be somebody he was not. He could not deny himself any longer. And those around him who supported him, he did that that support. He had a good support system. He had some good managers and people who were really rooting him on. And the NBC show wasn’t cancelled he walked off, yeah, because of censorship. And has he said in that clip, you can’t keep doing what people keep telling you can’t do this you can’t do that, what’s the point right? But he still broke through. And the way he broke through was by doing standup. And that’s how he really, especially live in concert that was his big breakthrough moment into the white audience, I mean. To really crossover they say, crossover into a big wide field.

How did you meet Richard?

I met Richard through a friend of mine, Lucy who was working for Richard on the NBC variety show. She was also kind of dating him, you know, and she said look Richard bought this house in Northridge, it’s a big house. He wants me to help decorate it but I need help. Can you help me?

And I had arrived back from Texas actually dusty and broke. I needed a gig, ‘Yeah that’ll be perfect. And I never decorated a house, but I know I had good taste but sure. So August 22, 1977, I drove out to Northridge, and I met Richard and my first impression of Richard was complete vulnerability. Somebody who, and i was just so taken the second I met him. And I think, I think it was the same.  I have that wonderful photograph, and it is in the film of the first meeting. I got a bouquet of flowers and Richard is leaning in and I look like the cat who saw the canary. But, I had to watch Richard and observe his life. Everyday I’d show up for work, the woman were coming and going. You know, it didn’t bother me. I’m like this, this is an interesting guy, but we got to know each other, which is a lesson for all women. Don’t get in bed with somebody at the jump, wait to get to know somebody. It really matters. It does. So we got to know each other. Well, weren’t you warned by some of the behavior? He got married, he went through so much during those six months that I was observing and working for him. The Hollywood Bowl incident, the NBC show that he quit and walked off, so much going on in his life. And then he shot the car. And the end of that marriage. Which I think sometimes, he got married to end marriages!

 

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