Richard Franklin Lennox Thomas Pryor the Third, better known to the public at large as Richard Pryor.
Born and raised in an Illinois whorehouse. The self-admitted bard of self-destruction whose notoriety as a drug and wife abuser threatened to overshadow his importance as perhaps the most preeminent comedic voice of the latter 20th century. Movie star and co-scribe of Mel Brooks’ classic western lampoon, BLAZING SADDLES (1974). Survivor of a freebase-induced self-immolation that he later claimed to be a suicide attempt. Poet of the scatological and vulgar. Shatterer of societal and racial taboos simply by virtue of opening his mouth on stage and being the first black comedian to honestly state what was on his mind in the, shall we say, “colorful” terms used by us highly rhythmic individuals within our own homes or other places where we could freely express ourselves without fear of hempen reprisal from Mister Charlie. Richard Pryor was all of these things, but above all the guy was simply one of the funniest motherfuckers who ever lived, wrenching laughs out of the most bitterly painful and embarrassing human experiences — mostly his own — and now after a nearly twenty-year battle with multiple sclerosis the man is dead of a heart attack, just a few days after his sixty-fifth birthday. And the amazing thing is that it took this long for him to go; I mean, the guy did drugs like a motherfucker, had at least one heart attack and did his infamous Johnny Storm impersonation, for fuck’s sake!
It’s kind of difficult to explain Pryor’s importance and impact to those who weren’t there to witness his meteoric rise and equally spectacular crashes-and-burns, but I’ll give it a shot.
My parents were both products of cripplingly dysfunctional upbringings in the deep south during the pre-Civil Rights era and both were exposed to the earthy black culture of the time; as a result, both of them developed senses of humor that acted as a form of self defense, only my father’s veered deep into the territory of the sophomoric and ribald, which is clearly where I get it from. During my formative years my dad attempted to bond with me in the same way that his father tried to with him, namely by telling me jokes and stories that were completely inappropriate for my age and level of understanding, but his ham-handed attempts did prepare me for vulgarities that would come.
At about the same time Richard Pryor’s comedy albums were really beginning to take off, specifically THAT NIGGER'S CRAZY (1974).
I had not yet heard any of his work, but whenever he was mentioned in the popular media his name was virtually synonymous with foul language and much of the white media didn’t quite know what to make of him. Black folks, however, did, and his honesty and vitriol were the next logical step up for an audience already used to the profane antics of such “chitlin circuit” comics as Moms Mabley, Skillet & Leroy, Pigmeat Markham and Rudy Ray “Dolemite” Moore. The difference being that Pryor somehow managed to be a lowbrow for a higher-brow audience than those who preceded him.
Having cut his teeth doing what pretty much amounted to family-friendly comedy in the Bill Cosby vein during the mid-1960’s, Pryor quickly realized that he needed to find his own voice and in the midst of getting his shit somewhat together — and coincidentally discovering the toxic muse of hard drugs — he did just that. Honing his talents in some of the aforementioned chitlin circuit dives, Pryor reemerged as a bitter, twisted firebrand who addressed issues of race, sex, drugs and general human stupidity in no uncertain terms, dragging the raw sensibility of American black humor out of the confines of the community and vomiting it up into the lap of mainstream America. And not surprisingly, white America soon embraced him and his humor in the same way that it embraced all the other shit that it would later co-opt, such as corn rows, rock ‘n’ roll, hip-hop and tanning (come on, white folks, admit it! You like us so much that you even want to look like us!).
Now I knew none of this in 1977 when I “liberated” my dad’s LP’s of Pryor’s THAT NIGGER'S CRAZY and ...IS IT SOMETHING I SAID? (1975) and I was in no way prepared for what I heard. Yes, the rampant cussing was there, along with some seriously raunchy and blasphemous anecdotes — my first eye-opening exposure to the concept of “pussy farts” and the fact that Dracula can’t handle a crucifix because he’s allergic to bullshit — but what really got me was the way in which this material was conveyed to the audience; it wasn’t the fact that the stories and gags were incredibly foul, nasty and even tasteless, but it was the way in which Pryor spoke to me. He told a story exactly like the men in my family did, with a relaxed flow that takes you along for the ride, and peppered with profanity that you eventually no longer notice because it isn’t used for shock effect; it’s just the way the storyteller talks. And take it from me, black people have cornered the market on outrageous storytelling since day one, what with tales of Anansi and the like, and among other things, if it weren’t for our gift of finding humor in the worst situations possible we, would never have made it through the centuries of slavery.
