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Comedian Richard Pryor brought his raw and unfiltered act to the Lobero Theatre on the night of July 9, 1971.

The sold-out, tightly-packed audience roared with laughter- sometimes nervously. Due to his status as a controversial comedian, the conservative Santa Barbara media was, needless to say, thoroughly unamused.

The Santa Barbara News-Press summarized the theme of the evening, saying,

“The monologist spices his tales with pungent language. No, that’s not strong enough. He talks dirty. And he does it a lot, far too much for an audience which included women and small children.”

Richard Pryor was born in the river town of Peoria, Illinois in 1940. He faced adversity and hardship at an early age, having to deal with the alcoholism of his family members and a rocky, unstable home life. In 1963, after two years in the Army, Pryor moved to New York City and began performing in Greenwich Village clubs alongside iconic performers such as Bob Dylan and Woody Allen.

At the beginning of his career, Richard Pryor’s stand-up was clean and mild-mannered like that of his idols Bill Cosby and Flip Wilson. By the late ’60s, however, Pryor had found his unique voice, which was famously irreverent, and found caustic humor in sensitive topics like race, sexuality, and his own painful childhood and adult drug use.

As Cosby himself once said,

“Richard Pryor drew the line between comedy and tragedy as thin as one could possibly paint it.”

The Lobero in 1971 was an unlikely venue for a performer as controversial as Richard Pryor, whose act had been banned by three national television networks. Until July 9, that year’s theater calendar had been rich in travelogue and surfing films, classical music, light rock, and musical theater. A strange but welcome blip in programming was the performance by the widely debated standup comedian.

Pryor arrived in Santa Barbara directly from several weeks of small nightclub bookings in San Francisco. His Santa Barbara performance was partly a benefit fundraiser for a hometown group called “Operation Solidarity,” which was “an organization of Black photographers committed to broadening the dimensions of education and information through the excellence of visual images.”

“Richard Pryor: Live & Smokin’” was a 48-minute film of a club performance he gave in New York City on April 29, 1971. The film brilliantly records Pryor at this early point in his career – unpolished, rambling, brutally frank – and likely captured the essence of his Lobero appearance just two months later. Pryor’s opening lines, characteristically crude, in the film were, “I’m really nervous because I ain’t had no cocaine all day. I love cocaine.”

While we wait in the wings for things to return to normal, we hope you enjoy a peek into the Lobero archives.

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