For many Pryor is possibly the greatest stand-up comedian America has ever produced. He is certainly among the most influential, and his work was an inspiration to a generation of black American comedians such as Eddie Murphy, the Wayans brothers, Martin Lawrence and Chris Rock. Given Pryor's background, it's astonishing he survived, far less became a comedian. He was born in Peoria, Illinois and raised by his grandmother in the brothel where she worked. He was abused physically and sexually as a child and abandoned completely by his mother when he was ten years old. The acorn did not fall far from the tree in Pryor's case, and he dropped out of high school, became a teenage father himself, and spent many of his waking hours stoned on drink or drugs. Surprisingly, when he began stand-up at the age of 17 his routines were safe and non-confrontational, in the mould of his role model ill Cosby.From: Frank Sanello, Eddie Murphy: The Life and Times of a Comic on the Edge, Carol Publishing Group: Secaucus, New Jersey (1997), pages 22-23:
By this time [age 16], Eddie's adoration of Elvis [Presley] had devolved into mere infatuation. Maybe it was the King's premature death that made Eddie decide a bloated, drug-habituated joke was not exactly the kind of person to pattern your career after. For whatever reason, Murphy adopted two very different comics as his new role models: the ultra-foul-mouthed Richard Pryor and Bill Cosby, the avatar of black respectability and achievement. Although at opposite ends of the humor and lifestyle spectrums, the two older men reflected Eddie's aspirations and inspirations. He explaind why such polar opposites guided him: "Pryor on an artistic level. Cosby on a moral level. Cosby was this cool guy and Pryor was brilliant. I wanted to combine the two. Be funny and have a clean life." Indeed, Murphy would out-profane Pryor's stand-up style, while avoiding his self-destructive behavior. Eddie wanted to burn brightly on stage, not self-immolate in his bedroom while sucking on a crack pipe. "As a teenager when I watched Richard Pryor for the first time, I realized what I was--a comedian. He paints pictures with words. He can tell you a story and you can see the whole thing. He was a genius," Eddie adds tellingly, using the past tense to describe the burned-out case his idol had become.
It's not going out on a limb to say that Cosby had no aesthetic influence on Murphy's comedy. The elder statesman of stand-up and sitcom told interminable shaggy dog stories about raising teenagers and placating the wife. Eddie's humor eisted in an alternate, scatalogical universe. Cosby had the credibility to make Jell-O seem delicious. Murphy was selling something else that couldn't even be mentioned on TV. The Cos served as a super-successful example of clean living, hard work, and clear goals, the very traits punched into Eddie at home [by his boxer step-father] in the basement. You can almmost imagine the young man visualizing the door tot he boxing ring downstairs when he explained why he always turned down cocaine. "I was afraid I might like it too much." The cross-addicted Pryor was his creative inspiration, but Murphy made it clear the comic was not his alter ego. When a psychodynamic-oriented reporter tried to draw parallels between the two men's upbringing, Murphy cust him off quickly. "Richard's had a tough life. He's been through a lot of sh-- I've never had to face." Like growing up in a whorehouse in Peoria, Pryor's childhood address. [Eddie Murphy had, for most of his childhood, an essentially middle class, two-parent upbringing.]