Great Balls of Pryor


When Richard Pryor died last December, ten days after his sixty-fifth birthday, the world took proper note of the passing of a rich celebrity. A few pieces did try to acknowledge that Pryor was a very big deal in his prime, that he was an officially recognized “genius.” But I didn’t see anything that really communicated why he was so special, or tried to map the shape and scale of just what the world had lost. Granted, we lost it a long time ago; Pryor was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in the mid-80s, and despite the publication of a memoir and the odd TV and movie appearance, he’d gradually vanished from public view. And truth be told, Pryor had ceased to really be the great Richard Pryor some time before his health finally collapsed for good. That’s something the obituaries obviously couldn’t really get into, and it’s an open question how many of the obituary writers consciously understood it. But in his heyday, Richard Pryor was the greatest comic artist of his time and probably the funniest person alive. The “probably” is there as a safeguard against hyperbole — for all I know, there’s some sheep farmer with stage fright in Petaluma who’s never had a microphone in his hand but can do twenty minutes on the molting season that’ll knock you on your ass. And there are a few artists in other fields — Robert Crumb, Philip Roth, maybe Randy Newman — who have been as deeply, unsettlingly funny as Pryor at his best, but there is no pure “comedian” who could lay a glove on him. There have been a few comics in the last few decades, such as Albert Brooks and Lily Tomlin, who on the best nights of their lives were maybe in roughly the same league as Pryor. Most of the participants in the seventies and eighties “comedy boom” weren’t even in the same profession.

Pryor broke into show business doing what he later called a lame imitation of Bill Cosby. After his famous onstage meltdown at the Aladdin Hotel in Las Vegas — in 1967, the same year he made his movie debut in the Sid Caesar comedy “The Busy Body,” playing, of all things, a straitlaced police detective — he went through a period of reinvention while holed up in Berkeley, California, then re-emerged on the West Coast club scene, doing bits about his own alienation, about his relations with women and his childhood autobiography, and most startlingly, about race. His tone was conversational and slangy, pungent yet lyrical. His language was, famously, raw. When Pryor began to accepted as a major star in the late ’70s, it was customary for mainstream comedians, and critics too, to acknowledge his brilliance while tsk-tsking that he used all those “blue” words for something called “shock value.” It’s hard to believe that anyone who actually heard Pryor in action could have made that mistake. Pryor didn’t use curse words for “shock value” — that implies a degree of calculation that Pryor abandoned as a stage performer when he stopped trying to charm audience with his inoffensiveness. Listening to Pryor on records like That Nigger’s Crazy and Is It Something I Said? , you’re drawn in by how effortless his delivery is, how pleasurably he sustains the constant flow of talk. “Working blue” is a concept for people so tin-eared that they can’t appreciate how expressively Pryor could use a word like “motherfucker.” He made his obscenities sing, so that the sensual feel of them transcended petty concerns like offensiveness. (A lot of rappers have embarrassed their mamas trying, vainly, for something like this effect.)

The irresistible sound of Pryor’s voice and his rhythmic delivery is what draws you into the tent, but it’s his comic imagination that nails you to the bleachers. It’s a stranger, broader kind of imagination than you find in most comics — certainly in most comics who, following in what they think are Pryor’s footsteps, deal in transgression and fancy themselves taboo-busters. Most comedians think they’re doing satire when they run through a list of newsmakers and call them all dummies. Pryor had a certain amount of hostility — it’s in a comic’s job description — but his sensibility shaped it with a little more nuance. Pauline Kael once wrote that “Pryor’s comedy isn’t based on suspiciousness about whites, or on anger, either; he’s gone way past that. Whites are UNBELIEVABLE to him.” Pryor’s comic observations about relations between the races and sexes grew out of a desire to understand. He would pick up on little things — like the differences he perceived in the white and black women he dated, and the inability of white people to get angry properly — and turn them inside out as if convinced that they contained the answers to all the riddles of the universe. There’s a contradictory element in Pryor’s approach, as there was in that of his hero, Lenny Bruce. By definition, these guys — professional talkers who made their living getting down to the nasty basics in a way that makes you laugh — were supposed to be the hippest of the hip. Yet at the center of their acts, both had a childlike need to question things that people try to prove their cool by laughing off. (You can do anything you want to me, Bruce once wailed, “just don’t LIE to me!” Why do we behave this way to each other, asks Pryor, amused yet horrified.)

The albums that Pryor recorded in the ’70s are available on the Rhino box set ... And It’s Deep Too! The Complete Warner Bros. Recordings (1968-1992) , which also contains the soundtracks for his last couple of performance films from the ’80s. (Pryor also recorded one good album, the 1971 Craps (After Hours) , for the tiny Laff label, which subsequently released a slew of shoddily packaged albums assembled from a couple of years’ worth of tapes. Rhino has released a double CD, Evolution/Revolution: The Early Years (1966-1974) , which culls the cream from that material.) These records are essential listening, though I’m not sure that anyone should listen to them cold now that other options exist. The zenith of Pryor’s achievement is the 1979 Richard Pryor Live in Concert, a performance movie in which he prowls the stage spinning his autobiography. The great advantage of the movie is that you get to see how physical a performer he was, and how far he took his empathic urge to jump into the skins of other people — and of dogs, horses, monkeys, and, at one stunning moment, his own heart, which attacks him. (“You should’ve thought of that when you was eatin’ that PORK!”) Once you’ve seen Pryor in action, you have a better chance of imagining some of what’s going on during the wildest bits contained in the records — such as “Acid,” an account of an unhappy drug experience (“White guy gave me this stuff.”) that climaxes with an extended recreation of HAL 9000’s “death scene” from 2001.

