Before just about anything else, comedy was the first love of my life. It sustained and fed my mind and spirit as a kid. Growing up, that love only deepened and certain personalities became like members of my extended family. The artists who have always been closest to my heart have been the ones who imbued their art with so much of themselves that the line between them and their work became non-existent. And no one made their comedy more personal… more poignant… more potent… than Richard Pryor.
Richard Pryor is gone. Although his incomparable gifts were stolen from him by multiple sclerosis several years ago, his spirit kept the breath in his body until it finally gave out yesterday morning at age 65. Like fellow edge walker Lenny Bruce, he lived his life very publicly through his work, struggled with his demons, changed the face of comedy forever and ultimately left us far too soon.
In 1998 Pryor was fittingly presented with the inaugural Kennedy Center Mark Twain Prize for humor. I spoke with subsequent Twain Prize recipient Jonathan Winters yesterday about his thoughts on Pryor’s passing. Both men of great influence and integrity, they crafted characters that were equally hysterical and human. (Pryor’s Mudbone and Winters’ Elwood P. Suggins occupy similar places in American culture as fully developed comic personas infused with a rich understanding of the often invisible people who make up this country.) Winters called Pryor “an honest rebel” and mourned the passing of the “versatile comedian and actor with an enormous gift for characters”. Winters further reflected, “He bared his soul out there. He really took chances.”
Dick Gregory, one of Pryor’s mentors and a fellow trailblazing comic genius said after a performance last night in Los Angeles, “Richard will never be gone.” Gregory also said “Thank God Richard didn’t come into existence 100 years ago… for a lot of reasons.” He clarified this sly, extremely loaded comment by adding that “so much of Richard’s great innovative work will fortunately be preserved forever on CD and DVD.” Gregory called Pryor “the gold standard” and said that “comedians for generations will study him and be forever frustrated by the fact that they will never be him.” Mostly, Gregory warmly remembered the “shy and timid” Pryor that he knew away from the spotlight.
To state the obvious, Richard Pryor was a pioneer for black voices in comedy as well as a revolutionary with regard to language and subject matter, especially frank explorations of sexuality. Without being hyperbolic, I believe that every African-American comedian who has taken the stage since Richard owes him an enormous debt of gratitude. However to take that narrow of a view of his legacy is an almost criminal oversimplification. Because Pryor’s true genius was in his ability to convey an unparalleled humanity in his work, whether performing as a character or opening up his personal life with brutal candor… practically right up until the end. I personally attended a couple of his final performances where he used his battle with MS as fodder for his act. Yes he was always courageous in his work and will forever remind me that the excitement of pushing the envelope isn’t just in the use of dangerous words… it’s in the use of dangerous thoughts and ideas. It’s often been said that only the truth is funny and Richard Pryor was both painfully truthful in his work and painfully funny. May God bless and keep him.