I have a picture for instance: Once I was in a church and Jesus was on the cross and he said “Psst, c'mere, get me down. I've been up here 2000 years. I'm trying to get to the graveyard.” And I took him off the cross and we're leaving the church together and alarms went off and great searchlights went off all over the cathedral. Monks came out and jumped on us and they started beating us up. And they took him and they put him back up on the cross and they threw me out. And I said, “I'm gonna tell!” And as they were throwing me out the door the monks said, “Who's gonna believe you, nigger?” So, those are the kind of pictures that I get.
--Richard Pryor, 1983 interview
TO CALL RICHARD PRYOR the greatest stand-up comic of his generation is just so inadequate a measure of the man, his gifts, his power, his insight, his towering and continuing influence on the whole of American culture that the praise would be funny, if it weren't so sad. It's like calling William Shakespeare the greatest Elizabethan playwright.
Perhaps Pryor's most imitated talent was his method of giving voice to everything. He shoots car tires and they whine. His dick speaks to him. His freebase pipe speaks to him. His heart attack tells him he should have thought twice before eating all that pork.
But that's Pryor's most imitated technique because it's the easiest and most conventional to absorb. Even listening back to Pryor's albums or watching his famous concert videos it's hard for younger folks to understand Pryor's titanic impact. It's not just that he said and did things you weren't supposed to say or do even in jest. Or that his gift for filth and fearlessness in skewering racial shibboleths have been absorbed by all of comedy. It's that Pryor's performing style was at once so personal and idiosyncratic and at the same time so inclusive, so inviting, so magnanimous, that Pryor's most personal and conflicting character traits became ours. An angry need to skewer even the weakest coupled with a heartbreaking empathy for the victimized, a fatalistic, I-don't-give-a-fuck attitude coupled with a profound faith in the ability of the human spirit to heal-- it all made sense at least as long as Pryor was on the stage.
In his early years Pryor's great theme was our darkest, least often confronted secret feelings about race. In the wake of the civil rights movement many in white America believed tacitly that they finally understood the black experience; that black Americans were finally free. Pryor more than any other individual in pop culture punctured the veil of the polite middle class racial ambivalence that swallowed and stifled open discussion about race in the years after the passage of the Voting Rights Act. He forced white people to understand how black people saw them, and black people to understand how they saw themselves. It was an act of transformation and perception, like something straight out of Herman Melville's Benito Cereno.
(In 1856 Herman Melville wrote a story called Benito Cereno about a white sailor who boards a Spanish ship and has a conversation with the ship's captain while the captain's African slave shaves him. The American sailor marvels at the solicitousness of the slave, Babo, and at how well the slaves are treated—eating well and spending much of their time above deck. It is only later revealed that the slaves on the ship had revolted, and the slave leader Babo was keeping the captain in line during the interview holding a blade to his neck in the guise of grooming. The story is a brilliant take on race and racial misperception in America on the eve of the Civil War as readers' assumptions about race are manipulated by Melville's skillful and darting turns of perspective.)
Pryor's early touchstones were Lenny Bruce (Pryor's early bit about Jackie Kennedy farting—not a particularly funny one—could have been written by Bruce), and of course Bill Cosby with whom Pryor shared an uncanny gift for expressive, rubber faced mimicry. But where Cosby cleaved to middle brow, middle class, race neutral routines (or routines about sweet ghetto kids like Fat Albert), Pryor delivered “Super Nigger.” Pryor's brilliant early routine about a black superhero (whose X-ray vision allowed him to look through anything except whitey) was a staggering breakthrough, densely packed with symbolism and historical weight (“Look! Up in the sky! It's a crow!”).
Pryor's career-making album, That Nigger's Crazy, remains as funny now as it was in 1974, catching Pryor as he moved from bits that came off like Bizarro Cosby routines (“Have Your Ass Home By 11:30”) to the indelible, character-driven monologues (“Wino Dealing With Dracula”) that would characterize his greatest mature work, especially the monologues Pryor delivered as the aging “Mudbone” from Tupelo, Mississippi.
Like the greatest comic performers—Chaplin and Gleason come to mind—Pryor's act was soaked in tragic sadness, a kind of epic empathy for the pain and suffering that is the core of human life and the pervasive inescapable need of our burning, unquenchable desires for pleasure, escape, sex, affection, and love. Raised in a whore house by his mother, a prostitute, and his father, a pimp, wrestling with lifelong drug addiction, Pryor knew the price of burning unquenchable needs and desires. He never forgave himself for his own unquenchable desires. But he had an enormous heart full of forgiveness and sympathy for everyone else's. It's that grace in the center of the scatology that gave Pryor's comedy its abiding depth and emotional power and over the next week, as Pryor is rightfully remembered as the giant he was, it's that grace that will most often be overlooked by pundits trying to sum up his career.
Maybe it's because, like Pryor, I find it much easier to forgive weaknesses in others that I do those in myself, but my favorite Pryor bits have always been the ones that aren't really funny—the sketch from his 1977 summer replacement TV show about a returning WWII GI discovering that his ex-girlfriend, now a famous featured dancer with Ellington, had moved past him, living now in a world he could never reach; and the Mudbone story from Live at the Sunset Strip in which Pryor steps outside himself and into character to talk about drug addiction, need, and the redemptive power of love, about a time way back called hard times, when the sun only came out on Wednesdays but when it could be captured for just a moment, gathered up in your hands, rubbed on your face to warm the soul. “Keep some sunshine on your face,” Mudbone tells the crowd.
After his 1980 suicide attempt, (while freebasing Pryor doused himself with cognac and lit himself on fire only to find out that he wanted to live), Pryor's act changed. Most famously he dropped the word “nigger” after a trip to Africa. But more importantly his routines about race became more explicitly about something that they had been about implicitly all along—making peace with one's own identity.
“This might sound real stupid but...to be at peace with myself, first, is one of my first goals....try to be nice to people, or just be nice to people and hope they'll be nice in return,” Pryor said in 1983 in a interview with a European fan who asked about his goals.
I hope Pryor found that peace. He deserved it.
(PS: If you don't own any of Pryor's work, do yourself a favor and invest in Rhino's 8-CD set of Pryor classic Warner Brothers albums from the 1970s and 1980s called ...And It's Deep Too!)