The legacy of Richard Pryor
This isn’t the first time Richard Pryor has died. The first time was in 1980, not long after he doused himself with cognac and lit himself on fire in a drug-addled suicide attempt. Mummified with gauze in a hospital bed, he watched a television anchor announce his demise as he made muffled protests beneath his bandages. Years later, in 1992, he would get a call from a friend who’d heard from newspaper accounts that Pryor had once again shuffled off his mortal coil. ”What if I died a few days later?” Pryor said to EW in 1993. ”I can see the headlines: ‘Pryor’s denial that he’s dead is a lie.”’
Sadly, the rumors, this time, have not been exaggerated. America’s profane Twain — the man who, even more than Lenny Bruce, invented modern stand-up comedy — died on Dec. 10, at age 65, of a heart attack (his fourth), leaving behind a wife (his seventh) and seven children. He had suffered from multiple sclerosis since 1986, spent the last decade of his life in a wheelchair, and seen his comedy mantle passed many times, first to Eddie Murphy, then on to Chris Rock and, most recently, Dave Chappelle. He hadn’t made a movie since David Lynch’s Lost Highway in 1997, hadn’t had a starring role since 1991’s execrable Another You, where he was compensated for reshoots with a TV set, like some game-show contestant. By the time he was gone, in other words, he’d been gone a long time. And yet, last week, something precious and ineffable was lost, something no successor can replace. ”His humor was so much larger than the comedy today,” laments Lily Tomlin, whose 1973 TV specials won Pryor a writing Emmy. ”Today’s comedy is all about divisiveness. But as edgy and scathing and biting as he was, he was never oppressive. The laughter came from that interior recognition.” D.L. Hughley puts it bluntly: ”Some things you can argue. Some people think Magic Johnson was the best basketball player and some people think Michael Jordan. But nobody argues about who was the best comic ever. That was Richard Pryor.”
Yes, that was Richard Pryor. But Richard Pryor was many people. He was the child of a pimp and a whore, the grandson of a madam. He grew up in a series of Peoria, Ill., bordellos and ”saw things no child should see,” according to his longtime friend and collaborator Paul Mooney. In his early 20s, after a stint in the Army, he turned those experiences into comedy — albeit stripped of the raw, ugly details. Pryor worked steadily in the 1960s as a Cosby-esque easy-chair comic, telling nonthreatening jokes and keeping it clean. ”In comedians, the need to please is debilitating,” says Saturday Night Live creator Lorne Michaels, who first worked with Pryor on the Tomlin specials. ”And the pressure on black comedians to be role models was tremendous when Richard was coming along. Well, Richard wasn’t that. He tried. But he naturally moved into the role of truth teller.”
The breaking point came in 1967, when Pryor infamously stalked off the stage at the Aladdin Hotel in Las Vegas, effectively ending his career as a Cos clone. He retreated to Berkeley?Mooney drove him there while the comic killed a fifth of Hennessy in the passenger’s seat. He went underground for a couple of years. When he reemerged, around 1970, he was a different comedian. He’d ask white audiences, with devilish politeness, if, as children, they’d ever played a game called ”Last one through the store’s a nigger baby.” When they’d demur, embarrassed, he’d press on: ”I used to run like hell myself! I didn’t know I’d lost before the race started.” He described knife fights with his wife, and said violence could be a marital aid. He said Nixon was a lesbian. He praised masturbation. He created a wino-philosopher named Mudbone to take on issues even Pryor couldn’t touch. He bantered with bigots from the stage and got laughs, not brickbats. He told stories instead of jokes, and the laughter rolled almost unbidden, without the artificial goosing of punchlines. He was brilliant.