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A Long Time Ago Richard Pryor Called Out Police Brutality

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Richard Pryor reached a broad audience with his vivid observations and storytelling style and dominated the American comedy scene from 1970s to 1980s. He is regarded as the one of the most influential stand-up comedians of all time.

Richard Pryor, a student of both Charlie Chaplin and Dick Gregory, channeled his real life experiences and perspectives into his comedy. Pryor was a comedic innovator. He took on subjects most comedians would shy away from, especially black comedians in the 1960s. He put a spotlight on racist policing and his comedy albums and specials in that era laid the foundation for modern stand-up. Pryor once said he was “raised to hate the cops,” He didn’t just say the police beat up black people. They “degraded” them. Check out his “I Spy” bit - a play off the TV show starring Bill Cosby and Robert Culp as an interracial team of intelligence agents. He described how black partners of white officers had to earn their stripes by harassing black civilians to prove their loyalty.

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In his breakthrough 1974 album, That N@#$#$ Crazy, Pryor wondered why police brutality didn’t make black people “go mad.” He used his innate and masterful comedic skills to paint a picture his audience can imagine. He talked about a man who works hard during the week rewarding himself with a night out and getting dressed up, only to be pulled over because of a robbery in the neighborhood. Dramatizing the violation of the pat down, Pryor considers the impact, imitating the deflated man, who abruptly ends the evening to “go home and beat your kids.” That gut punch quiets the crowd, before Pryor adds: You have to take it out on somebody.

Another bit that contrasts white encounters with the police in their own neighborhoods to the lengths black people had go through to prove how nonthreatening they are to the police. Enunciating every word slowly at a volume and tension that performs compliance, he did an impression of what was required: “I. Am Reaching. Into. My. Pocket. For. My License.” That record sold more than one million copies and was so popular that after one show, Detroit officers told Pryor they heard the line repeated from an African-American man they stopped.

Richard Pryor


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