High Times Greats: Richard Pryor

The streetwise style of a comic legend.
High Times Greats: Richard Pryor
High Times

For the December, 1977 issue of High Times, Scott Cohen interviewed Richard Pryor (December 1, 1940 — December 10, 2005). To pay tribute to Pryor and his illustrious career, we’re republishing the interview below.

[The N-word] is a word that, when repeated incessantly quickly loses any meaning it might have had, eventually causing your teeth to fall out.

[The N-word] is Richard Pryor’s favorite word. He uses it incessantly in his routines to mean anyone black, anyone hip or just anyone. Richard Pryor is making [the N-word] a household word again.

Richard Pryor doesn’t tell jokes. He tells stories. They are about junkies, winos, whores, growing up, getting high and getting laid. His stories are funny because the truth makes us laugh. He has a hostile sense of humor.

Richard Pryor grew up in Peoria, Illinois. He is 36. He quit school at 14 and worked as a janitor, a packager in an Armour meat plant and a rack boy in his grandfather’s billiard parlor. His career as an M.C. ended when the dancing bear he worked opposite got drunk on the nightclub’s whiskey and wrecked the place.

Richard Pryor’s mean streets humor appeals to blacks, people who secretly wish they were black, people who like ethnic jokes, voyeurs and people like Merv Griffin and Johnny Carson.

Pryor acted in at least ten movies, wrote countless TV scripts, received two Grammy awards and won an Emmy before signing with NBC this season for his own television show.

I snorted cocaine for about 15 years. I must’ve snorted up Peru. I coulda bought Peru with all the shit I snorted… Coulda just gave it the money up front and had me a valuable piece of property…*

High Times: Is there something, some ritual you do just before you go on stage?

Pryor: Yeah, you watch your friends overdose. You see the police come into your house and degrade your mother and father, and then you watch the white man come into your neighborhood and bust all the whorehouses and preach God, and then you see them come back the next week, bark like a dog to suck pussy of a black woman who they busted last week because it was an election. You watch the dope dealers give the police money so they don’t come back for a month. Or you hear about crimes that have happened and you know who did it, and they pay people off to have it dropped. These are things that help you survive. You see children fucked up. You go to a place where they break the glass after you drink out of it. Then you watch the white kids, who are stupid, get recognition for shit they cannot do, and the black people who can and get rejected and then fall in a trap getting bitter and mad and die. You watch that and that helps. When you see your mother work and scrub and then come home tired from cooking for white people and not really able to fix a dinner for you, but do it and make it as pleasant as possible. Those things help.

High Times: How were you discovered?

Pryor: I was doing something that people were looking for, so it was easy to get discovered.

High Times: What were you doing?

Pryor: I counted on people’s greed.

High Times: Were you hustling?

Pryor: Yeah.

High Times: Where were you?

Pryor: I was getting off a bus in Topeka, and there she was under the moonlight, her long golden hair, eyes dancing in the moonlight. She walked up. She had a .44 in her hand and a cup of coffee in the other. She sang this song: “Cry me a river, cry me a river, I cried a river over you.”

High Times: Did anyone ever tell you your fly was open?

Pryor: Yes.

High Times: What did you say?

Pryor: “Excuse me.” Did anyone ever punch you in your motherfuckin’ nose?

I started off snorting little pinches. I said, I know I ain’t gonna get hooked. Not on no coke. You can’t get hooked. My friends have been snorting 15 years and they ain’t hooked.

High Times: Who influenced you?

Pryor: Huey Newton, Eldridge Cleaver, the white press influenced me—told me how to be right-on and work for them.

High Times: Do you feel you have to be funny?

Pryor: Nope. Do you?

You get weird sexual fantasies when you be on coke (snort, snort). Hey, I got a great idea. I want you to go on the roof. I’m gonna run around the house three times. On the third time I want you to jump off on my face.

High Times: Are you aware of your public image?

Pryor: Nope. I feel I’d have one if I went for it, but I don’t choose to have one. Let me put it another way. I ain’t going for the hokey doke.

High Times: When you fill out your income tax and come to the part, “What do you do?’’ do you write “comedian”?

Pryor: I don’t fill out my income tax.

High Times: Does someone fill it out for you?

Pryor: Yes, sir, but I haven’t read it. I trust them. White people don’t like to be one thing and that’s wrong.

High Times: Who does?

Pryor: Black people don’t mind.

High Times: How much of the time do you spend thinking of jokes?

