Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Richard Pryor

[This profile first appeared in Sleazenation magazine's Cult Heroes section back in early 2001]


“They useta have that on the news every now and then, that I was dead. Y’know, it’s a bitch if you be watching the news, and motherfucker talking ‘bout you be dead... My accountant called me up and said, ‘I heard you were dead.’ Well I ain’t dead. I wanna check my books, too...”




The delivery, if a little shaky, is unmistakable, much like the smart, streetwise humour. It comes from ‘M.S.’, the final track of And It’s Deep Too, a box-set retrospective of Richard Pryor’s comedy albums. The skit was recorded on Pryor’s final stand-up tour, undertaken by Richard late 1992, almost a year after he publicly admitted that he was suffering from Multiple Sclerosis, a disease that attacks the central nervous system, and which left him so debilitated he ultimately had to cut short the tour.

For ten minutes, Pryor casts his bullshit-annihilating eye over the realities of his condition, doctors blaming the disease on his drug-abuse (“He said, ‘Maybe it’s because you did that two ounces that time’. I said, ‘Man, I fuckin’ did two ounces every time!’”); muscle spasms that women think are flirtatious advances; bouts of incontinence that scupper any potential romances. It’s some angry, beautiful, wise, painful, hilarious shit, akin and equal to anything else in the box; prime Pryor, facing up to the fucked-up shit-storm of reality armed with nothing but the right questions and a quicksilver wit, and returning, not with answers, but something much more valuable: the truth.

It’s a method Pryor employed throughout his stand-up career, the meat of Richard Pryor’s art. Forget the movies; aside from the odd gem (the script for Blazing Saddles, a brilliant cameo in Car Wash, Paul Shrader’s drama Blue Collar), Hollwood Pryor is mostly a diluted shadow of his full-flavoured genius.

Fact is, Pryor scared the shit out of Hollywood. That’s why the suits wouldn’t let him star in Blazing Saddles (Cleavon Little took Pryor’s role instead), why they refused to let him present the premiere episode of Saturday Night Live (he hosted the fourth episode, broadcast on a 5-second delay in case a stray “mother-fucker” should escape Pryor’s lips), why his ground-breaking 1977 series The Richard Pryor Show was beset by network interference over content, scheduled opposite Happy Days (the #1 rated show of the time), and cancelled after four episodes.

And, fact also is, Pryor gave the suits plenty to be afraid of. Here was a man who went through life snorting and fucking whatever he pleased, a walking (self-inflicted) apocalypse with a fine line in partying and disastrous relationships, compounding his bad behaviour by working it into his act, messily demolishing the barrier between his onstage and offstage personae. As his fame and self-confidence increased, nothing in his troubled private life would prove too personal or embarrassing to be used as material. When, in 1978, a drink’n’drugs crazed Pryor was arrested for shooting his Mercedes-Benz full of holes to spite third wife Deboragh McGuire, the widely-publicised episode was worked into the routine ‘New Year’. “It seemed fair to kill my car to me,” he revealed, “Cuz my wife was goin’ to leave my ass, and I said, ‘Not in this motherfucker you ain’t! If you leave, you be drivin’ those hush-puppies you got on there... Cuz I’m gonna kill this motherfucker right here!’”

It was classic Pryor, playing the storyteller - with room for a little bar-room philosophising in there too - letting the tall tale unravel in a manner loose enough for the humour to mingle comfortably with a knowing sense of self-rapproachment. Pryor’s stand-up catalogue is littered with such moments; they were heart of his comedy, the reason why this motherfucker was so funny, and yet struck so deep too. He attacked his womanising, his drug-abuse (and it slipped beyond use to abuse every time), his essential fucked-up-ness with a brutal frankness, tempered with a reasoning insightfulness - let’s call his approach simple, plain honesty - that meant he zeroed straight in on the emotional meat of the matter while never suffocating the innate hilarity. He didn’t tell jokes, he told stories that just happened to be uproariously funny, not a little wise, and, more often than not, the absolute fucking truth. It probably helped that Pryor himself was a nakedly sensitive soul, even if that keen sensitivity was probably also why he spent so much time trying to annihilate himself, to white-out that searing pain at the heart of his comedy.

