Pryor, Rickles, and Mason: Doing Comedy as the Daughters of Legends
My father is an electrocardio physiologist. I did not follow in his footsteps, and nobody has ever come up to me after a show and said, “You were good, but I really love what your father has done for electrocardio physiology.” But what if my father were, say, Richard Pryor? Or Don Rickles? Or Jackie Mason? For the children of legendary comedians, every humorous sentiment offered is considered in the context of their parent’s work. To find out what it’s like to deal with the substantial burden of entering the same field as a famous parent, I spoke with Rain Pryor, Mindy Rickles, and Sheba Mason, who are joining forces this Saturday in in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania in the aptly titled Daughters of Legends Comedy Show.
Previously, Pryor has explored her own comedic voice through her autobiographical solo-show Fried Chicken and Latkes, and Mason has done the same through her show 702 Punchlines and Pregnant: The Jackie Mason Musical. Rickles has relatively recently begun to make her entry into the comedy scene, but already has a credit on The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson.
I had the opportunity to chat with the three of them over the phone about their experiences as the daughters of such iconic comedians, how that has affected their views on comedy, and their views on where they belong in the comedy scene.
So, I guess I’ll begin with the obvious: would you say the status of your fathers caused you to have greater hesitation towards becoming involved in comedy and show business, or did it actively compel you?
Rain Pryor: For me it was a hesitation. It was something I never wanted to do. When I was 18 year sold, my dad was like “You really should be doing standup. That’s what you should do.” I was like, “Are you crazy? You’re Richard Pryor.” It literally took almost 20 years before I ever did it. I was tricked into it when I moved to Baltimore. I had friends who were standups who said, “Just come do five minutes of your solo show. Do that. Do five minutes of stand up.” So that’s what got me into it. It’s one of those things, when your dad is that huge at it, how can you be yourself in it and not worry about the expectations other people have?
Sheba Mason: I’ll do a show for like half an hour and think I’m doing great; I think people are laughing and I’m like, “Wow, look at me!” Inside I’m feeling so good about myself. Then I get off stage and the first thing somebody says is, “You know, I loved your father.”
Mindy Rickles: Twenty years ago I did some acting, but my father always said to me, “You think you’re as funny as I am, but you’re not.” I never did standup even though we were very similar. It was only two years ago that I met Jeff Garlin and he said, “You should really do standup.” I don’t think I really would’ve had the guts to do it when I was very young. My dad always told me how tough it was and there weren’t very many women that were successful at all when he was doing it. I would say that’s what really got me into it now. I think being older and married and having kids, I’m able to be more honest about my life and all that. I think I would’ve felt even more vulnerable years ago. I just would not have been able to do it.
Do you think it’s ever specifically worked against you?
Rickles: It’s gone both ways. I definitely use his name; I wasn’t going to just start out. I knew how hard it is. I thought I might as well use that even though Jeff [Garlin] helped me. I’m sure there are comics at the clubs when I’m in LA that are like, “What is she doing here? I’ve been doing this forever, a hundred years!” They think you’re not funny. Plus, as a woman, a lot of the times they expect you to not be funny. So, I’d say it’s both. It’s a help. It certainly opened the door and gave me many more opportunities like this one with the show that we’re doing. I did The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson after a year. I know that would never have happened.
Pryor: What’s funny is that it’s been the opposite for me in New York except for the fact of people like Sheba who will give me a chance. I get met with the “She’s Richard Pryor’s daughter” kind of thing. It’s like they make it harder for me to get my foot in the door.
Rickles: I wonder if it’s harder for sons or brothers [of comedic legends]. Like at the Laugh Factory in LA where there’s Tony Rock and Eddie Murphy. When you look and you sound exactly like your brother or your father, but you’re not him. Maybe you’re not the genius that person is.
Pryor: Well, my baby brother [Mason] has that. He gets in the door because he sounds and looks like daddy. Then he gets discarded. He gets bombarded with, “He’s not as funny as daddy.” Well, he’s only 27 years old. The thing is, to look at him on stage, he sounds and looks like my dad, period. He’s even the skinny version of my dad. I told him, “You need to address that with the audience first up because nobody’s going to hear a word you say because everyone’s looking at you like, my god, Richard Pryor just came back from the dead.” It changed for him because of that, that they were more apt to listen to him.
