Pryor Knowledge

Jill Nelson on the rage, vulnerability and painful honesty of Richard Pryor's comedy.


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Jill Nelson
November 25, 1998 7:37PM (UTC)

When Richard Pryor received the Mark Twain Prize for humor at the Kennedy Center on Oct. 20 he was too weak to perform or even to speak. That was left to Chris Rock, Robin Williams and Whoopi Goldberg, a few of the many comedians whose work he has inspired. I'm both exhilarated that Pryor's getting his due before he's dead and pissed as hell that a man who could give "motherfucka'" a thousand profoundly different shadings is, at 58, virtually speechless. You just know he'd have some hilarious and profound insights into Bill and Monica, Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson, and all the bizarre happenings in the last days of the 20th century.

Most every comedian under 50 has been influenced by Pryor, and not just the black ones.
Watching and listening to them, it's as if Pryor's shadow always hovers nearby, revealing itself to varying degrees in inflection, pacing, body language, choice of material. Crippled by multiple sclerosis, unable to perform, still, Richard Pryor lives! Watching tapes of his stand-up comedy, his movies, his brilliant but short-lived (two months in 1977) television show, I laugh so hard I am forced to the bathroom as tears run down my face. I find comfort in the immortality of his work, that ability to damn near always be timelessly on point.

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What is most wonderful and most missed about the humor of Richard Pryor is his simultaneous rage and vulnerability -- that sense of being mad as hell yet still yearning for and believing in acceptance and reconciliation, whether he was riffing about black folks, white folks, women, politics, black male macho or drug addiction. For Pryor, humor and talking much shit was a way to reveal not only his, but our collective psyche. In the process he used his voice, body and mind to turn himself into, not them, but us: the old man Mudbone, an angry black woman doing that head thing only we can do, his dick, assorted animals, a junkie getting off, an awkward white guy, his own heart in the middle of a mutinous attack on his much-abused body.

He has written an autobiography, "Pryor Convictions and Other Life Sentences," and several books have been written about him. Always 20/20, perhaps hindsight suggests the inevitability of his silencing. Born and raised in Peoria, Ill., by his grandmother, who owned a string of brothels, his mother was a prostitute who got pregnant and married the madam's son. He grew up in whorehouses frequented by entertainers and vaudeville performers who passed through town. It was a childhood spent in the contradiction between the world of sex and violence in the brothel and the world of middle-class, church-going values his family drummed into him. He dropped out of school in ninth grade, but not before an attentive drama teacher had recognized and begun to nurture his comedic talent. Still, by the time he arrived in New York in 1963 after a stint in the Army, Pryor had convinced himself that the road to success lay in
non-political, raceless joke telling.

It wasn't until 1970, when Pryor exiled himself to Berkeley, Calif., and spent a year hanging out with writers Ishmael Reed, Cecil Brown and David Henderson that he began to develop his incredible comedic style, one rooted in the characters and experiences of his childhood and in black tradition and folklore. He created a biting, scatological comedy defined by the linguistic and stylistic patterns of poor and working-class black folks. He was often raunchy, sometimes bitter, frequently political and always honest, sometimes painfully so, a racial secret-teller and social commentator who tapped into the cultural Zeitgeist and in the process affirmed and legitimized both black and American experience.

When I was coming of age in the late 1960s and '70s, the release of a new Richard Pryor album was a major event. We ran to the record store to purchase a copy of "That Nigger's Crazy" or "Bicentennial Nigger," seduced by the brashness of the titles, the daring cover art, even before we even heard all that funny, cold-blooded, true shit Pryor was talking. He was an antidote to Richard Nixon, the Moral Majority, the decline of mass movements for social change. Richard Pryor kept it real, and then some.

At his finest, as in the videotapes "Richard Pryor Live on Sunset Strip," "Here and Now" and "Live in Concert," he is a revelation. His elastic face melts, his body contorts, his voice gains or loses octaves, before our eyes he morphs into a German shepherd, a deer drinking from a pond, his car as he shoots it to death so his wife can't use it to leave him. Watching him, we are terrified, exhilarated and provoked. His art, as the best of art does, resonates long after the tape has finished playing, long after his voice and image have faded away. Pryor will forever be the gangly, slightly nerdy, funny and smart kid of our collective childhood. The one who got picked on and whom we defended until he figured out that his wit was far more powerful than anyone's fists; the boy young girls gave a piece of charity pussy to because he wasn't athletic, fine or overtly suave enough to cop on his own and then ended up falling in love with because not only was he funny, he could bone; the member of the group we all suspected would do something
marvelous, large and life-changing -- if he could ever figure out what that was and beat racism back enough to get to it.

At the same time he's forever the strutting, expletive-spewing comic, the wide-eyed charmer who in seconds could transform into a hot-tempered brawler, the five- (or is it four-?) times married womanizer and woman abuser, the self-destructive, out-of-control boozer and druggie who set himself on fire and sent himself and his career up in smoke.

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But what could we expect from this man who at his best balanced precariously on a comic edge, who used the joy and tragedy of his own life and the lives of those derisively called niggers -- pre-hip-hop, before it was spelled "Niggaz" and declared cool -- to create not simply comedy, but streetwise social commentary? In the end, we are saddened, shocked, but somehow not surprised that Pryor drove himself over the edge, into the inferno. There but for the grace of someone go us.

Richard Pryor is both the best and worst of a time gone but not forgotten, a reflection of our own passions, fears and self-destruction. He may not have died for our sins, but he lived many of them fully, publicly, with gusto. He has suffered the consequences in a no less public way.

I'm happy Richard Pryor got the Mark Twain Prize and lived to see it. I read that when he heard about the award he commented, "It's nice to be regarded on a par with a great white man -- now that's funny!" which reassures me that while he may not say much these days, Pryor still knows who he is and where we're at. It's a hoot and a comfort to know that his work is available on videotapes, audio cassettes, CDs and in books. Toward the end of "Richard Pryor: Here and Now" he does a bit about Hell. "Had so much fun they kicked me out that motherfucka," he says, looking
simultaneously mischievous, embarrassed and smug. "I know I ain't goin' to heaven, I'm just going -- I wish you the best." Backatcha, Richard.


Jill Nelson

Jill Nelson is the author of "Volunteer Slavery" and "Straight, No Chaser."

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