You might have heard the sad news that comedian/writer/actor/philosopher/sociologist/icon Richard Pryor is gone. Oddly enough, even before I heard the news, I was thinking about him earlier today, wondering who is really following in his footsteps and carrying his torch.
To honor his work, this is an essay that I wrote about him in 2000.
What does the nine-CD box set ...And It’s Deep, Too!: The Complete Warner Bros. (Rhino) culled from his top-charting albums and (in)famous concert appearances remind us? That even though he never professed to be any kind of leader, Richard Pryor was a cultural icon and hero for African-Americans to rival Martin Luther King or Malcolm X. Living a very public personal life that was the stuff of a Shakespearean tragedy, he walked a tightrope for most of his life, clouded by drugs, failed marriages and run-ins with the law. This all became grist for his stage act. The brutal honesty, artful story-telling and political undercurrent that Pryor used so skillfully, effectively changing not just the whole face of comedy but also the whole dynamic of the black experience in America without exploiting stereotypes as many others have.
After a legacy of minstrel shows and buffoonish Uncle Tom caricatures such as Stepin Fechit, Amos & Andy and Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, the Civil Rights movement of the sixties undoubtedly encouraged a new wave of black comedy that retained some dignity, with Bill Cosby and Dick Gregory leading the charge. Also, comics who tried to stretch the boundaries like Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl and Ernie Kovacs were the exception in an atmosphere that thrived on Borsht-belt, button-down humor, heavily dominated by whites. As Freddie Prinze, Flip Wilson and Redd Foxx were starting to open up the field in the early Ք70s, the whole concept of the Քcomedy album was also becoming a way for hopefuls to break into the field along with the lucky breaks on the big and smaller screens. Even then, there was a dichotomy of how comics performed: publicly there were scrubbed down but working in the clubs and burlesques were where they served up their Քblue (dirty) material.
Pryor certainly had a background with that as his grandmother served as house madam at an Illinois bordello where his mother worked. Moving to New York, he got some serious exposure via the Ed Sullivan and Merv GriffinՕs programs in the late sixties. By the time he moved out to Berkeley in 1970, he had gone through multiple marriages, cocaine use and jail time.
You go down there (the courts) looking for justice, that’s what you find- JUST US.ғ
Though he turned in impressive performances in films like Bustin Loose, Blue Collar and Silver Streak, Pryor was also saddled with many mindless scripts that were beneath him: BrewsterՕs Millions, The Toy, The Wiz, Superman III, Stir Crazy. Not surprisingly, he shown the best in concert films (Richard Pryor: Live in Concert(1979), Richard Pryor Live on the Sunset Strip (1982), Richard Pryor Here and Now (1983)) as well as his comedy albums (where he scored 5 Grammy awards). Here is where you found the real, outrageous Pryor who paved the way for similar-styled comedians of the era like Robin Williams and Steve Martin and where comics would dot the audience to witness him. During that time, only Andy Kaufman and George Carlin pushed the envelope as far as Pryor did.
White people be going Ҕwhy do you hold your things? ‘Cause you took everything else, motherfucker!Փ
Pryor worked blueԕ with a vengeance. Other than Redd Foxx, no one crammed as many expletives into their monologue. Also, the gratuitous use of the word niggerԕ was shocking at the time, and latter taken to heart by many generations of rap artists. The word carried the obvious taboos and even then to hear a black man say it proudly and unashamed, as if to take it back from the whites and turn it into a badge of honor, was unheard-of: he even used it for such album titles as That Niggers Crazy and Bicentennial Nigger. Also important was the fact that Pryor unashamedly spoke the jive/ebonics language of a class of African-Americans that he was no longer a part of but, to his credit, refused to distance himself from.
Yet, it was this very course and frank dialog that had a huge impact on how a white audience saw the black experience. This was a much more pure form that was seen on any sitcom at the time. Shows like The Jeffersons, Sanford and Son and Good Times were all dominated by white writers and not surprisingly watered down the whole African-American experience for the viewing public. Pryor himself proved that his in-your-face style was just as unwelcome in Hollywood as it was in prime time when his own 1977 sitcom on NBC proved short-lived.
