Bill Cosby vs. Richard Pryor
Bill Cosby and Richard Pryor are two of the most influential Black comedians who have ever lived. Ask any Black comedian today who inspired them and I bet all of them will mention at least one of them. Why? Because these two men managed to leave on not only comedy but also the hearts are several Blacks who grew up on their vinlys, stand up and movies have allowed their legacies to live on. You’re probably thinking, “okay, Pryor is the man but after all this recent scandal with Cosby he will hardly be remembered for his comedy” and my friend, you may be right but that does not take a way from his contribution to Black entertainment during the rise of the Civil Rights Movement and the birth of Blaxploitation films. Now, Cosby has never been in any Blaxploitation films and neither has Pryor but they both were apart of this movement of bringing Black faces to the big screen and little screens at home. Despite their blossoming during the same time period, their earlier acts consisting of similar generalized, non-race based topics and commentary, and their high regard as Black comedians who “paved the way,” Pryor and Cosby are remembered in two totally different lights.
Before I get into how they developed as two different representation of Black comedy, Here’s a quick view at what made their starts in the comedy world so similar:
Both Cosby and Pryor entered the realm of comedy during the 60s after doing a tour in the U.S. Army. Cosby returns home to Philly with his high school diploma that he earned while in the U.S. Army and lands himself a full scholarship to Temple University for track and field. Further South, Pryor returns back to his home in Peoria, IL and starts doing comedy set in local clubs. After a year of touring, Pryor decides to take a leap of faith and head to New York to pursue his comedy career up north. By the time Pryor got to NY, Cosby had already had been leveraging the comedy experience he got working in comedy clubs in New York during the summer. After leaving Temple Cosby moved out to New York to pursue his comedy career and had made quite a name for himself by the time Pryor arrived.
Despite their blossoming during the same time period, their earlier acts consisting of similar generalized, non-race based topics and commentary, and their high regard as Black comedians who “paved the way,” Pryor and Cosby are remembered in two totally different lights. Bill Cosby (before the allegations) was pretty much characterized to be the angel on comedy’s shoulder appealing to all audience no matter their race with his general topics, use of code switching and kid friendly analogies for anything that was borderline risqué. And then there is Richard Pryor as the devil on comedy’s shoulder. Just like the devil Pryor was once an angel but on one glorious night while performing in Las Vegas Pryor decided to step into the dark side. Richard was on stage when he stopped, walked off, and vowed that he’d never perform his generalized Cosby-like act again. From that day on, everything that he performed was based in the Black experience. He used AAE heavily, was unapologetic, cursed a ton and crafted stories that spoke to working class Black audiences. Scholar, Evan Cooper discusses Pryor’s work and the way he is perceived by different audiences. In describing Pryor’s work he says, “Pryor compared Black and White folkways and satirized the institutions and cultural norms of White society, most notably in his stories about confrontations between Blacks and the police. His comedy was, however, singularly striking and groundbreaking for its revealing, occasionally stark glimpses into working-class Black life and the mixture of humor and pathos therein”(228). Coopers view of Pryor as a ruthless voice for the Black experience leads to Pryor’s image going from basic to controversial, in the most riveting way. Pryor’s transition made him the bad-body of comedy during the late 60s-70s and put him on the other side of the comedic spectrum far, far away from his buddy Cosby.
So now lets look at the equation for how to make a Cosby and the equation for how to make a Pryor in simpler terms:
General Topics + code switching from GAE to AAE= Cosby
Black Topics + AAE and Cursing = Pryor
Cosby and his “everyman” set “200 MPH”:
At this point in Cosby’s set he has gone from talking about being a husband, grandfathers, interactions in candy stores, the tensions between cats and dogs, and has just used the signal phrase “how many of you out there own a sports car?” Cosby was big on setting his signal phrases up as questions. In doing so, not only does he draw a connection between himself and his audience but also he practices a form of call and response, which is staple within Black linguistic techniques. In addition to call and response use, Cosby code switches for AAE to GAE in order to transition characters. The clip above is Cosby talking about the common experience people may have in a candy store as a child. Black, White, Puerto Rican or Asia, most of the audience Cosby is speaking to could imagine themselves in a candy store as a child. In transitioning from the storeowner to himself, he uses AAE. Being that Cosby is a speaker of AAE we see him using the –g deletion and frontal dropping of the “th” in words like them, making the pronunciation “’em.” However, in this scene the code switching is used to distinguish characters. The candy storeowner speaks AAE while Cosby speaks code switches between AAE and GAE. Signifiers of the owner being AAE speaker are the –th in “other” being replaced with a –d, the –th deletion and addition of –d in the words “this” and “there.”
Richard Pryor “Super Nigger”
This snippet of Pryor’s vinyl “Super Nigger” is a keen example of Pryor’s use of AAE to craft a character that is supposed to embody the black male. As Pryor uses code switches from the white narrator voice to super nigga to himself, Pryor uses distinct signifiers of intonation and dialect to navigate between his characters. When he is the white narrator, he speaks sharply, with a deep and assertive tone. From his tone you feel like you are hearing the voice of a white, serious reporter. Then you have super nigga who is using slag like “stash,” “you dig it” and “man” at the end of his sentences which is a clue at the time period his work came out in.
