Richard Pryor was a Risk-taking Pioneer
By: George E. Curry
Originally posted 12/13/2005
WASHINGTON (NNPA) – Richard Pryor, the groundbreaking comedian who died over the weekend of a heart attack, was known for his foul mouth, insight into racism and honesty, a combination that caused many to be repelled by him and many more to be mesmerized by his brilliance.
He suffered a heart attack Saturday in his California home in the San Fernando Valley.
Pryor turned 65 on December 1 and had been battling multiple sclerosis, a degenerative disease that strikes the central nervous system, for two decades.
Although America was not unfamiliar with Black comics – Slappy White, Timmie Rogers, Godfrey Cambridge, Nipsey Russell, Dick Gregory, Redd Foxx and Bill Cosby – none of them could have prepared the nation for Richard Franklin Lenox Thomas Pryor.
Pryor prepared the world for a series of edgy comedians: Chris Rock, Eddie Murphy, Robin Williams, David Letterman, George Wallace, David Chappelle and Keenen Ivory Wayans.
“Richard Pryor is the groundbreaker,” Wayans later explained. He “showed us that you can be Black and have a Black voice and be successful.”
Playwright Neil Simon called Pryor “the most brilliant comic in America.” Comedian Bon Newhart said Pryor was “the single most seminal comedic influence in the last 50 years.” And Eddie Murphy said that Richard Pryor was “better than anyone who ever picked up a microphone.”
And when Pryor picked up a microphone, there was no predicting what might come out of his mouth.
Though known for his use of vulgarity and the n-word, some of Pryor’s most memorable work invoked neither. Whether describing a scene in the woods with a deer drinking water or his reluctance to administer mouth-to-mouth resuscitation for fear of catching a life-threatening disease, Pryor could say as much with has facial expressions as with words.
In “Richard Pryor -- Live in Concert,” ” the 1979 videotape by which other comedians are judged, Pryor talks about having a choice between dying as a result of getting hit by a bus or dying as a result of sexual intercourse. “I don’t know about you, but I am going to be in that long line,” Pryor says.
Then, he pretends to be moving slowly in a line, alternately looking at those behind and in front of him.
A high school drop-out, Pryor initially patterned his career after Bill Cosby.
“Richard was always upset with Bill Cosby,”
Paul Mooney, one of Pryor’s closest friends and a fellow comedian, told the Los Angeles Times 10 years ago. “I think he wanted to be Bill…But I always liked Richard’s stuff better. Bill didn’t wow me. He wowed white people…Black people sank into Pryor’s material like an easy chair…That’s what his talent was: talking about black people to black people.”
Pryor said cursing wasn’t the worst thing one could do.
“A lie is profanity,” he said. “A lie is the worst thing in the world. Art is the ability to tell the truth, especially about one’s self.”
Pryor began expressing his own art in 1967. He abruptly ended his act at the Aladdin Hotel in Las Vegas, asking: “What am I doing here? I’m not going to do this anymore.”
He explained, “I made a lot of money being Bill Cosby, but I was hiding my personality. I just wanted to be in show business so bad I didn’t care how. It started bothering me – I was being a robot comic, repeating them same lines, getting the same laughs for the same jokes.
The repetition was killing me.”
In his autobiography, “Pryor Convictions and Other Life Sentences,” written with Todd Gold, he recounts: “There was a world of junkies and winos, pool hustlers and prostitutes, women and family screaming inside of my head, trying to be heard. The longer I kept them bottled up, the harder they tried to escape. The pressure built til I went nuts.”
When Pryor went nuts, it became research for his stage act.
In 1978, he was fined $500 and ordered to seek psychiatric care after ramming his car into another vehicle that contained his wife and firing bullets at the tires. Pryor would later joke that he killed that car.
Two years, later Pryor suffered third-degree burns over the upper half of his body while freebasing cocaine. After being hospitalized for two months, Pryor returned to the stage with a joke. He would strike a match, wave it in front of his face: “What is this? Richard Pryor running down the street.”
He promised to start a new singing group, “Earth, Wind and Pryor.”
An earlier heart attack that led to a triple bypass was not off limits to Pryor.
In “Richard Pryor – Live in Concert,” he said: “I woke up in the ambulance, right? And there was nothin’ but White people starin’ at me. I say (expletive deleted) …I done died and wound up in the wrong heaven. Now I gotta listen to Lawrence Welk the rest of my days.”
He won five Grammys for his comedy albums, including “Bicentennial Nigger” and “That Nigger’s Crazy.” He was an accomplished writer, providing scripts for “Sanford and Son,” “The Flip Wilson Show” and winning an Emmy for a Lily Tomlin television special.
At one point, Pryor was the highest paid Black entertainer in Hollywood. He appeared in more than 40 movies, including “Lady Sings the Blues,” “Jo Jo Dancer,” “Bustin’ Loose,” “Car Wash,” “Greased Lightning,” “Brewster’s Millions,” “Harlem Nights,” “California Suite,” “The Toy,” “Superman III,” “Blue Collar” and “The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings.” He also starred with Gene Wilder in “Silver Steak,” “Which Way is Up,” “Stir Crazy” and “Another You.”
After seeing the all-White cast of “Logan’s Run,” a science fiction movie, Pryor said: ”…White folks ain’t planning for us to be here. That’s why we gotta make movies, and we be in the future. But we got to make some really hip movies. We done made enough movies about pimps because white people already know about pimpin’. ‘Cause we the biggest hos they got.”
Even when he was freely doling out the n-word, Pryor showed that he wasn’t unaware of his African heritage. On his “Bicentenial” album, for example, he asks: “You all know how black humor started? It started in a slave ship. Cat was always over there rowing. Dude say, ‘What you laughin’ about?’ Said, ‘Yesterday, I was a king.’”
It was a trip to Zimbabwe in 1980 that caused Pryor to quit using the n-word.
“There are no niggers here,” he wrote in his autobiography. “The people here, they still have their self-respect, their pride.”
And so does Richard Pryor.