Richard Pryor is 54 years old, emaciated, and often requires a motorized scooter to get around, even here in the living room of his California ranch-style house in Encino. This is the end of the line for the legendary comedian, but he quietly insists he isn’t down for the count. Not yet. Not by a long shot. He then slowly turns toward the table next to him, reaches for a cigarette, and, with considerable effort, lights up.
”This s— is not funny to me,” he says of the multiple sclerosis he’s lived with for almost 10 years. Pryor’s voice retains the anger and pain that once fueled his scabrous wit and energized his best performances, but he speaks in a whisper now. ”This is God’s sense of humor?” he says. ”I don’t get it, God.”
Asked why he has written his autobiography, Pryor Convictions and Other Life Sentences, he quickly answers, ”I was broke.” The process of reexamining his life, from his twisted childhood to the insanity of his peak years in show business, ”made me feel sorry for myself,” he notes. ”That’s the only time I get to feel sorry for myself and nobody can say s—.”
How does he spend his time these days? Pryor cocks his head, looks you straight in the eye, and says, ”Duhhh…” He complains about mild stomach discomfort, and then recounts some digestive problems — over the objections of his full-time assistant and fourth ex-wife Jennifer Lee. ”The man asked me how I feel,” he snaps at her. ”I took acid one time, and these people were saying, ‘You must be feeling great.’ And I said, ‘I feel like taking a s—.’ And someone said, ‘Don’t tell us that.’ Well, f— it, [I told them], don’t ask me!”
Pryor still has career plans: He keeps a journal, in which he’s working on new material, and he talks about collaborating with director John Singleton. Which may be why Pryor, sitting ”here in the abyss,” as he describes his condition, is not much in the mood for assessing his accomplishments. But he will tell you that the work that stands out in his mind is not his often astonishing live concert films — Richard Pryor: Live in Concert, Live on the Sunset Strip, Here and Now — nor his acting (though he does admit that Paul Schrader’s Blue Collar gave him his best role). No, what this profoundly lonely man recalls most fondly are his comedy albums: ”I went home to Peoria once, and my grandmother would put one on, and she would laugh her ass off. I didn’t even know she listened to them. We hadn’t talked much, but we did after that.
”That,” he adds, ”was one of the happiest times.”