ՒWhen shit gets too thick, niggers got a great answer then (for women)- Քwell fuck it, then!Փ
Other than race, women proved to be a important subject in Pryors routines and personal life, which were merging closer and closer. After going through five marriages, most of which only lasted a year or two, and shooting up one of his wifeՕs cars, he turned the incidents into material for his stage act: the car incident was featured on Wanted: Live In Concert. Though hardly a feminist, he was able to convey the sexual power struggle where men, such as himself, were cowards who frequently succumbed.
I snorted up cocaine for about 15 years. My dumb ass. I must have snorted up Peru.ғ
No doubt, his problems were accelerated by his insatiable drug use. At times, Pryor was out of control in public, once yelling obscenities at an audience at a benefit in 1977. This was followed by numerous heart problems, hospital visits and Betty Ford visits. Even more harrowing was the later revelation that the infamous freebasing incident in 1980 which burned his body was actually a suicide attempt. Sadly, Pryor spent the 80ԕs in a cycle of cleaning up and going back to drugs.
You have to be very careful with fire… I ain’t burnin’ up again for nobody.ғ
Even so, this also was turned into material for his stage act. Similar to rock stars like Cobain and Lennon, Pryor unashamedly lived out his private life in public, using it as part of his art. Was this crass or catharsis? A little of both perhaps and again marking him as an artist who pulled no punches, especially on himself. I like to think that the nervous laugh you hear from him after delivering some scathing line wasnt just the drugs but also a moment of realization about how on the edge his work was. During a eulogy, he wrong-headedly describes how a ‘nigger’ died with a ‘faggot’- even as the crowd gasps, he doesnՕt miss a beat with his monologue. Maybe most scarily, and prophetically, his tribulations with the police still ring true as some things never seem to change in race relations.
I went to Zimbabwe҉ I know how white people feel in America now- relaxed! Cause when I heard the police car, I knew they weren’t coming after me!ԓ
Another trademark of Pryors act which also served as a measure of therapy for him (and his audience) was his role-playing. It was on the concert stages that he gave his greatest performances, playing everything from the preacher to the pimp with equal relish. Like Randy Newman, Pryor inhabited his creeps and derelicts and humanized them. His most famous character was always Mudbone, a proud, old man who was a braggart and a groit, dispensing out wisdom. In one routine, he recounts getting crabs, rubbing cologne on his scrotum to clean them out, accidentally getting it lit on fire and then flushing it in the toilet to put it out. DoesnՕt get much more homespun than that.
Perhaps most impressively, like Lenny Bruce, his routines were musical in their construction- more like riffs and solos than the typical vaudeville shtick that preceded it. Noting the presence of a few white audience members, Pryor wonders aloud about a shortage of white folks now- y’all stop fuckin’?ғ before proclaiming there will be no shortage of niggers- niggers be fuckin’!ғ After hearing a yee-hahԕ from another spectator, he starts making jokes about slavery, as if hes trying to diffuse the whole issue. ՒY’all are some cold motherfuckers, boy, he tells the whites and the crowd cheers.
To his credit, none of it sounds dated now but that was then. Pryor was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis in 1986 and other than a few film cameos, heӕs stayed out of the public eye for the last decade. Though he tried to mount a tour in 1992, he had to cut it short because of health problems. Last year though, he was honored by receiving The First Annual Kennedy Center Mark Twain Prize.
This was quite fitting since the fact is that we live in Pryors legacy today. He was the Spike Lee of his time- bringing attention to African-Americans in the medium and leaving a legacy thatՕs been taken up by many others: the careers of Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock, Martin Lawrence, Steve Harvey and the Wayans Brothers would have been unimaginable without him. Its even more remarkable to think that a mere stand-up guy would have a greater hand in shaping the whole racial dialog than the Nation of Islam or the Black Panthers. As one of his best-selling albums began, the words ՔRichard Pryor do indeed represent the two most beautiful words in comedy.