Jokes about broken vending machines and bad breath. Bits about awkward interactions with the ladies.
Tame humor is hardly what comedian Richard Pryor is known for. But his early stand-up sets sounded pretty different from the profanity-laced routines that came later on. His later work, often dealing with issues of race, emotional health and society, is what catapulted Pryor into a greater notoriety.
Pryor’s striking professional transformation is the subject of the most recent episode of East Bay Yesterday, a podcast about local history. Host and creator Liam O’Donoghue takes a look at how the comedian’s time in Berkeley in 1971 prompted the stylistic shift.
“His career was altered when he met other black intellectuals,” said O’Donoghue in an interview with Berkeleyside. “The counter-culture here completely made him the sort of revolutionary comic he became. He opened up what you could say, and how you could say it.”
In his nearly year-old podcast, O’Donoghue explores exactly how this place changes people —people like Pryor or Bruce Lee, who found a community in Oakland that encouraged his unconventional martial arts practice — and how people and decisions in turn change the place. In some episodes, O’Donoghue deals with major political and cultural events, like Japanese incarceration, the birth of the sanctuary city movement in Berkeley, and the history of the KKK in Oakland. He interviews people who experienced or studied the eras, exploring how the circumstances helped create the current climate.
Other episodes are a bit lighter, like the one on the history of East Bay punk. Recently, the show treated listeners to a wild interview with 81-year-old blues legend Sugar Pie DeSanto.
Listen to the Richard Pryor episode:
The question at the center of the project, said O’Donoghue, is: “Why is the East Bay unique, and why does it have such a big cultural impact?”
It is that uniqueness that drew O’Donoghue to San Francisco from the Chicago area in the early 2000s. Armed only with a fresh journalism degree, O’Donoghue did not know a single soul and had no job prospects when he arrived.
“Even though I had no familiarity with the place, I felt an affinity for it,” he said. “I grew up listening to music and reading authors from the Bay Area. I knew that a lot of the roots of the political movements I was interested in started in Berkeley, Oakland and San Francisco. Then as soon as I got here, it was like yeah, this just feels right, automatically.”
Early on, O’Donoghue got an internship at Bay Nature, giddy that the publication’s West Berkeley office was so close to the famous punk venue the Gilman. He soon got involved with Indybay and helped start an associated print newspaper called Fault Lines. He has written for a number of publications, including Salon, since then.
O’Donoghue, who eventually moved to Oakland, also quickly became a regular on local history walking tours and at the Oakland History Room at the Oakland library. He has always been fascinated by the past, but especially so as he has witnessed big changes in the region.
“I wanted to hold onto the stories of people getting gentrified out, and make it easy and accessible to learn about history for people who are coming in,” O’Donoghue said. “Like everyone else, I’m scared of getting pushed out and not being able to afford it here, or not wanting to live here because of the changes. I wanted to hold onto the history, but not from a sense of being nostalgic — more to connect where we are now with everything that’s come before us.”
Although he had no previous experience with the medium, O’Donoghue thought a podcast would be best way to tell the long, detailed stories he was drawn to, and would be most accessible for the diverse audience he was hoping to reach. He watched some tutorials on YouTube, and now makes the episodes at home with just a recorder, microphone and laptop.
O’Donoghue has found he has no shortage of material. He will often just walk around a neighborhood and happen to find someone with a great story, like a man he met recently in West Oakland who helped save victims of the Cypress Freeway collapse after the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989. O’Donoghue also scours local history websites and social media pages. That is how he met a guy who told him about his experience fishing off the Berkeley Pier with his grandfather in the 1940s — using a decapitated horse’s head as bait for eels, which they would later pickle and chow down on. (No, the guy was not messing with him, O’Donoghue swears.)
Listen to the episode about the sanctuary city movement in Berkeley:
Listeners get to meet both famous and everyday people along with the host. In one of the most unusual episodes, O’Donoghue presents a meditation on the nature of fear, told through stories from a woman who grew up living in St. Mary Cemetery, Oakland’s oldest graveyard.
As the podcast has gained listeners, and occasional airtime on local radio stations, O’Donoghue has begun searching ways to make it financially sustainable. He is currently looking for grants and fiscal sponsorships, and beginning to plan live tapings and other events that could help raise funds.
After all, he can’t stop the project before he secures his dream interviews.
Who is on the list? MC Hammer, Ursula Le Guin, Ron Dellums, John Fogerty, Alice Waters and Ruth Beckford.
In the East Bay, that is still just scratching the surface of cultural icons you might want to hear through your headphones.