American Culture Studies Ph.D. Dissertations


A King of Time and Motion: Richard Pryor and the Evolution of Modern Stand-Up Comedy

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


American Culture Studies

First Advisor

Cynthia Baron (Advisor)

Second Advisor

Karen Guzzo (Other)

Third Advisor

Jonathan Chambers (Committee Member)

Fourth Advisor

Jolie Sheffer (Committee Member)


Richard Pryor (1940 – 2005) is widely regarded as one of the greatest stand-up comedians of the 20th century. He was the first recipient of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. He won Grammy awards, an Emmy, and starred in some of Hollywood's biggest blockbusters. He had a long standing on-screen partnership with Gene Wilder, with whom he made several financially successful films. Furthermore, an entire generation of stand-up comedians, both black and white, male and female, cite Pryor as a primary inspiration. For these reasons, Pryor is the subject of many books and academic articles. These works cover Pryor's life story and his unique ability to use comedy as a way to convey the African American experience to mainstream audiences. However, since his life story and cultural contributions are so compelling, Pryor's aesthetic contributions are sometimes overlooked and thus need further investigation. Specifically, Pryor's comedic timing was impeccable. In stand-up comedy, the difference between a successful joke and an unsuccessful joke can be a fraction of a second and Pryor negotiated time with ease and intense strategy. Likewise, Pryor used his voice masterfully to portray various characters of different genders and ethnicities. Similarly, his unique stage movements allowed him to perform routines with multiple characters, each with their own personality and physical attributes. Using illustrations from three of Pryor's stand-up comedy films, this dissertation provides a comprehensive analysis of Pryor's use of timing, voice, and motion. The study shows that Pryor used these performance elements to invent a distinct aesthetic matrix that has since become the standard in modern stand-up comedy performance.