A Comic View: Richard Pryor


Jay Cole image

Humor is our most enjoyable form of truth.

What can we learn from a skinny kid from Illinois?

Hmm???

Comparing lists of the All Time Best Stand Up Comedians, it often appears that Richard Pryor and George Carlin simply alternate for the Number One and Number Two spot. Granted, whose name lands at the top of any list is essentially a matter of taste; however, if any list of best comedians does not place Richard Pryor in one of the top slots, you know immediately that the list is essentially worthless.

As with all unique voices, Richard Pryor engenders strong opinions in people. You may love him or hate him; however, without doubt, he was one of the most influential comedians ever to take the stage. He could be:

Critical:

I went to the White House, met the president. We in trouble.

Brutally honest:

[On going to court] You go down there looking for justice, that’s what you find: Just Us.

Profane:

The reason people use a crucifix against vampires is that vampires are allergic to bullshit.

Painfully Insightful:

I went to Zimbabwe. I know how white people feel in America now; relaxed! Cause when I heard the police car, I knew they weren’t coming after me!

Controversial\Challenging\Confrontational:

Word Association, performed with Chevy Chase, as well as several other progressive-for-their-time sketches performed on Saturday Night Live just about choked the NBC censors. The five-second broadcast delay was invented to accommodate Richard Prior’s appearance as guest host, and of course, any possible language slips while he was live on camera.

Intensely Personal:

There was a time in my life when I thought I had everything—millions of dollars, mansions, cars, nice clothes, beautiful women, and every other materialistic thing you can imagine. Now, I struggle for peace.

Unafraid to Share His Pain:

When you’re running down the street on fire, people get out of your way!

And Just Plain Funny:

I had to stop drinkin’, cuz I got tired of waking up in my car driving ninety.

Early in his successful, on-track career, Pryor literally walked off a Las Vegas stage without performing, deciding in that moment that mainstream, censor-friendly comedy was not for him. Few people experience such a moment, an all-encompassing epiphany in their lives that must either be followed or suppressed.

Pryor followed. He disappeared for several years.

When he returned, he built a new career, the one that he wanted…as himself. Pryor’s one-off reincarnation was both scandalous and momentous.

Book Cover image

“I cried with laughter!”

Pryor’s comedy—here I am, and here’s my stories, my life, and my world—sometimes chafed society’s last nerve, and yet, was so distinctively astute that we couldn’t turn away. His iconic performances sold out everywhere. His comedy albums went to the top of the charts and won five Grammy’s. His acting won Emmys and Oscar Nominations. He became the most successful comedian of his generation.

The same producers who claimed that Pryor would never work again (after his Vegas walk-off) were now begging to book Richard Pryor anywhere and everywhere. He drew black audiences; he drew white audiences, and he changed the conversation between them for future generations.

In 1998, Richard Pryor was the first recipient of The Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.

I feel great about accepting this prize. It is nice to be regarded on par with a great white man—now that’s funny! Seriously, though, two things people throughout history have had in common are hatred and humor. I am proud that, like Mark Twain, I have been able to use humor to lessen people’s hatred!

Richard Pryor’s influence truly spans generations. We may focus at times on the tragedy that marred so much of his personal life. We may focus on his extraordinary talent as a writer and a performer. Truthfully, there are very few positive or negative attributes that people have not assigned at one time or another to Richard Pryor, but through it all, he demonstrated—for us who listen—the extraordinary courage required to:

Express Yourself!

Might be something there. Hmm???

Parting Funny: I’m all for anarchy as long as I can keep room service.Louie Anderson

Next Up: Random Thoughts

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