Pryor: I don’t really think about it. When I get ready to work I’ll prepare myself. There are certain places I go to rehearse, when I have an idea of what I want to do, and then by the time I get on the stage where they’re paying money, I pretty much have an idea of what I want to do. The situation presents what I do and what I know, and I can expand on that situation or implode on that situation. It depends upon the people and my energy and my positiveness when I get on the stage.

Someone told me you put cocaine on your dick and you can fuck all night. They shouldn’t of told me that (snort, snort). My dick had a jones—$600 a day just to get my dick hard.

High Times: Would you say you have a chemical relationship with the people in your audience?

Pryor: Yes, sir.

High Times: Is there such a thing as a bad audience?

Pryor: When you cut the chemical flow yourself—before you get on stage—the audience hates that and they sense it and they draw it out of you, you know what I’m saying? They give you that first five minutes and then say, “Come on.” They’re wishing for you, and if you don’t have that, if you don’t make that contact with them, if you don’t tell ’em to piss-off or something and say it in the right way, you’ve got to have something there that makes ’em want to piss-off for the next hour or hour-and-a-half.

High Times: Do you think Johnny Carson’s funny?

Pryor: (laughs) You know what? Oddly enough, yes. The motherfucker is funny. He’s not funny all the time, but sometimes he does things for you that you might want to do—when you least expect. He makes you watch.

High Times: Do you usually know what you’re going to say before you say it?

Pryor: No, but on that same day I’ve talked to myself, and since the last time I’ve been there I’ve made up routines that weren’t routines when I started in the conversation. And I found out what the routine was through talking and listening—that’s what I have in my mind when I get out there. Sometimes they’re funny and sometimes they weren’t funny except for that one time. So I have other stuff to switch to. If it’s real bad, I fall back on a routine.

Okay, take your shit and get out. Yeah, motherfucker, pack this shit, goddammit. Shit, I’m gonna find me some new pussy. The woman come back at you, though, “If you had two more inches of dick you’d find some new pussy here.”

High Times: Do you spend a lot of time in your head—talking?

Pryor: Yes, sir.

High Times: Have you ever heard a rock band called Talking Heads?

Pryor: No, sir.

High Times: Do you get high when you perform?

Pryor: Yes sir. Wait—are you asking me if I take drugs or do I get high?

High Times: Drugs?

Pryor: No. Do I disappoint you?

High Times: A little. Do you feel you’re performing now?

Pryor: Yeah, all the time.

High Times: Is performing the right word?

Pryor: Yes, sir.

High Times: If you were a painter, would you think that you were performing every time you painted?

Pryor: I don’t know, I’ve never been an artist.

High Times: Do you consider what you do art?

Pryor: Well, it’s “in” to say that, but I don’t know what that means. I know what to say, but it would be jerking off in my head. I’m very proud of what I’ve done, and I really worked hard at it to get acceptance over the years. I paid all the dues necessary. I’m real happy about it—for real. And I prefer to work for black people who decide to come to where I’m at and get into what I’m doing. That opens me up to a whole lot of other areas, and when that happens, there’s magic that happens.

High Times: Is there a particular crowd you prefer?

Pryor: Yes, people leaving Disneyland.

High Times: How do they differ from a Las Vegas crowd?

Pryor: Vegas got something about it, but it also got a stigma attached to it that were not supposed to work there—if you’re creative. That’s the ol’ jokel yokel bullshit. Vegas is easy to put down. But that’s bullshit. Everyone wants to work there.

Say, man… bartender… [N-word], give me my whiskey… What? I’m drunk. [N-word], fuck you mean I’m drunk… Shit, you didn’t say that an hour ago when you was serving me that shit!

High Times: Where’s the classiest place you’ve worked?

Pryor: The classiest place I’ve worked was an after-hours spot in Detroit, Michigan, where the [N-word] wore their hats all night long. They wouldn’t take their hats off, and they wouldn’t stand up for the ladies. I made ’em laugh. We snorted cocaine all night long and we talked shit. And people had senses of humor that were dangerous. I remember Marvin Gaye had a song called “Save the Children,” and one pimp said, “Fuck the children, save the dope.” I mean, it was cold-blooded humor.

High Times: Black humor?

Pryor: No, killer humor. I’m talking about [N-word] who know that Ali lost to Jimmy Young and ain’t afraid to say that to his face.

