Friday, Apr 10, 2009 | 4:00 pm - 5:30 pm

Becoming Richard Pryor: Berkeley, 1971 
Prof. Scott Saul, English Dept

Actor-comedian Richard Pryor may be one of the most present and least understood figures shadowing contemporary American culture. Upon his death in December 2005, the media paid tribute to his legacy with the sort of praise that would have seemed extravagant if it wasn’t so heartfelt and, from the perspective of Pryor’s life, so hard-earned. Yet few scholars have meditated seriously about how he came to create this new style of comedy, or what exactly he started. In “Becoming Richard Pryor: Berkeley, 1971,” I situate the inventiveness of Pryor’s humor within the historical matrix of early-’70s Berkeley. Pryor spent nine productive and experimental months in West Berkeley, living near the intersection of University and McGee, not far from KPFA (where he contributed to the station’s programming) and Mandrake’s (a folk-blues club where he became a regular performer). In Berkeley, his contact with two communities — the freewheeling African-American writers and intellectuals known as the “Black Pack” (among them Ishmael Reed, Cecil Brown, and Claude Brown), and Berkeley’s politicized white counterculture — pushed him to step far outside the boundaries of postwar stand-up comedy, which had been largely inflected with a Jewish sensibility. One might even say that, in Berkeley, Pryor stepped far outside the boundaries of comedy itself, forcing his audience to question why and how they laughed, and flirting with turning comedy into its opposite.

“But Not Despair”: The Political Potential of Comic Conversation Between the Black Subject and the Subject of Terror 
Jakeya Caruthers, Stanford University, Anthropology & Education

Many theories of black humor and comic cultural performance focus on the tragicomic, cathartic, subversive, observational, acerbic, and absurdist. I do not wish to discount these theories but to build upon them to examine black humor from a different lens, positing a concept of black humor that emphasizes the comic conversation between the african-american subject and the subject of racial terror. Focusing on the trope of the comic suspended chase, I examine the black aspect of a gray, cross-table laughter which affords an opportunity for african-americans to assert their humanity against narratives of inhumanity (Carpio 2008), an opportunity to stand tall in the face of terror by taking it seriously, and seriously enough to laugh not only at, but with it. This reading of comic conversation suggests a new interpretation of political affect and countenance which posit a closeness and congruity (which are neither grieving nor scornful) that manage to resist complicity. As Toni Morrison notes in Sula, “what [is] taken by outsiders to be slackness, slovenliness or generosity [is] in fact a full recognition of the legitimacy of forces other than good ones.” I argue that the humor that eschews despair does not smack narrowly of the whispered superiority enjoyed in shared subaltern knowing; rather, it is as much and as importantly directed outward as it is deflected inward. It is the moment of gallows humor wherein the would-be executed shares a chuckle with her (un)hooded executioner rather than her audience of comrades. Through an analysis of selected performed/performance texts from different points in black cultural history, I examine the ways these comic interactions present themselves as holographic pedagogies and added configurations of black power.

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