Richard Franklin Lennox Thomas Pryor (December 1, 1940 – December 10, 2005) was an American comedian, actor, and social critic. Pryor was known for uncompromising examinations of racism and topical contemporary issues, which employed colorful vulgarities and profanity, as well as racial epithets. He reached a broad audience with his trenchant observations and storytelling style. He is widely regarded as one of the most important and influential stand-up comedians of all time: Jerry Seinfeld called Pryor “The Picasso of our profession” and Bob Newhart heralded Pryor as “the seminal comedian of the last 50 years”. Dave Chappelle said of Pryor, “You know those, like, evolution charts of man? He was the dude walking upright. Richard was the highest evolution of comedy.” This legacy can be attributed, in part, to the unusual degree of intimacy Pryor brought to bear on his comedy. As Bill Cosby reportedly once said, “Richard Pryor drew the line between comedy and tragedy as thin as one could possibly paint it.”
In 1963, Pryor moved to New York City and began performing regularly in clubs alongside performers such as Bob Dylan and Woody Allen. On one of his first nights, he opened for singer and pianist Nina Simone at New York’s Village Gate. Simone recalls Pryor’s bout of performance anxiety:
He shook like he had malaria, he was so nervous. I couldn’t bear to watch him shiver, so I put my arms around him there in the dark and rocked him like a baby until he calmed down. The next night was the same, and the next, and I rocked him each time.