Paralleling Richard Pryor's own childhood, Jo Jo is raised in a family owned brothel in a black neighborhood of an American midwestern city. From there, he sets out to break into show business, rising from seedy cellar nightclubs to popularity as a comic rebel whose humor is laced with the language of the street.
Richard Pryor said that his Jo Jo character's third wife, Michelle, played by Debbie Allen', was sensual, acerbic, and every bit as willful as her husband: "She's played in the picture as one lady. But it took five women I've known . . . maybe ten . . . to create her".
Richard Pryor once commented on this movie: "Throughout the picture, I felt I was walking a narrow edge between my own reality and [his character's] Jo Jo's fantasy. Which is which? I'm still not sure".
The dark side of Jo Jo (Richard Pryor)'s growing acclaim in the film's storyline is a reliance first on booze, then drugs. It is an aspect of the film which, Pryor admits, was painful to evoke as a writer, director and actor. Pryor said: "I look at the movie now and ask myself, 'why did you show people that?' But I had no choice. It was something I had to do.I won't cop out, trying to explain why Jo Jo . . . or I . . . did drugs. I know why. I understand it even better after making the picture. But it's all there on film for people to take as they see fit. I'm one of the lucky ones. I was gone, crazy, out of my mind. But I'm alive".
Reflecting on his own addiction, and its relevance to the film, Richard Pryor speaks of his "demons". Pryor said: "There's a reason they call alcohol 'spirits'. There are demons in all of us which booze and drugs awaken . . . which grow stronger the more we continue to use them". Before he could exorcise his own demons, Pryor first had to "hit the wall . . . bottom out". Then came a process of personal reflection like taking stock that Pryor called "taking inventory". Pryor said: "When you mess up . . . and remember, you're talking to an expert . . . the only way to put that stuff behind you and get on with your life is to be brutally honest. Self-deception is one of the worst drugs there is". Out of his inventory emerged the first shadowy perception of the character of Jo Jo Dancer, and a decision to accept a challenge which he'd anticipated throughout his career, yet had frequently rejected.
In gathering an ensemble cast, Richard Pryor chose several actors whose talent he admired, but with many of whom he had not previously worked. Pryor explained: "A movie is a collective effort; no one person makes a picture. But in the end, what gets up there on screen is the director's vision. I wanted this to be my vision".
Writer-director Richard Pryor said that despite obvious links to his own experience, the film was not autobiographical: "I gave Jo Jo some of the emotional content of my life. Maybe more than I meant to. But an autobiography is a factual account with real people, places, names, events. "This isn't. Jo Jo goes through what I went through, yet it happens differently to him. Characters are combined from many people . . . many feelings".
The film features the exotic dancer, Satin Doll (Paula Kelly), and the veteran showman, Johnny Barnett (Billy Eckstine). Richard Pryorsaid that they were amongst "dozens of performers who helped me get started working as a comic in the Midwest".
Flashbacks and fragments which illuminate Jo Jo (Richard Pryor)'s life are intentionally woven out of sequence. Pryor explained: "Memory doesn't work in nice, neat, chronological patterns that make things convenient for screenwriters. Jo Jo's mind skips around. So does the story". Each such sequence is set against the social, cultural, sexual and racial ferment of its time, observed through the filter of Jo Jo's humor.