Richard Pryor was one of the most influential and controversial comedians of the 20th century. Known for his provocative observational humor and storytelling, Pryor helped break down racial barriers and paved the way for future generations of black comedians.
However, despite his immense talent and cultural impact, Pryor was also a divisive figure who drew criticism and backlash throughout his career. Here is an in-depth look at some of the reasons why Richard Pryor has detractors and critics who dislike or even hate him.
His Humor Was Considered Offensive and Vulgar
One of the biggest reasons why some people hate Richard Pryor is that they found his comedy offensive, vulgar and obscene. Pryor was uncompromising in his use of profanity and his willingness to mine taboo subjects like sex, drugs and racial tensions for humor. His casual use of the N-word and other racial slurs in his act offended some black leaders and activists. And his frequent discussions of sex, masturbation and other explicit topics outraged moralists and religious conservatives.
Pryor’s stand-up act in the 1970s broke new ground in terms of profanity and blunt discussions of race and sex. For example, his 1974 album “That N****r’s Crazy” was so profane it didn’t even have the words of the album title on the cover. Pryor dropped N-bombs freely, talked openly about sex acts, and joked about serious subjects like police brutality. This was shocking material at the time and led some critics to blast Pryor as vulgar, unnecessarily crude and cynical.
He Made Light of Serious Subjects
In the eyes of some critics, Pryor crossed the line by finding humor in serious, painful subjects like racism, drug addiction and violence. By weaving tales of gang violence, police discrimination, drug abuse and other weighty topics into his comedy routines, Pryor tread into territory many felt was inappropriate for laughs.
Detractors argued that Pryor resorted to cheap, exploitative humor by mining his own struggles with addiction and self-destruction for comedy. When Pryor joked about freebasing cocaine or lighting himself on fire while freebasing, some found it more tragic than comic. And when Pryor crafted routines around racial injustices and encounters with the police, some observers felt he used humor as a shield to avoid earnest discussions about these critical issues.
His Personal Life Was Problematic
Beyond just his comedy, Richard Pryor drew criticism and disdain from some due to issues in his personal life off-stage. Pryor had very well-known battles with substance abuse, getting arrested for violence and tax evasion.
Pryor was open about his struggles with alcohol and drugs, particularly cocaine. His drug problems worsened in the late 1970s, leading to erratic behavior, arrests, health issues and the infamous incident in 1980 when Pryor set himself on fire while freebasing cocaine. Pryor also had a reputation for violence and gun possession off-stage, including an incident in 1978 when he shot his own car to scare off some hoodlums.
In 1974, Pryor was arrested and charged with tax evasion for failing to pay taxes from 1967 to 1970, when he earned over $400,000 but paid just $30,000 in taxes. His clashes with the law and issues with drugs and violence offended some fans and colored public perceptions of Pryor as unstable and irresponsible.
His Brand of Comedy Was Considered Damaging
Another criticism of Richard Pryor was that his style of profane, subversive comedy was harmful to the black community and society overall. While Pryor found success pushing boundaries, some people argue his work reinforced demeaning stereotypes about African Americans.
Reinforced Racist Stereotypes
Pryor freely used the N-word and other slurs in his acts, which some detractors claimed perpetuated racist notions about black people, even as Pryor simultaneously satirized racism. The concern was that white audiences were laughing at Pryor confirm stereotypes about foul-mouthed, oversexed black people unable to confront society’s ills except with profanity.
By trafficking in these stereotypes under the veil of “just jokes,” Pryor’s critics argue he provided ammunition for racists, undercut the dignity of black Americans and excused casual racism among white audiences – even as he simultaneously condemned racism. The worry was that white audiences were not examining their own prejudices but simply laughing along at Pryor reinforcing hurtful tropes.
Glamorized Black Pathologies
Along similar lines, others argue Pryor glamorized destructive behaviors in the black community by weaving tales of drug use, promiscuity and criminality into his comedy. Critics said Pryor made light of very real issues like the crack epidemic and gun violence that were devastating black communities.
Observers like civil rights activist Julian Bond accused Pryor of peddling “black pathology for profit.” From this perspective, Pryor’s comedy appealed to white audiences’ voyeuristic curiosities about the seedier side of the black experience while encouraging irresponsible behavior.