Pryor thought of himself as an actor, and that’s what he was onstage — he didn’t stand there telling stories and muttering one-liners, he threw himself into the characters of his father, his children, his lovers, characters from his old neighborhood, even inanimate objects. He could do it with other people and actual sets, too, if the circumstances were prepared so that he could inject himself, in character, into a situation with collaborators he trusted. He has a remarkable scene in Lily Tomlin’s 1973 TV special Lily, playing a junkie hanging out in a greasy spoon that’s invaded by a couple of white college kids who want to do a survey with someone about “the ghetto experience.” Pryor’s touch in this little vignette, which he co-wrote, is telling: he doesn’t try to depict the kids as bad people or ridicule them as stupid, which would be the easy, crowd-pleasing way to go. But he makes it clear that, while he appreciates their good intentions, he feels like they’re patronizing him, and he doesn’t appreciate it. He just wants to feel that they regard him as a human being. (That’s Pryor’s approach to white-black relations in a nutshell, and it provides some clues as to why his stuff counts for so much more than a billion “Black folks turn their necks this way ... and white folks turn THEIR necks THIS way” routines.) Leaving aside his performance films (which also include Live and Smoking, an early-seventies tape of a relatively immobile Pryor riffing in some bar, and Wattstax, the concert documentary that includes footage of Pryor spritzing for the camera as a link between the acts), the closest Pryor ever came to acting himself his way may have been in the obscure 1973 Some Call It Loving, a somnolent art flick that buckles rudely to life whenever Pryor walks through for a few minutes, cutting up as the drug-doomed buddy of the jazz-musician hero.

However, Pryor desperately wanted to be a movie star, and big mainstream movies acted as a straightjacket on his talent. He had at least a partial triumph with Silver Streak, the 1976 hit that established his box-office appeal (and that led to numerous repeat teamings with the past-his-prime Gene Wilder). Pryor enters that movie at midpoint and kicks it to life, and he has at least one great moment, reacting to the villain (Patrick McGoohan) casually calling him a nigger. (“You don’t know me well enough to call me that. I’ll slap the white off your ass.”) In an ominous move, though, the movie’s writer-director, Colin Higgins, saw what he had in Pryor and rewrote the ending of the movie to keep him around until the closing credits. Thus, Pryor got more screen time, but in the process, his role was gradually defanged. That could be a metaphor for much of Pryor’s later career.

In 1980, Pryor was burned over more than half his body and hospitalized in an event that was covered on the news as something tantamount to a nationally televised death watch. (The incident was widely reported at the time to have been the result of a freebasing accident — the result of Pryor’s drug pipe exploding. In his 1995 memoir, Pryor claimed that he WAS freebasing at the time but that he’d become suicidally depressed and deliberately lit himself on fire after soaking his body in rum.) That incident, rather than costing Pryor any of his popularity, seemed to cement the public’s embrace of him. In 1982, he was the number one box office attraction in the country; the next year, Columbia Pictures signed him to a five-year deal for forty million dollars. The downside was that the movies were all formula pap like The Toy or confused projects like Some Kind of Hero. Pryor scored a few final zingers in his 1982 performance film Richard Pryor Live on the Sunset Strip, which included material describing his 1979 trip to Africa and what he was still describing as the freebasing explosion. But the movie was uneven and Pryor’s touch sometimes unsure, and it was hard not to note a basic difference in the way he worked now: where the 1979 movie had captured him at a culmination point after a decade of shaping and building his art, Sunset Strip was a prefab event, a record of a couple of concerts thrown together for the express purpose of making another movie and getting Pryor in front of the camera after a long time away from live audiences.

Among those who’ve noticed a difference between the Pryor of That Nigger’s Crazy and the Pryor of The Toy, it’s often said that the freebasing incident, and the attention given to it, must have been the dividing line. Maybe; I can’t imagine it helped. I wonder, though. In Sunset Strip, Pryor describes an epiphany he had in Africa when a voice in his head asked him, “Do you see any niggers here?” It was a word that Pryor had become much associated with; now he forswore its use, and added, with just a hint of a snarl in his voice, “I don’t want no ’hip’ white people coming up and saying it to me.” That’s fine; it’s healthy. But it may raise the uncomfortable question of just how healthy Pryor could become and remain the kind of artist he was. It even raises the question of just how well he could adjust to trying to become more psychologically healthy — after all, it was after returning from Africa and putting out a press release regarding his new attitude about the word “nigger” that he sank into his freebasing addiction.

