Rain Pryor was code-switching before NPR knew how to spell it

In Fried Chicken and Latkes, performer's race-related humor comes home to roost

Rain Pryor was 5 years old the first time she recalls seeing her dad high. It was one of those things that came with the territory when you're Richard Pryor's daughter. Other things, like living on welfare with your mom, or watching a cross get burned on your lawn in Beverly Hills, were less predictable. But it was the '70s, and Rain was the mixed-race child of a black man and a Jewish woman. So while her father became an icon by clowning the contradictions of race in America, she became the butt of other people's jokes.

"Around the time I was 7 years old, I got invited to a party," she says by phone. "And it's funny now but it wasn't funny as a kid. They invited me to the party because I used to have an Afro, and they thought if they threw ice cubes at my hair they would bounce off. And I cried. I was traumatized from that. Still to this day, I can go back and laugh at it but as a kid it was painful. You figure you're getting invited to a party because kids like you, but no, you got invited because they thought you were the joke."

It almost sounds like a scene from Stephen King's Carrie, except Pryor didn't have the power to turn the party into a bloodbath. So she did the next best thing. Ten years after her dad's death, she plumbs the humorous depths of her own upbringing in an era when her ability to code-switch was more survival skill than social adaptation. That's the theme behind the one-woman show she debuted off-Broadway to stellar reviews three years ago. Appropriately titled Fried Chicken and Latkes, it explores the odd dichotomy Pryor's lived through the kind of character-driven performance that made her dad the most influential comedian of modern times. The New York Times even called Rain's impression of him "spot-on," but she didn't dare attempt it without getting his permission first.

"He said it was great," says Pryor, who began performing parts of her eventual show for him before he died in 2005. "He actually always wanted me to do stand-up and I was like, 'no, but I can do this daddy. And I think I can do it well.' He was like, 'but one day you're gonna do stand-up.'"

Turns out, daddy knew best. Though better known for an early acting career and her most prominent role as an awkward teenager on the '80s sitcom "Head of the Class," Pryor has taken to the comedy stage in recent years as a result of her show. When we talked a few weeks ago, she was preparing to record her first comedy album — the working title: Black and White and Other BS — in Las Vegas on Christmas Day. A natural storyteller who weaves marriage, sex, and motherhood between her musings on race, Pryor still isn't convinced the comic stage is the perfect fit for her. "Stand-up is the door that opened for me because of my dad, so I've walked through but I don't really love it," she says. "I'm doing it, but I don't have that thing that other comics have. I'm not miserable, I think that's what it is."

To the contrary, she admits to being surprisingly well-adjusted in spite of the warped reality that often comes with being a child of celebrity. Richard may have encouraged Rain's gift for comedy early on, but mimicking his bad behavior was not an option. In her stand-up act, she talks about the time she sneaked out of the house and her dad came to the home of her friend's parents, in typical "do as I say, not as I do" fashion, and dragged her out by her hair. "He was like, 'You're not going to be a screw-up. You're gonna get your ass home and shut up and go to school in the morning. And you're grounded, by the way.'"

It must've worked because Rain developed a disdain for the brash behavior of spoiled little rich kids. "It never worked for me," she says. Her tolerance for drugs was even lower. "The biggest joke I had with my dad was calling him up once after I actually tried cocaine and saying, 'I can't believe you would ever do this.' And he said, 'Are you sure, you're a Pryor?'"

"We laughed about it because he always knew that was never going to be for me. He always said, 'Just do you. Just go perform and do you and, you know, fuck everybody else.'"

She ran with that advice, leaving Hollyweird for something closer to real life in Baltimore, where she still lives and raises the daughter she had with her second husband, a city police officer. After a period of indulging herself in family life, comedy came calling. But instead of lamenting her lack of opportunity in Hollywood, her mentor, Melvin Van Peebles, famed director of the independent classic Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, told her to create her own vehicle. Hence, portions of Fried Chicken and Latkes are also featured in her documentary That Daughter's Crazy, which comes out on DVD this month.Today she performs on some of the same comedy stages as her father. But rather than seeing herself in his shadow, Rain takes pride in continuing the family tradition. "I kind of honor the fact that I carry the legacy," she says. "I'm not afraid of it. He gave all his kids a sense of honor and truth and humor."