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Richard Pryor: Foul-mouthed thug or transcendent visionary?
Courtesy of Rock and Rap Confidential

       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 Pryor."


       Anyone who doubts the truth of that statement is referred to ...And It's Deep Too! The Complete Richard Pryor Warner Brothers Recordings (1968-1992),  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 kid doing?"


       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."










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