One of our comedic fortes is the fine art of “lying,” or the spinning of ludicrous yarns for entertainment that succeed or fail depending on the teller’s delivery. The story can contain nuances that will make a listener laugh, but the overall tale must be presented as if you were recounting an actual event. The first such “lie” I ever heard came from one of my grandfather — a self-described “Injun” who was raised steeped in southern black culture — and it went like this:
Boy, I once knowed a man who had a dog whose ass he’d kick if he had a bad day at work. He’d come home, cuss out the dog and throw the motherfucker out the window. Now I used to hang out with the man every day, so I saw all this shit happen. First day, he came home, kicked the dog’s ass and chucked the leg-lifter out the window. Second day, he came home, kicked the dog’s ass, threw the bastard out the window. On the third day, the man came home, kicked the dog’s ass and then the dog looked at him and said “Fuck this!” and threw his own self out the window. Swear to God!
While that story is basically clean, you get the idea of how the form works. Perhaps the most famous example of Pryor’s handling of the lie is this one:
Ever hear the one about the niggers with the big dicks? Well, these two niggers went to see who had the biggest dicks but they wanted to do it in private ‘cause they wasn’t no freaks. So one says to the other “I gots to take a leak.” So they stop on a bridge, take out their dicks, and start pissing. One then says to the other “Man! This water’s cold!” and the other one says “Yeah, and it’s deep too!”
Silly, but funny.
So once I got past Pryor’s lies — the best of which were relayed by his alter-ego, Mudbone — he opened my eyes to issues of race and sexuality that perhaps I shouldn’t have heard at such a tender age, but when I ran into the exact same situations in real life I was armed with a perspective that allowed me to laugh while I felt the skewering of life’s serrated-edged blade. Case in point, regarding interracial romance:
Black women look at you like you killed your mama if they see you with a white woman. (mimics female voice) “Well, you shouldn’t be with a white woman anyway! (Cheers from black women in the audience)
Yeah, why should you be happy?” (Vociferous protests from black women in the audience)
No subject was off limits: his sexual abuse at the hands of a neighborhood child molester (who in later years had the nerve to show up on the set of JO JO DANCER, YOUR LIFE IS CALLING with his nine-year-old son in tow and demand an autograph!), a reenactment of his first heart attack, lusting after his teenage daughter’s school friends, his own love hate/hate relationship with the black community (“I just don’t give a fuck anymore! If someone came up to me and said ‘Fuck black people!’…”I AGREE!!!”), his mistreatment of his many wives and lovers, and his infamous and near-fatal love affair with cocaine were all grist for his tragic jester’s mill.
Those of you who are familiar with Richard’s work understand that he was a cripplingly flawed human being whose own self-hatred was matched only by his utter disgust at the world around him and such a worldview made for a pretty major league asshole, but Pryor’s humor appeals to me not merely for it’s hilarity, but for the fact that it sees the world as an escalating series of horrors that one can only face by laughing at one’s own personal idiocy and moving outward from there. Plain and simple, I understand where his humor is coming from.
For those of you who have never heard any of his albums, I recommend the following:
CRAPS (a very early recording of stuff that would later be polished into classic Pryor bits)
RICHARD PRYOR (the one with him dressed like a stereotypical bone-through-the-nose native)
THAT NIGGER’S CRAZY
...IS IT SOMETHING I SAID? (my personal favorite)
RICHARD PRYOR LIVE ON THE SUNSET STRIP
And as for the movies he made and starred in, I say avoid them all; some have their moments — SILVER STREAK’s bit with Gene Wilder in the worst blackface makeup on record is hilarious — but most suck. When it came out, Pryor himself even publicly admitted that STIR CRAZY was a piece of shit, so what does that tell you?
And for the whole story straight from the horse’s mouth, I urge you to read PRYOR CONVICTIONS, Richard’s autobiography with an assist from Todd Gold; no punches are pulled, and when it comes time for me to chronicle my own fucked-up life story I hope that I am capable of doing so with the unflinching candor found in the pages of that book.
I really can’t add any more except to say that I actually wept for the guy when I heard tell of his passing. I didn’t know him, but I feel like I lost a good friend. A very fucked-up friend, but a friend nonetheless.
I loved you very much, Mister Pryor, and I hope that now you can find the peace that eluded and mocked you during your life.