After Sunset Strip, Pryor arranged for one more filmed concert, released in 1983 as Here and Now, then focused his attention on movies. (And TV — in 1984, he actually served as host of a Saturday morning children’s show, Pryor’s Place.) Now that he was completely done with standup, his creative instincts seemed to evaporate. His nadir may have been the project he probably hoped would be a redemption — Jo Jo Dancer, You Life Is Calling, a 1986 movie that he co-wrote, co-produced, directed, and starred in, playing a little kid from the sticks who becomes a spectacularly successful comedian but who almost loses it all through bad decisions and drugs. (The movie opens with Pryor being rushed into the burn ward.) The only remarkable thing about the movie — aside from the fact that it’s actually the first time Pryor indicated that he lit himself on fire deliberately — is that it duplicates great quantities of material that are familiar to Pryor’s fans from his standup act, and they’re no longer funny. Having turned this stuff into gold, Pryor tried to restage it realistically with actors and real locations and props, and he had so little grasp of how to do it that he turned it all back into dross. That same year, he was diagnosed with MS.

Pryor did a few more movies, and experimented with a few final comedy club dates, talking about his illness, in 1992. Included in the ... And It’s Deep, Too box, they don’t exactly make for joyous listening. Aside from the torture of hearing Pryor straining to speak, his last outrageous conceit — that “God gave me this MS shit to save my life” — is a groaner. It may be the height of tastelessness, to put it kindly, to criticize the way a man chose to face impending death. But as a performer — which is presumably how Pryor still wanted to be taken — a little raging against the dying of the light would have been easier to take than this soft and fuzzy offering of thanks to God for incapacitating him. Without any, or at least enough, irony, Pryor seemed to see himself the way right-to-lifers see a fetus: as saved from temptation by virtue of being physically incapable of giving in to it. It was the final self-inflicted joke on a man who had won the world’s love with the fearlessness of his art and then, having accepted that love, seemed to have gelded himself out of fear of offending anyone.

Does Pryor have any heirs? He has a lot of people who’d be happy to claim the crown. Most of them, like the late Bill Hicks and the would-be provocateur Aaron McGruder, have none of his genius, little of his funny, and don’t seem to have any understanding of his methods; dutifully working their way through an overfamiliar selection of sacred cows, they might be going down a checklist, and the last thing most of them are looking to do is to implicate themselves with their humor. They lack a singular point of view, where Pryor, like Bruce, had a vision that came from his trying to apply what he’d learned of life from the grubby corner of it he’d grown up in — for Bruce the burlesque house, for Pryor the whorehouse his grandmother operated, where the staff included his mother — to the larger world.

The death of Pryor is a sad reminder of what disappeared from the culture when the man himself lost his bearings. There are some savagely funny people working today—especially in such semi-disreputable forms as comics and blogs, stand-up comedy having been redefined as a place where people go to audition for leads in sitcoms. A lot of these people, and such institutions as The Daily Show, help to function as a reality check. What we don’t have, and what we might need more than ever, is someone who’s willing to risk alienating the audience by daring to admit to being the worst kind of ass, and who can do it in a way that actually brings people —black and white, male and female, straight and gay, rich and poor— together out of shared love for the man sweating to make them laugh. We need somebody who plays the role of the truth teller in a way that shames us and makes us love it. Among comics of recent years, there have been only a few, sporadic glimmers. Chris Rock threatened to take this role on for a few TV concerts, but even at his most febrile he had the well-rested air of someone who wasn’t wearing himself ragged working the clubs, and now he, too, has been swallowed up by the movies, an area in which he combines Pryor’s negative talent for picking scripts with a “natural” acting style reminiscent of Sonny Tufts.

Another contender may be Dave Chappelle, a man currently in career limbo, and a performer who, in his standup work, never hits the sustained blue notes that for a time came as naturally to Pryor as breathing. Yet the greatest material on Chappelle’s Show played with ideas about race and sex in America in a way that would have brought a smile to the old master’s face. Chappelle’s walking away from his network contract —because, he told an interviewer, he became concerned that, with some of the show’s gamesmanship about stereotypes, he might be “shuffling” instead of “dancing”—is the kind of thing that gets a man pegged as insane in a country where regular people are expected to follow movie box-office tallies as if they were horse race results. Yet it showed an awareness that he might be falling into a trap and a strength of character that Pryor, for all his towering stature as an artist, could have used more of. (Lamenting his decision to do his own doomed network series in 1977—a prime-time series that, given the strictures of the time, had exactly no chance of giving him the chance to stretch out and achieve anything like what he did on the classic early Saturday Night Live he hosted in 1975—Pryor cried out, “They offer you so much money, you can’t say no!”) Chappelle may or may not be back, but the recent concert movie he hosted, Dave Chappelle’s Block Party, radiated with a simple desire to bring joy to people. That’s what drove Pryor during his great period, and it’s what’s in short supply in an entertainment industry overstuffed with calculators and careerists and short on men possessed.