Richard Pryor and Jamie Masada at Laugh Factory's Comedy Camp, 2002
Word is out that the casting net is circling to find someone to play the late, great Richard Pryor in a biopic. Hopefully, the focus will be on finding someone who can capture not only Richard's stand-up skills but his richly humanizing personal life. As great as he was on stage, his offstage actions made a believer of a teenager who was celebrating his first night as a comedy club owner back in 1979. It was a first encounter I will never forget.
I had no idea what I was doing back then. I was naïve and gullible, and while English was my second language, I spoke it like it was my third or fourth. I loved comedy and opened the Laugh Factory on Sunset Boulevard with a little help from friends. At the time, the comics were on strike because they were not being paid for their work in the other existing clubs. It was my plan to split half of the proceeds from the door with the comics. What I didn't expect was that by the end of the evening, a superstar comic would end up paying me.
Paul Mooney was the emcee for the night and brought up Tom Dreesen, George Miller, Falstaff, Brent Jordan, and other talented acts. I was doing my best to be the cashier, host, and waiter for the crowd and was running around like crazy, barely able to pay any attention to the show.
To my surprise, Mooney introduced Richard Pryor as a surprise guest, and suddenly I joined the audience in giving my full, undivided attention to the stage. I could not believe that on my opening night, the greatest living stand-up comedian was on my stage! Richard did over 40 minutes that night, and although I did not have the best sound system or any air conditioning, Richard delivered a captivating set and came off the stage soaked in sweat.
Most of the audience that night were guests of the comics and did not have to pay the door charge. At the end of the night, I opened a shoebox that was serving as a cash register and divided the money by the number of comedians who performed. It came to roughly $3 and some change per comic.
Richard was still there, talking with Paul. I ran up to Richard and proudly thanked him, saying, "Here is a cut of the door." I handed him three $1 bills and some coins. He looked at me in a strange way, as if there was something wrong. Paul caught the look and told Richard that I was the first person to open a club and pay the comics by splitting the door with the comedians, and that this was a historic night. Richard smiled, reached into his pocket and pulled out a roll of $100 bills. He then wrote on one of the bills, "You need this for your rent, boy. 1979, Richard Pryor."
At the time, I had never seen a $100 bill before and did not believe it was real money. Without any hesitation I looked up at Richard and said, "How did you print this?" Confused by my reaction, Richard asked Paul if there was something wrong with me as Paul gently shooed me away.
Still confused about the bill, I went next door and showed the cashier the piece of paper. I asked him, "Do they make $100 bills in America? Is this real?" The cashier gave me the same look that Richard gave me and answered, "Of course they do. It's real." He opened his cash register and lifted the drawer to reveal a couple of $100 bills, all looking the same as mine. Suddenly, I felt terrible. Did I insult Richard Pryor, the greatest comedian in the world, by insinuating that he was a counterfeiter?
I ran back to the Laugh Factory and saw Richard surrounded by all the comedians, including Paul. I yelled, "Richard! Richard! I'm so sorry." He looked at me again, but this time he looked a bit aggravated, and before he could speak, I said, "Richard, I know in America they make a $1 bill, a $5 bill, a $10 bill, and a $20 bill, but I'm sorry, I really didn't know that in America they make $100 bills. I'm sorry. I'm sorry." I then offered to give him his money back and told him, "This is a lot of money. I can't take this."
The great Richard Pryor reached into his pocket and gave me a couple more $100 bills. He then put his arm around me and said, "The printing machine is still working." I don't know what it was about him, but when he put his arm around me, I felt safe and protected. I could see from looking into his eyes that there was a kindness, warmth, and generosity that I had never seen before. He then looked at everyone and said, "Hollywood is going to eat this dumb motherf***er alive! We all need to keep an eye on him."
And keep an eye on me he did. He came by the club many times after that. He would pick me up at the club after hours and drive me in his Mercedes down Sunset Boulevard. He would have me sit in the back and introduced me to people on the street as "a prince from Arabia." He liked to call the people on the street "night lizards," and he loved pranking them. We spent hours laughing the night away.
As I got to know Richard, I saw that the only thing bigger than his talent was his heart. He loved helping people, and he loved animals. To this day his wife Jennifer continues to honor Richard's love for animals with her charitable foundation Pryor's Planet, a nonprofit animal rescue shelter. And he truly loved helping children. When I started my comedy camp for underprivileged children in 1984, Richard would drop in during the summers when he was in town. He would help kids ease their pain by showing how it could be transformed into humor, and he believed laughter could be healing. Richard himself had a traumatic childhood, and he was a living example of how pain could be converted into something hilarious and therapeutic. He told me often that he had "many demons," and some of those finally cut his life short, but I truly believe he still did more good in his short time than anyone else I have ever known.
To me, Richard Pryor represents what much of stand-up comedy is today. In a sense, he truly became immortal because the comedy community still speaks of him as if he just walked on stage last night. It is important to remember that his comedy was about social change and explaining the ugly that was in us all. He spoke about racism like no one else did. He took the poison out of the "N" word, made light of our inner demons, and made it OK to laugh at ourselves.
I think there are a few comedians working today who could portray Richard in a movie. I have seen glimpses of his essence in Dave Chappelle, Mike Epps, Tony Rock, Jerrod Carmichael, Katt Williams, Kevin Hart and a few others. I just hope that the casting process includes meetings with Paul Mooney and Eddie Murphy, comics who knew Richard very well. I've read that Nick Cannon and Marlon Wayans are vying for the chance to play him. Whoever does eventually play him has the chance to bring Richard Pryor to a whole new generation of people, people who may have never seen a comic who could make them laugh, cry and then laugh again all during the same set. As Richard once said, "I can't just say the words, do a lot of one-liners. I love each person I play; I have to be that person. I have to do him true."