Mason: It really works both ways. Sometimes people get annoyed that you’re using this to get ahead but at the same time, aren’t I royalty a little bit. Can’t I use it?
Rickles: You are. Rain and I? Please. But you are. I agree. I think, personally, like I said being older… I’m not, like, 19. I have 30 years to work on this. For me it’s hard enough and I’m going to use the connections. I made a joke to Sheba and Rain. They both think I’m not a singer. If I said I’m a singer now and I sang for you, you’d be like, “She’s horrific.” I’m not going to come out and do that if I’m Barbra Streisand’s daughter. I think you have to have something to back it up. Otherwise it’s going to become very embarrassing.
Mason: That’s why I do spots every night to always keep getting better and better.
Pryor: I wish I could do spots every night.
Rickles: Me too.
Do you ever feel compelled to do comedy in the same style as your father or are you more compelled to do the opposite?
Rickles: For me, personally, because I’m very similar to my father, sometimes they might think “You sound like your father,” like I’m trying to be my father. If anything, I try to be… We’re very similar. I’m very much like my mother as well but our sense of humor is very similar and our intonations are similar. When someone would think I was doing him, no I’m actually myself. Although sometimes I could be on stage — and I’m sure both of you have had this — I could say something that would be exactly my father. I think, “I’m not going to say that right now.” Although I have to be honest when I’m performing for 19- and 20-year-olds, they don’t know who my father is. My father would be like, “What did they say about me that night?” I’m like, “They really said nothing, dad.” They don’t know. I would say I’m a storyteller. My dad was a storyteller. My dad wasn’t a setup-punchline comic.
Pryor: Exactly. I don’t do setup-punchline comedy. I tell stories and in that there’s humor. People laugh but that’s what I do. I think of my politics in terms of… I’m not a political comic, but I’m a racial comic. I talk about race and that’s how I start. My whole set is about that. I think there are elements where, yes: if you knew my dad, you will hear him in it because that’s how I was shaped to view and see the world; through his and my mom’s eyes. They were both activists, so that’s how I express myself. I take it to the edge and some people like it and some people don’t. I know people are curious at first to see Rain Pryor, Richard Pryor’s daughter, especially when billed that way. There’s that expectation.
Mason: I think I mostly sound like him by accident. Sometimes I sound like him so much I have to tone it down because he’s specifically “Jewish” sounding: borscht-belt. I have to overcome my natural tendency to sound that way in order to sound more modern.
Rickles: It’s weird when you hear your dad’s voice. I do. I see my mother in me too, but when I hear my dad, I’m like, “My god. That sounded exactly like me.” He used to say, if I complained about my dates, he’d say, “He didn’t call you again because you’re like me in a dress.” I’m like, “Well, let’s hope I’m not.” My dad was always like, “What did you say to him? What did you say?” I found that most of the men I dated would say things like, “I’m funny too,” like it was a contest.
Pryor: That’s why my dad said never to date a comic. He said to me specifically “They will think that I’m in your vagina; just don’t do it.”
Do you guys think you still would have done comedy if your fathers hadn’t been legendary comedians?
Pryor: If I grew up in the same family and my dad wasn’t there, I’d still probably end up doing standup.
Rickles: For me, that was my whole identity. This was always my personality so that was one of the main things that identified who I was. It wasn’t like, “Well, Mindy’s… She’s brilliant, genius, a scientist, she’s funny.” It was… this is it for her. She’s funny. There weren’t a lot of other things. I was told I was a great artist, a dancer. I’m a wonderful gardener. It was just like, this was it for me. I probably got it from my dad. We both have a very helpless way about us. Which is nice because then other people do everything for us. For him, he’s on the stage. That’s when he does his thing.
Mason: My dad wasn’t around, but I always identified with it. I’m Jackie Mason’s daughter. When I was a kid, when I was between the ages of two and four or even one and four, I was on some of those talk shows. He was big in the 80s so they wanted to hear… It was scandalous to have a daughter out of wedlock. It was more interesting then than it would be now. I was on Montel Williams, Current Affair, and Entertainment Tonight and stuff like that.
Pryor: I thought I was going to be a therapist for a while. Like, “Maybe I should stop acting and just become a therapist?”
Rickles: Oh me too, I was a nursery school teacher. I was a little softer with the kids. I wasn’t like, “Get out of the bathroom you’re done!” I wasn’t like that. I was a little softer.
