Saturday, December 10, 2005

For a small fee, I will set you free, nearer thy God to thee

If you've had him on your "Dead Pool" list for the past 20 years, you might well be saying, "It's about time."

I somehow think Richard Pryor would get a laugh out of that. He spent a lifetime confounding people's expectations and sensibilities, and getting them to enjoy it. He always found the greatest humor in skewering for public consumption his own foibles, frailties, and self-destructive tendencies.

Now, the world's most important comedian is forever silenced.

Walk into any gathering of standup comedians and ask them who most influenced them, and all of them — without exception — will mention Richard Pryor. Anyone who didn't would be lying. Pryor changed the face and voice of American comedy in a way no one else did, or could. There's ample reason why, when Comedy Central asked a selection of comedy pros to choose the 100 greatest standup comedians of all time, Richard Pryor's name landed at #1.

Pryor wasn't the first comic to use scatological language onstage — Redd Foxx had already built a cottage industry out of his racy "party records" when Pryor was still an unknown. (As is true of his contemporary George Carlin, Pryor's act wasn't always blue. When he first began appearing on the TV variety show circuit in the early 1960s, Pryor's material showed flashes of his later brilliance, but in non-threatening, censor-friendly ways.) He wasn't the first African American standup to exploit the possibilities of race — Dick Gregory got there first. But by the time he released his landmark album, That Nigger's Crazy, in 1974, Pryor had synthesized his uniquely profane and incisive vision into a style that would permanently alter comedy — not just the manner in which comedy was presented, but the way audiences would think about and accept it.

Unlike many of his imitators, Pryor never confused the use of crude street language with the notion that such language is, in and of itself, inherently funny. The way Pryor spoke came directly from the environment in which his comic sensibility was developed, growing up in a brothel as the son of a prostitute. If his speech was vulgar, it was because he saw the world in which he lived as a vulgar, though not irredeemable, place. If he sounded angry, he was — at himself as often as anything or anyone else.

Trying to capture my favorite Richard Pryor memories would make this post far longer than it needs to be. But I have a few:
  • As well-known as he was as a performer, Pryor was underrated as a comedy writer. He lent his talents to the success of Flip Wilson's sketch comedy show, and to a series of Lily Tomlin specials in the early '70s. And of course, Pryor cowrote what I believe is the funniest movie ever made, Blazing Saddles, with Mel Brooks and others. Many of the film's most memorable lines are attributed to him. (Originally, Pryor was supposed to play the lead role in the film, but the comic's mercurial nature led Brooks to cast Cleavon Little instead.)

  • To my parents' consternation, I loved Pryor's short-lived primetime TV series, The Richard Pryor Show. My favorite moment from the show was Richard's spoof of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin: "My name is Idi Amin Dada. That's one N, three D's, and one gun."

  • A few years after his much-publicized meltdown in the early '80s, Pryor returned to television in the least likely of venues — as the host of a Saturday morning children's show called Pryor's Place. The show was produced by Sid and Marty Krofft, famous for such kidvid fare as H.R. Pufnstuf and Land of the Lost. Easily the best thing on TV for kids at the time, Pryor's Place was eye-openingly sweet-spirited, thoughtful, and profanity-free.

  • The three live concert albums Pryor recorded at the peak of his career — Wanted, Live on the Sunset Strip, and Here and Now — remain the most powerful and hilarious standup performances ever set to vinyl. My sides still ache a quarter-century later, from laughing at those records.

  • If I stumble upon the movie Car Wash during a channel-surfing session, I never miss the chance to catch Pryor's cameo appearance as televangelist Daddy Rich. Pryor's righteous indignation when militant Abdullah (Bill Duke) calls him a pimp is priceless.

  • Even when he didn't entirely overcome his past, Pryor showed the remarkable ability to learn from it. His elimination of the N-pejorative from his act after an enlightening trip to Africa in the late '70s, despite having built his career to date on the use of that word, demonstrates his keen understanding of concept transcending language.

  • My favorite Pryor comedy bit is his poignant little tale of the death of his pet monkeys. As Richard sits on the front steps of his house grieving his loss, his neighbor's vicious dog — who made sport of chasing Pryor every time he saw him — comes over to console him. After dispensing a string of post-mortem platitudes — "try not to take it too hard" and so forth — the dog returns to his own yard, parting with the words, "You know I'm going to be chasing you again tomorrow."
That vignette, I believe, sums up Richard Pryor's world view. Life may offer you a brief moment of comfort now and then, but it will be chomping at your heels again before you know it.

In Pryor's case, the dog finally caught up.

4 insisted on sticking two cents in:

Blogger Sam offered these pearls of wisdom...

Dang it. I wnated to talk about the Monkey bit!!!


Honestly, I 'm not sure how many out of our little group, or at least in my blogroll will comment about Rich. The man was so imflamatory, to turn a phrase, that most folks will just say a few words and walk away from it. Now, I don't knmow about you, but where I came from, I didn't get much and what I got, my mama had to bust her hump to get it for me. We struggled and there wasn't really much to laugh at. So when Rich came around my way as a kid, it was like a breath of fresh air for me. He was talking all about the stuff that I knew about growing up and the dangers I could possibly face growing up. I know when I laid in the amulance after my heart attack, I thought I'd heal Laurence Welk the rest of my days, too.

And, as a premtive strike, for that post and one post only I used the N-word in both it's forms. It had to be done. Richard used the word as a base of pride in his act until it got out of control, as well as a shock to the system of those who didn't grow up the way he did. It wasn't used to cause drama or dropped just to be said. To those that got upset that I
used it, just this once I'll use my tired old axiom, just for Rich...

That's right. I said it.

9:49 AM  
Anonymous Tom Galloway offered these pearls of wisdom...

On the off chance you don't know, The Richard Pryor Show's available on DVD. My personal favorite tv bit of his though was the word association test skit he did on Saturday Night Live with Chevy Chase.

7:27 PM  
Anonymous The Survival Gourmet offered these pearls of wisdom...

I grew up with Richard Pryor albums and my favorite charater of his was always Mudbone from Tupelo, Mississippi. Always reminded me of my country uncles and all of the stories they tell.

I also remember all of the Richard Pryor movies like "Which Way is Up?" and "Harlem Nights" but my favorite will always be "Stir Crazy" with Gene Wilder.

"We Bad! That's right, we bad!!"

He will be missed

5:49 PM  
Anonymous Dan offered these pearls of wisdom...

Tom Galloway offered these pearls of wisdom...
My personal favorite tv bit of his though was the word association test skit he did on Saturday Night Live with Chevy Chase.

Mine too Tom. Richard Pryor had a way of both reacting to and using the 'n' word and other slang in his routines that no other comedian has been able to duplicate with the same finesse, even though many have tried.

6:42 PM  

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