One [N-word] Ali hate to fight is Joe Frazier… One motherfucker I’m glad Joe Frazier kicked his ass was Jerry Quarry. Jerry Quarry just love to get beat up by [N-word]… And Joe Louis was the referee. That was beautiful, Jack. Joe Louis got even after all them years. He was waiting for the chance to beat up another white boy. Jerry would say, “Break it up, Joe, he’s killing me,” and Joe looked at him. “Shit, you’re okay. Go ahead.” Shit, that’s the [N-word] they should have pardoned— Joe Louis. Pardon him all his taxes. Shit, if you could pardon Nixon they could pardon any motherfucker.

High Times: What do you think you’d be doing if you weren’t a comedian?

Pryor: Try to be one.

High Times: Was there a second choice?

Pryor: Box. Fight—I didn’t want to box, I wanted to fight. That was my mistake—I ran into a boxer. He taught me a few jabs, a couple of left hooks, and I said, “Well, this is not for me. I think I’ll go into comedy. How about announcing fights?”

Girls’ll get you killed trying to be cool. I developed a cool run—I had to. I couldn’t fight. In case the girls seen me run… “Look! Richard’s running.” “Yes, but he’s cool.”

High Times: Do you meet people who are as funny or funnier than yourself?

Pryor: Funnier. They’re funnier than me for a moment, but not consistently. They’re not professional. They wouldn’t want to be—not because they couldn’t. They’d get bored.

High Times: Do you ever steal jokes?

Pryor: I steal every joke I can. Peter Frampton has funny material.

Oh, baby, please don’t leave. Take the TV, but leave the pussy please.

High Times: Why do you want to be funny?

Pryor: Because I can’t pick up a gun and go out and shoot the first motherfucker I see.

High Times: By thinking of funny things all the time, are you avoiding other things?

Pryor: There’s nothing to avoid. How can you avoid stuff? You tell me what you’ve avoided in your life. You still had to do it.

High Times: Do you ever have to avoid someone you knew from before you were successful?

Pryor: I have a friend who called me up one time, and I never talked to him. I never answered his calls for a long time, and he tried every way. Finally he called and said, “Tell the [N-word] I remember him when he was a communist.”

High Times: What did you do?

Pryor: I talked to him.

High Times: To keep yourself honest?

Pryor: Yes. We talked. The [N-word] talked about me like a dog, and we had a good time.

High Times: How much of a communist were you?

Pryor: It wasn’t that. He was just trying to get my attention. That was the last straw. The next thing was, “I’m gonna embarrass you. I’m coming out to the set or wherever you think you are. You’re gonna remember me, motherfucker.”

“Be home 11 o’clock, you understand that, [N-word], 11 o’clock bring your ass here. And bring me back a paper.” And you go out and nothin’ start happenin’ till 11:30. All the dudes be standin’ around and you say, “What are you waitin’ on, man?” “11:30—we gonna catch a bitch at 11:30,” and I’d have to get home with my blue nuts, going oh, God. “[N-word], I thought I told you to be home by 11… I’m gonna kick your ass!” “Can I jack-off first?”

High Times: Do you remember your first joke?

Pryor: I remember a joke: Five, ten, fifteen, twenty, gonna beat my meat until I get plenty. I see moon, moon see me. Please Mr. Moon, don’t tell on me.

High Times: Does fear play a major part in your life?

Pryor: Yes, sir. Anything you want to know about fear you got the right person.

High Times: What do you fear most?

Pryor: Breathing. I’m afraid it will stop.

High Times: Do you remember the “applause meter” on the “Queen for a Day” show?

Pryor: Yes, sir, crying for the poor woman who came on. “My husband left me and the kids, and we had a turtle and he killed the turtle…”

High Times: Why are there so many Jewish comedians?

Pryor: I don’t know there are a lot of Jewish comedians. I don’t know much about Jewish. I know that Sammy Davis, Jr. is Jewish.

High Times: I read that he has a dog that’s blind in the same eye that he is.

Pryor: I never saw that dog. You shouldn’t read everything you believe.

High Times: Is there a joke or an anecdote you’d like to be remembered by?

Pryor: Once there was an old bull on a farm who fucked all the bullettes, when a young bull came and they started fighting. The farmer had put them in one pen, away from the bullettes. The bullettes wanted to fuck. The young bull said, “Oldtimer, I’m gonna get to the pussy,’’ and he jumped the fence—and cut his nuts off. The old bull went to the fence and opened the gate.

* Italicized humor from Richard Pryor’s Greatest Hits. Copyright ©1977, Richard Pryor/Warner Brothers Records. Reprinted by permission.

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