Blog—Source Material

Mister Kelly’s Provided Platform for Pryor’s Transformation

In the tumultuous 1960s, comic evolved during his appearances at famed night spot.

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Richard Pryor. Midwest MS Mister Kellys Box 1 Folder 83

Richard Pryor was not always the controversial, frequently profane comic that many remember from the late twentieth century. Middlebrow humor was Pryor’s calling card when he first took the stage at Mister Kelly’s in Chicago in 1965.

Soon after, Pryor was set to go on stage on April 4, 1968, when the news broke that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated. Jeff Wald, a talent booker at Mister Kelly’s, was with Pryor that night and recalls the comedian’s emotions.

“We were driving around and smoking weed and he was crying,” Wald said in the 2021 documentary Live at Mister Kelly’s. “He was supposed to go to New York and do the Ed Sullivan show the next day, and he just didn’t show up. He just said, ‘I can’t do that, it would be horrible. I can’t go be funny.’”

Pryor performed at Mister Kelly’s one more time before leaving the comedy scene for a year, spending time with the Black Panther Party and others in California.

“He went from being collegiate with cute sweaters and The Merv Griffin Show,” said comedian and actor Robert Klein in the same documentary. “He disappeared for a year and became not political but a more authentic Richard Pryor.”

Pryor’s new approach took comedy—and his acclaim—to even greater heights. He went on to star in dozens of films and comedy specials and later was recognized with one Primetime Emmy Award and five Grammy Awards. In 1998, he became the first recipient of the Kennedy Center’s Mark Twain Prize for Humor.

“I don’t think anybody has ever had as singular an impact on the art form as Richard since,” said comedy historian Dan Pasternack in Live at Mister Kelly’s.

Pryor’s comments upon receiving the Twain award were characteristic of his style. Pryor pushed the boundaries of what was socially acceptable while drawing attention to the sobering reality of racism.

“I feel great about accepting this prize. It is nice to be regarded on par with a great white man—now that’s funny!” Pryor said according to the Kennedy Center’s website. "Seriously, though, two things people throughout history have had in common are hatred and humor. I am proud that, like Mark Twain, I have been able to use humor to lessen people’s hatred!”