Limited Appeal for Mainstream Success
There was also a perspective that Pryor’s insistence on working “blue” limited his mainstream appeal and career options. Some entertainment industry figures saw Pryor as unwilling to compromise to achieve Hollywood success and accused him of obstructing his own career advancement.
For instance, Pryor was notoriously reluctant to “sell out” his vision and tone down his profanity or explicit content. He butted heads with network censors, turned down some film roles, and largely chose to remain a subversive, controversial figure. While principled, Pryor’s uncompromising stances may have unfairly branded him as difficult and self-defeating in the eyes of critics arguing he could have achieved even greater success with broader appeal.
His Influence Led to Greater Profanity in Comedy
While Pryor was a trailblazer breaking down barriers, some argue that he exerted a detrimental impact by popularizing profanity and obscenity and leading others to emulate his style. This criticism essentially holds Pryor responsible for the increasingly crude, vulgar tone in modern comedy.
Pryor’s liberal use of profanity was groundbreaking in the 1970s but eventually became commonplace and even hacky in the hands of those mimicking his style. Pryor inspired many imitators, and soon up-and-comers were saturating their acts with profanity in a misguided bid to be “edgy” like Pryor.
Comics inspired by Pryor – both black and white – adopted his foul-mouthed delivery but failed to match either his timing or ability to use profanity tactfully. The worry was that Pryor spawned hack imitators who mimicked his infamous language but lacked the substance and wit to use it effectively.
Shifted Acceptable Standards in Comedy
Similarly, Pryor significantly expanded the boundaries of what was considered acceptable language and subject matter in comedy. Pryor’s unprecedented success despite refusing to compromise his provocative material changed norms for stand-up comedy.
After Pryor, M-rated language and adult-oriented humor became more mainstream. While Pryor had been subversive, his influence indirectly sanctioned a shift toward more aggressive, explicit comedy across the board. For critics, this lowering of standards had a corrosive effect on comedy, leading to lazy reliance on profanity and shocking content.
In summary, Richard Pryor garnered significant criticism, contempt and even hatred throughout his groundbreaking career for multiple reasons. His unapologetic use of vulgar language and willingness to find humor in sensitive subjects offended some audiences. His personal struggles with addiction, violence and tax evasion also fueled a negative image. Some observers argued Pryor’s style of comedy reinforced racist stereotypes and glamorized black pathologies. Others blame him for inspiring a generation of profane imitators and permanently shifting the acceptable standards of language in comedy.
However, despite these criticisms, there is no denying the immense cultural influence Pryor had on comedy, or that he retained a large fanbase that appreciated his brutal honesty. Nonetheless, the controversies surrounding his body of work help explain why Pryor was both one of the most beloved and most divisive comedians in American history.
FAQs About Why People Dislike Richard Pryor
What vulgar language did Richard Pryor use in his comedy routines?
Pryor casually used profanity – particularly the N-word – to an unprecedented degree in his stand-up shows. He dropped N-bombs frequently, even using the slur in the titles of albums like “That N****r’s Crazy.” Pryor also used heavy profanity like “f**k” freely in his acts. At the time, this level of profanity was highly controversial.
Did Pryor make jokes about serious subjects like race and drug use?
Yes, Pryor frequently mined painful subjects like racism, police brutality, violence, and his own cocaine and alcohol addiction for comedy. He told stories from his own experiences translating painful chapters like being held at gunpoint by the police into controversial humor.
Was Richard Pryor arrested for tax evasion?
In 1974, Pryor was arrested and charged with evading taxes on earnings of over $400,000 between 1967-1970. Despite earning over $400k, he had illegally paid just $30k in taxes during those years. Pryor pleaded guilty to the tax evasion charge.
Did Richard Pryor set himself on fire while freebasing cocaine?
Infamously, in June 1980, a heavily intoxicated Pryor doused himself in 151-proof rum and set himself on fire while freebasing cocaine. He ran down Parthenia Street in Northridge, CA while engulfed in flames. Pryor survived but suffered severe burns over half his body.
Did Richard Pryor have a successful Hollywood career despite criticism?
Absolutely. While a controversial figure, Pryor enjoyed immense success in films like “Stir Crazy,” “Silver Streak,” “Richard Pryor Live in Concert,” and “Richard Pryor: Live on the Sunset Strip.” He reached the heights of Hollywood stardom while refusing to compromise his material.