He wasn’t always that way. When Richard Pryor started out on the stand-up circuit, he was just another ribald black comedian, much in the vein of Redd Foxx and Moms Mabley and other such profane stand-ups whose ‘Party Records’ made them figureheads for an under-the-counter culture of Black comics guaranteed to rile uptight prudes. A frustrated Pryor worked the ‘Blackbelt’ - the black comedy circuit - for a few years, fucking female dancers and club-owners and getting thrown in jail for scrapes with the law and generally achieving little, until he read a Time magazine cover-piece on Bill Cosby. Cosby was the black-comic crossover sensation that white folks loved to watch, not least since his act was so tame, so pale, he could’ve passed for a white comedian anyways. “I decided that’s who I was going to be from then on,” reminisced Pryor in his autobiography, Pryor Convictions, “Bill Cosby. If my material wasn’t exactly Bill’s, the delivery was. I went for the bucks.”

The move was, initially and financially at least, a successful one. Pryor appeared on the important TV variety shows of the time, played the big halls, even Vegas. But he couldn’t shake the feeling that this success was a shuck, that he wasn’t funny, and that he was, at best, a bargain basement Cosby knock-off. His self-loathing grew as fast as mainstream acclaim for this neutered-Pryor. At a show in Vegas in September of 1967, Pryor walked onstage before an audience including Dean Martin, and suffered a nervous breakdown. He froze at the mic, uttered the words “What the fuck am I doing here?”, and walked straight back off. When he returned to the stage, a year or so later, it would be as a completely different comedian. It would be as Richard Pryor.

“I knew my days of pretending to be as slick and colourless as Cosby were finished,” he wrote in Pryor Convictions. “I had thoughts of my own to dispense. There was a world of junkies and winos, pool hustlers and prostitutes, women and family screaming inside my head, trying to be heard.” And the voices of this peculiar menagerie would pour forth, purely and unadulterated, through Pryor’s comedy. He knew those voices well; he’d grown up with them, after all.

Pryor was born to a prostitute mother and a boxer father, and was brought up in a series of whorehouses in Peoria, Illinois, run by his grandmother, Marie Carter Pryor Bryant. Molested by an older boy when he was aged seven, and surrounded by sex as an act of commerce not love, the dysfunctional outlook Pryor developed is pretty easy to understand. And, had he not happened upon the Carver Community Center or, more specifically, drama instructor Juliette Whittaker, the pain and bitterness would’ve just festered inside of him. Whittaker recognised Pryor’s nascent talent, cast him in his first play, and became his mentor; years later, Pryor would give Whittaker the emmy award he won for a performance on a 1974 Lily Tomlin Special, in recognition of her influence on his life and career.

The recurring character of Mudbone, the philosophical alcoholic bum featured in pieces like ‘Wino Vs Junkie’ and ‘Mudbone Goes To Hollywood’, served as a figure of ghetto wisdom, of human weakness and hypocrisy. Mudbone, along with the corrupt black minister portrayed in routines like ‘Bicentennial Prayer’, were painfully honest and hilarious characters drawn straight from the streets of Peoria, voices from a black America unrepresented by the colourless observational comedy of Cosby or the cerebral political humour of Dick Gregory. Pryor’s comedy tackled racism with a phosphorent candour, and the potency of his routines endure. ‘Niggers Vs The Police’, off 1974’s breakthrough That Nigger’s Crazy, was a dangerous, sharp attack on police brutality that presaged the Rodney King beatings by 18 years. “Cops put a hurting on your ass, man, they really degrade you,” began Pryor. “White folks get a ticket, they pull over, ‘Hello officer, glad to be of help...’ Black folks gotta be, like, ‘I AM REACHING INTO MY POCKET FOR MY LICENSE. CUZ I DON’T WANNA BE NO MOTHERFUCKING ‘ACCIDENT’!’” 25 years after the routine was recorded, DJ Babu would cut it into a series of hip-hop instrumentals running through The Unbound Project, a compilation dedicated to Mumia Abu-Jamal. The message still searingly potent.