Besides the code switching this act is full of AAE. I mean, c’mon the character’s name is “Super Nigger” for goodness sakes! From the very beginning Pryor offers the audience a signifier in saying, “Faster than a bowl of chitlins, Its a crow, its a bat, super nigga.” From the very first line, the word “chitlins” is a phonological example of AAE because the word is “chitterlings” but in AAE the –ter is deleted and there is a dropping of the –g. The word “chiltin” acts as a signifier because it is calling upon a particular audience who is either A. Black or B. Southern. Richard also pronounces “chitlins” with a glottal stop, which is a linguistic trait of AAE speakers. The use of the words “crow” and “bat” and used as indicators of blackness. It ends with the use of the word “nigga” which seems to be Pryor’s favorite noun next to motherfucker. His use of the word “nigga” is a clear marker of AAE. Scholar, Jacquelyn Rahman speaks to the use of the word “nigga” when she is discussing how Black comedians align themselves with their audience. She argues, “projecting a working-class persona through the use of colloquial African American speech, aside from pointing to solidarity and participation in the culture of survival, creates an intimacy with the audience that invites them to connect emotionally and intellectually with the comedians”(78). In voicing “nigga” Pryor uses the schwa and in the word “Super” he uses –er deletion and replacement with –a making the pronunciation “Supa.” With the line, “With ex-ray vision that enables him to seem through anything but whitey” Pryor is making fun of the white man but is doing so in a way that does not attack his white audiences.
The two videos above show that both Cosby and Pryor are AAE speakers who can code switch in order to craft a character but lets see how big of a difference their use of AAE becomes when they are talking about the similar topics…
In the clips above both Comedians are sharing experiences they had with their father as a child. To spare you the long winded dissection of the linguistic findings here’s a little comparison chart that shows the main linguistic similarities and difference found in the texts!
The clips above exemplify how the two Comedian’s topics and presentation of these topics put them further in opposition. Cosby was rooted in his universally relatable stories, while Pryor’s stories reflect the experiences of a Black working class child. Get it? …Cosby is reflecting on his childhood in a general non-radicalized way, while Pryor is using precise linguistic tools to embellish his language and stabilize his story within the Black experience. Pryor’s use of AAE is more of an indicator of race, and a connector to those in the audience who are black. No, this does not mean that he did not have White audience because he definitely did. However, his use of linguistic markers like cursing to build creditability with the audience and emphasize what he was saying shows the audience the particular audience he was targeting.
REWIND! For the wrap up…
After leaving Temple, Cosby moved out to New York to pursue his comedy career and had made quite a name for him by the time Pryor arrived. As mentioned, Pryor decides to make a huge shift in his performance and makes the decision to base his act in an exclusively Black experience that took a stance of very real topics from the view of a Black person navigating within the working class. The acts he produced were now a reflection of his reality, the interesting thing is Cosby’s acts were too. Although he did not do race based comedy he spoke of his own experience but not through the lens of race. Cosby’s middle classed, college grad experience helped position him to produce every-man comedy. Pryor’s upbringing within a lower, working class family in the South gave him a different framework. Pryor’s background gave him stories that spoke to working class Black folk and stuck with them because they were stories that reflected their realties. As Nelson (1998) writes:
“When I was coming of age in the late 1960s and ’70s, the release of a new Richard Pryor album was a major event. We ran to the record store to purchase a copy of “That Nigger’s Crazy” or “Bicentennial Nigger,” seduced by the brashness of the titles, the daring cover art, even before we even heard all that funny, cold-blooded, true shit Pryor was talking. He was an antidote to Richard Nixon, the Moral Majority, the decline of mass movements for social change. Richard Pryor kept it real, and then some”(245).
Pryor won over Black hearts through “Keeping it Real,” while Cosby was beloved by everyone, not just his Black audience. Cosby’s language was not too heavily saturated with AAE and he talked about experiences that were universally relatable. Besides their language use, there backgrounds attributed to their differing paths as well. Pryor was a part of the lower working class, had experienced the rise of drugs, (he was an abuser himself). Pryor told stories of Black people to Black people, about Black people and was unapologetic when he did so. Cosby on the other hand was college educated, grew up in Philly in a house with both of his parents, and did not have a pass that was rooted in struggle, or at least he did not portray it to be. It is almost like Cosby was the comedian you put on when your white friends are over and Pryor is the one you put on when you are alone or with your close friends of color who also enjoy laughing at a relatable reality.
But hey, despite Pryor’s success with crafting a name for himself and being #TopFive best Black comedians who ever graced a stage, Cosby is still viewed as the MVP by many because he transcended the boundaries. He didn’t just win Black hearts; he won over all races landing him his 1.5 million dollars endorsement courtesy of Pepsi and Jell-O, as well as legacy of one of the most successful Black shows, The Cosby Show. Yeah, he got the Jell-O and the mainstream audience but I can’t help but feel Pryor ruthless, Black-based comedy will resonate within the Black community forever.
Cooper, Evan. “Is It Something He Said: The Mass Consumption Of Richard Pryor’s Culturally Intimate Humor.” Communication Review 10.3 (2007): 223-247.Communication & Mass Media Complete. Web. 2 May 2016.
Nelson, J. (1998). Pryor Knowledge. WWW.salon.com/bc/1998/11/24bc2.html. Accessed October, 2006.
Rahman, Jacquelyn. “An Ay For An Ah: Language Of Survival In African American Narrative Comedy.” American Speech 82.1 (2007): 65-96. Communication & Mass Media Complete. Mon. 2 Apr. 2016.
Written by: Ja’Nai Harris