Sunday, December 11, 2005

Richard Pryor: 1940-2005

Well, the world has lost a great one. Richard Pryor, sixty-five and no more. People will call Pryor the greatest comic who ever lived. Maybe, that's pretty subjective, but no one has been more influential. Richard Pryor and George Carlin hit like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones of comedy and everything since has been a reaction. Nearly forty years later and people aren't just doing his style; they're still telling his jokes.

I was thinking a moment of silence might be a nice thing, then I realized a five-minute, gut wrenching belly laugh would be better. Then, when that's fully sunk in, weep for an hour as all that pain floods in. Then laugh again till you're too tired to do anything but that nearly orgasmic gasp-chuckle-sigh that only happens at those earth shakingly funny moments. Those moments that come when the laugh is coiled around something so tender and true right at the core of us, cause that's what watching Richard Pryor was when he was at his best.

I'm a stand-up comedian and people always ask me who my influences are. I'd have to say Richard is up there. I don't do his kind of comedy, but he's where I got my freebasing. Sometimes I light my hair on fire and run down the street. When I do, that's for you, Rich.

If you thought that was in bad taste at this moment, then you probably weren't a Pryor fan. Richard Pryor's gift was his ability to bring out the funny parts of pain all the while never hiding how much it hurts. His 1976 album Bicentennial Nigger was a revolution, just think that title went platinum in 1976. In a year of celebration, Pryor wasn't about to be white washed. His 1982 album Live On Sunset Strip is the single greatest comedy album ever. That may sound like hyperbole, kissing up to a dead guy, but listen to that album. If you doubt comedy can be art, listen to that album. There is not a word wasted.

His stories are dense, rich and always hilarious. The ramblings of Mudbone, one of Pryor's greatest characters and the pseudo-Italian banter of his Mafioso club owners belie an economy, a craft that remains as elegant as it is hilarious. Live On Sunset Strip marked Pryor's return to the stage after his near deadly free-basing accident. I can imagine what it was like in that audience before Richard Pryor went on. "Is he going to talk about it? He's gotta say something, but what? How funny can it be, running down the street with your head on fire?" Well, it's probably the funniest thing I've ever heard.

Pryor's first sentence sets that scene. He starts at that moment so dark, "am I gonna die? Should I?" and then takes us back, his biography and man what a ride. Every comic has a story of a club trying to stiff you, I'm not aware of anybody else where that story ends with a gun in you're hand in a room full of mobsters. Of course, not many comics would have been funny enough to survive that story.From there, Rich takes us to Africa. The man who had embraced the word, had gone along way to claiming it realized on reaching Africa, "Ain't no niggers in Africa." That's what he was about.

Some will say it's a shame he had his demons. It's a shame there was so much pain. You're missing it. We're talking about a man who lay burning in the street and he never lost hope, never quit, never ignored the pain and the hate and the shit in the world but never took an eye off that prize. Oh, and he never missed just how fucking funny it all is.


Thanks Rich

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