Did you find it comforting to be in careers like that, that were totally separate from your fathers?
Pryor: I realized I was super smart. For me, I realized I’m really smart. My older sister, who has a different mom, went on to become a professor as Smith College. She was the super smart one. Everyone’s like, “She’s so smart.” For some reason I must’ve thought “I’m a performer, I’m not so smart.” Until I started working in that field and I started studying. I was actually going to college but every time I’d go to college, I’d end up getting a TV show.
Rickles: Don’t you hate when that happens?
Pryor: [Laughing] I do, it sucks.
Rickles: That’s very interesting, because when I taught nursery school I felt, “I’m really competent at this.” I felt, like, “This is only about me.” My parents couldn’t really relate to it. I volunteered at Para Los Niños on Skid Row and they were… They couldn’t really relate to that at all. It was very much my own thing.
Pryor: Which is funny, because I just performed in Northhampton, Massachusetts doing standup and my sister’s colleagues came. What was interesting… What I’m being told from people who heard my standup is they’re like, “You’re very cerebral. You’re very smart.” I’m like, “Oh. I didn’t realize.” I guess it comes through somehow.
Rickles: I just read that people that are funny are very smart. They use a certain part of the brain. I’m like, “Really? I think I got a five on my SATs.” I’m like, “Wow, I’m smart.” I do feel that even when I’m with very bright people, say someone’s a Rhodes Scholar. If I make them laugh, I’m like, “Look at that.” In my head. I’m like, “Wow, he’s a genius and I’m a moron and he just laughed at me.” I could see that.
Mason: One time I was doing a show and it wasn’t going so well. There was a doctor in the audience and I said, “As long as the doctor’s laughing at me, that’s all I care about.”
Did you guys ever consider anonymity? Maybe changing your name or hiding your relationship to your fathers?
Rickles: Only now. Right now, talking to you, Phil, is the only time in my life that I ever thought of that.
Pryor: When I go to work out material and it’s at a different place my persona is “Cindy Goldberg.” I change my name. Although, I think if they’re younger they don’t know the name.
Rickles: Is that really true?
Pryor: They look at me like, “She looks like so and so.”
Rickles: You’re really saying that 20-year-olds do not know who your father was?
Rickles: See, I can understand it because my father, his birthday… He’ll be 89 next week. He’s still working and he’s leaving for New York in a couple days. I just feel that’s amazing to me that they wouldn’t know who he was.
Mason: Well, I think maybe this is just because of the way I was taught. I just think that the name that we have, it’s a gift sort of. There are only a few people on the planet who are the daughters of these really accomplished, important men. These guys have broken ground. They’re not just like anyone. Not that there’s not something special about everyone, but these are people that were really admired. I think it’s almost a sin to change your name. I think when people tell you to do that… The way Rain you do it, occasionally to try out new stuff, that’s different. That’s actually a good idea.
Pryor: I’m telling you, we should go one time together Sheba. That would be hilarious. Outside of New York, I think that would be hilarious.
Mason: I think to live like that; I think it’s a sin. Here’s a nice gift that you were given, own it. That’s how I feel.
Rickles: I can’t think off the top of my head of female comics whose fathers were really major comics. Can you? That are successful. I don’t know any. Maybe you do because I don’t know really many comics. I just can’t…
Mason: I know that some of them… Look, Angelina Jolie made a movie. Who’s in the movie? Her daughter, her blood daughter’s in the movie. When you’re the daughter of a celebrity, it helps you.
Rickles: But in this world today with the Kardashians and all this… It’s not like it was years ago. I’ve always thought of myself as an old soul. When a movie star was Elizabeth Taylor or someone that really was… Now it’s whatever. Anyone’s a celebrity with a show or something. There’s no… It’s a whole different reality I think now. Nicolas Cage was “Nicolas Cage” so no one would know Francis Ford Coppola was his uncle, but I just think it’s a totally different thing now. I think it’s so hard anyway that I don’t feel like struggling at this point more than I have to, to be honest. Might as well use it… My dad’s very supportive, even though sometimes he’ll be like, “What’d they say about me?” He still wants me to do well and stuff like that.
Phil Stamato lives and writes in New York, where he may also be seen standing up and telling jokes.