Richard Pryor – December 1, 1940 – December 10, 2005
Richard Pryor’s gone and it still bums me out.
Pryor, more than any other 70’s icon, reminds me of my youth. Muhammad Ali did not inspire me much when I was a kid. Neither did Mark Spitz, Hank Aaron, or O.J. Simpson. I loved music but was a rabid fan of no musician. My crush on Farrah Fawcett was short lived. Han Solo was overrated. Not as overrated as the Fonz, but overrated nonetheless. Nixon was a sweaty old man whose Watergate trial preempted summer morning reruns.
But Richard Pryor? Man, he was something else.
Richard Pryor, with almost no weapons except his words, changed the world. He made his stand under hot bright lights. That’s where he spoke his mind and opened our hearts. Pryor faced the unknown every time he took the stage.
Richard Pryor changed the way we think about race and sex and drugs and violence and prison and old black men with stories to tell. He changed the way we think about winos and preachers. He changed the way we think about how animals communicate, and what they have to say.
Richard Pryor changed people’s lives. Even haters were affected by his courage and candor, and maybe they needed him most.
He was the point man of new comedy.
New comedy was as honest and cathartic as it was rough and foul-mouthed. Comedy where everything’s fair game. Subversive comedy. A comedy that makes your small-brain think it’s making fun of something, while your big-brain has to face the ugly ass issue that’s suddenly on the table.
Comedy that tickles your funny bone while it kicks you in your head.
Pryor wasn’t alone, of course. There was SNL and Belushi, the Smothers Brothers and Laugh-In before them. Mad Magazine, and then National Lampoon. Mel Brooks. All in the Family. M*A*S*H. Cheech and Chong. George Carlin. But Pryor was different.
Pryor was a one man social movement.
More importantly, he was stomach-cramp funny. Funny as a monkey humping your ear. Funny as shooting your car. Funny as catching yourself on fire. Funny as a heart attack.
My grandparents were entertained by classic comedic performers like the Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy, and the Three Stooges, but the most famous standups of their day were of the Bob Hope, Henny Youngman type. Not exactly comedians that could give an audience an improvised peek into their souls.
When I was a kid, my parents laughed at Hee-Haw and The Beverly Hillbillies on TV. Jerry Lewis movies were popular, but I don’t remember anybody in my family being much of a fan. My kin favored old black and whites starring Blondie or Ma and Pa Kettle. I myself was a big Red Skelton guy.
But there were some records around.
When I was little, I found an old Moms Mabley record. I only had half an idea of what she was talking about, and I was probably wrong about that half.
I remember hearing Bob Newhart too. I didn’t understand much of that either, but I didn’t understand Newhart in a completely different way from the way I didn’t understand Moms. Plus, Bob Newhart didn’t scare me.
Bill Cosby made me laugh, though. He told funny stories about growing up and family life on scratchy LP records. I liked his Noah’s Ark bit and his hilarious tales about Fat Albert and the pre-cartoon Cosby kids. Whatever he did on stage in those days, Cosby’s act on vinyl was tailored to the masses. Mr. Cosby grew famous and his comedy opened doors, but he didn’t seem to be breaking any down.
I remember when some Redd Foxx 8-Tracks made the rounds. The shock of hearing Fred Sanford talk so profanely deadened me to his jokes. I wondered if Lamont knew his father talked like that.
Never heard of Lenny Bruce until I heard Dustin Hoffman was playing him in a movie. More importantly, I also heard LENNY featured bare titties.
And then here comes Richard Pryor.
Some guys in the neighborhood knew an older dude who lived in the trailer park. He had access to all kinds of contraband. I felt nervous every time I went over there. At least I did until the first time he put on Richard Pryor’s IS IT SOMETHING I SAID?
I never heard no shit like that before.
I ate it up. Couldn’t wait to get a hold of some for myself.
Pretty much the same way I felt about titties.
In the eleventh grade, a carload of buddies and I hooked school (not recommended!), drove to Delaware (a no sales tax state!), and bought a case of beer (drinking age: 18!) Then we went to the shopping center (not the mall!) and we each bought a different Richard Pryor cassette. We rode around all day, drinking and laughing, and listening to each cassette in turn. It was a beautiful day of freedom and friendship and irresponsible behavior. It’s also one of my favorite high school memories.
A few years ago, I wrote Mr. Pryor a fan letter. I knew he was sick with Multiple Sclerosis and I wanted to tell him how positive an impact (despite the hooking school/drinking and driving)I believed he’d had on my life. He sent me back a great 8×10, obviously signed in the hand of a man fighting for his life. It meant a ton to me then. It weighs more now.
Humor enhances our lives. The truth wrapped in humor changes lives.
Rest In Peace, brother Richard.