Archive On 4: Lenny Henry On Richard Pryor - The Making Of A Satirist
Lenny Henry presents a documentary about his hero, Richard Pryor
- BBC Radio 4
- Lenny Henry, Ishmael Reed, Al Young, Jennifer Pryor, David Steinber, Liz Torres, Scott Saul and Richard Pryor
- Victoria Ferran
Richard Pryor is often hailed as the greatest stand-up comedian of all time. For Lenny Henry, it was Pryor's fearless comedy in the mid-70s and 80s that inspired him as a young comic. And he remains Lenny's comedy hero to this day.
But the Richard Pryor that Lenny knows and loves from the 1970s and 80s had a very different act when he first started out in 1960s New York. A self-confessed Bill Cosby clone, charming audiences with his 'white bread' humour.
It's the stuff of legend how Pryor's biting social satires, salty language, and character-driven routines like the Wino and The Junkie came about when Pryor threw away a lucrative job in Las Vegas and vowed to reinvent himself. But for Lenny, the key to Pryor's artistic transformation lies in his seven month stay in Berkeley, California. When he arrived in February 1971, revolution was in the air. A hub for American counterculture, there were pitched battles in the streets between activists and the police. Radical students warred with Governor Ronald Reagan. And Berkeley was also home to the Black Panthers and a burgeoning black arts movement.
Pryor made friends with a local radio producer who invited him on the local station KPFA, gave him a recorder so he could brainstorm new material, and taped several of his performances around town.
With these little-heard tapes, Lenny pieces Pryor's life together during his self-imposed exile. Pryor immersed himself in black history and culture, reading Malcolm X and hanging out with black intellectuals like Ishmael Reed and Cecil Brown. For the first time, Pryor was taken seriously as an artist and we get a fascinating glimpse him recording free verse poetry and writing two satirical screenplays. We also hear Pryor experimenting with edgier material at local clubs and live on air. For example, we hear blistering attacks on police brutality and his response to the 1971 Attica prison rebellion. Which today sound remarkably modern.
Lenny uncovers how Berkeley put Pryor on a trajectory that would enable him to reinvent American culture. When Hollywood came calling, Pryor returned with a new sense of self, with a standout performance in Lady Sings The Blues opposite Diana Ross, and co-writing Blazing Saddles.
And experimental spirit of Berkeley would continue to influence Pryor's grammy-winning LPs, TV variety show, and filmed concerts.
Contributors will include: Novelist and poet, Ishmael Reed; Former poet laureate of California, Al Young; Richard's widow and keeper of his archives, Jennifer Pryor; Comedian and director, David Steinberg; Emmy nominated actress and comedian, Liz Torres; and author of Becoming Richard Pryor, Scott Saul.
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