If Richard Pryor, who died yesterday (Dec.
12th 2005) at
age 65, were alive and well and working
in the limelight today, the focus would
be on his language. Not on how he turned
the single word "motherfucker"
into a jazz-like mother lode with which
anything could be expressed, but about
how he's a foul-mouthed enemy of society,
which evidently is so weak that the well-chosen
words of an Illinois bordello boy can
crumble it. This is how infantile we have
allowed cultural discussion to become
since Richard Pryor elevated it toward
the heavens in the 1970s.
From the October 2000 issue of
Rock & Rap Confidential :
"You should not even get on stage
and attempt to be funny," Chris Rock
said recently, "unless you realize
you're never going to be as funny as Richard
Anyone who doubts the truth of that statement
is referred to ...And It's Deep Too!
The Complete Richard Pryor Warner Brothers
a nine-CD box set just out on Rhino. Especially
on the three complete concerts included,
Pryor is revealed as not just the funniest
man who ever lived, but an actor, a mimic,
and a student of American history with
few peers as well.
All of this only partially explains why
millions of people love Richard Pryor
so much. The rest of the answer lies in
Pryor's love of humanity, which he sends
out both as explicit valentines and in
the way he pokes savage fun at human foibles,
always beginning with himself. If a guy
as cool as Richard Pryor can be so fucked
up and still love himself, that makes
it possible for the rest of us to walk
through that door with confidence, knowing
that whatever private party our demons
want to throw for us, Pryor will be there
with us in spirit.
What gets lost in all the hoopla about
Pryor's brilliant routines about sex and
drugs is that he's also the most incisive
political entertainer we've ever had.
He started out as a Cosby clone, a regular
guest on Ed Sullivan (thankfully, none
of his early material is included on the
boxed set) and was having considerable
success until he decided that he was tired
of being irrelevant in a world that was
going up in flames.
Unlike today's phony "political"
comedians like Bill Maher, Richard Pryor
took sides. He was always with the poor
against the rich. Above all, he hated
the police, whom he saw as inherently
vile and brutal. He could sum up complicated
realities in a heartbeat: "The Japanese
sent people to UCLA and UC Berkeley. There
wouldn't have been no Pearl Harbor if
they had sent people to the University
of Alabama or the University of Mississippi."
Pryor's relentless spotlight on hypocrisy
was presented as a challenge to be met,
not just cynical poking in an open wound.
On a disc of outtakes here, That African-American's
Crazy: Good Shit From the Vaults ,
Pryor tells in hushed tones of a conversation
with God, who has asked to see Emmitt
Till. Pryor has to tell God that Till
was lynched in 1957. God gasps, takes
a step back, and murmurs, "But he
was such a good young man."
"Well, then," God finally says,
"I'd like to see my son. How's my
Whatever the subject, Richard Pryor told
the truth. As he wrote in his autobiography,
Pryor Convictions ,
"You start telling the truth to people
and people are going to look at you like
you was askin' to fuck their mama or somethin'.
The truth is gonna be funny, but it's
gonna scare the shit out of folks."