Inspired by Bill Cosby, Richard Pryor moved to New York in 1963 to pursue his dream of becoming a comedian. There he started performing in clubs such as the Café Wha? and soon after he began opening for acts such as Bob Dylan, Nina Simone and Woody Allen. Just two years after moving to New York, he was appearing on popular variety TV shows, including The Ed Sullivan Show.
On May 9th 1965, Richard Pryor appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show for the first time.
“Here is youthful Richard Pryor” said Ed Sullivan as he introduced his act. He started his routine by talking about being a naïve Midwestern guy from Chicago. At first, one could see that Pryor was a little nervous, however he quickly loosened up and got the audience more engaged in his act as he started talking about something everyone in the studio had in common — life in New York. Pryor’s bit included jokes about what it was like to take a cab and the subway in New York as well as TV shows he found to be completely absurd.
Feeling far more relaxed than when he began his routine and satisfied with the audience response to his performance, Richard Pryor finished his act triumphantly. He exited the stage and shook Ed Sullivan’s hand with a big smile on his face.
Richard Pryor’s first professional gigs (including his debut performance on The Ed Sullivan Show) were clean, polite and far less controversial than what was to come. In the following years, Pryor’s comedy evolved into a more blunt and edgy routine. He introduced racial jokes to his act that transcended the barriers of race with a raw, irreverent humor and he was the first comedian to bring black and white together in an audience. His monologues became known for openly speaking about all segments of black society, including working-class, church-going people, prostitutes, pimps and hustlers.
Although Pryor’s material sounds modest when compared with some of today’s murkier comedians, it was shocking material when first introduced. Richard Pryor was a groundbreaking comedian, who has been acknowledged by many comedians as a central influence on their careers, including Eddie Murphy, David Letterman and Arsenio Hall.
Pryor became one of the top entertainers of the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s and to this day resonates with audiences around the world. Many still consider him America’s best African American stand-up comedian of all-time. Richard Pryor’s performances on The Ed Sullivan Show (a total of 15) truly showcased how he and his act evolved throughout the years and traced his path to superstardom.