Pryor’s insightful explorations of the differences between white folks and black folks were light-years beyond the stereotypes of geeky white poindexters and hip black dudes lesser comedians would later exploit for cheap laffs. Pryor’s routines were infinitely more complex, sensitive, pricking the super-macho black male pride, as much as uptight whiteness. They were truer, and also infinitely funnier. Pryor also got much comedic mileage from the differences between black and white women, and he was quite the expert. In Pryor Convictions, he confesses that he suffered from “white women disease”, and his inter-racial relations enraged many who saw it as a flaw in this great figurehead for black creativity and power. Jennifer Lee, once and now, again, his wife, was one such conquest; Pryor recalled an encounter where black actress Lonette McKee attacked Lee for dating him. Afterwards, he consoled Lee, saying “I don’t see colors. I don’t believe in prejudice. We’re all people, y’know? That’s hard enough.” He’d just summed up the troubled soul of his comedy.

The 80s was the decade when all Pryor’s chickens came home to roost, his karmic debts all overdue.

It was a period of painful transition. 1982’s ‘Live On The Sunset Strip’ movie is universally hailed as, if not Pryor’s funniest moment, certainly his most personal and honest. ‘Africa’ chronicled his revelatory journey to the motherland, a moving experience which caused him to renounce his controversial use of the word ‘nigger’. “It made me cry” he whispered, “I thought, ‘Aw shit, all the acts I been doing as a comedian, trying to say something, and I been saying ‘Nigger’, and that’s a devastating fuckin’ word. And it’s got nothing to do with us.’”

Closer to home, ‘Freebase’ dealt with Pryor’s horrific experience of the previous year. Wired on cocaine, Pryor had poured rum over himself and set himself on fire. His Aunt Dee attempted to smother the flames, but Pryor leapt through a window and ran up the street, eventually caught by Dee and a couple of policemen, but not before the flames had left him with third-degree burns over the entire top-half of his body. He hovered close to death for two weeks. After copious skin grafts, Pryor returned to the public eye, laughing off the incident as an accident, not the suicide attempt it truly was; similarly fraudulent were the claims of “never again” that cloaked the revelations: Pryor was back freebasing by the time he recorded ‘Live On The Sunset Strip’.

‘Live On The Sunset Strip’ would prove to be Pryor’s last flash of sustained brilliance. One further concert movie/album, ‘Here & Now’, followed a year later, but it lacked the spirit, the rage, the anger of previous albums. Something was wrong, seriously wrong with Richard Pryor.

As the decade progressed, so Pryor’s life and career unraveled. Pryor’s self-directed attempt at a semi-autobiographical dramatic movie, the brave if flawed Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling, was a critical and commercial failure. Pryor couldn’t make a drama of the life he had been reaping rich comedy from for years, and Jennifer Lee publicly took Pryor to task over a lack of honesty.

His health had been failing him, too. His chronic cocaine abuse resulted in a serious of near-fatal heart attacks. Then, in 1986, after noticing a deterioration in his muscular co-ordination and his eyesight, Pryor booked himself in for a medical examination. Pryor kept the diagnosis, Multiple Sclerosis, a secret for five years, until his shockingly gaunt appearance in his final collaboration with Gene Wilder, 1990’s Another You, had Hollywood whispering that the comedian was about to succumb to AIDS. The announcement of his condition served as an unspoken declaration of retirement.

Given the seriousness of his condition, it’s highly Richard Pryor will ever be able to reach the heights of his early days again; certainly, the rigours of a modern comedy tour seem beyond his frail body, and public appearances have been minimal in recent years. And, given the de-odourised cultural climate we currently live in, it’s even more unlikely we’ll see his like again... These aren’t liberated enough times that a man who openly celebrates his own colossal fucked-up-ness for the wisdom it yields could expect anything other than condemnation. Fact is, Richard Pryor is the product of a deeply fucked-up society, and the honesty of his art puts that society to shame. The essential truths of his work cut too close to the bone. His comedy is too damned painful, powerful, beautiful to be saleable today. And that’s fucking depressing.

But...

But...

But Pryor’s back catalogue, comedy records and concert movies endure. As a body of work nailing the human existence in all its hilarious, horrific permutations, it rivals anything you might like to offer. The truth, motherfucker. Told pure, uncut, but with a little humour that’ll soften the blow, and deepen the impact.

Cherish it.

(c) Stevie Chick 2001

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Out of all Richards reely funnnny skits 'Black Ben the Black Smith" was rite on , ask'n is the truth stranger than fiction -check it out

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oAtStAo said...

VERY surprised at the lack of comments. Great article.
Sad he died a few months later.
Thanks for sharing.