As juvenile delinquents lurking around 1983, my friends and I snuck into Richard Pryor’s final concert film, Here and Now. We were underage and unpolished, driven by the same hormone-laced adolescent curiosity that kept young Rich out late on the street corners in Peoria, Illinois, singing to get laid and prompting his father to famously rule:
“Boy, have your ass home by 11!”
Rich didn’t listen, and neither did we. We got busted by the usher, like Rich did by his father, but none of us cared. There was more to life than schoolbooks and following orders.
Comedy makes us laugh, but humor reminds us how alive we are. Rich was a master storyteller who could have a crowd literally howling with laughter, and at the same time bring an unpretentious empathy to his performances that left little room for clever punch lines and meek self-deprecation.
He found inherent humor where previously there was disavowal, humor that someone of any heritage could understand.
He was the writer who made Blazing Saddles blaze, the intimidating host secretly censored by a five-second delay on Saturday Night Live and the Bogen County Fair peddler who sold all his balloons to a ga-ga Gonzo and Camilla in The Muppet Movie.
Most important, he offered a creative voice that had not yet been heard in the late 1960s, one that portrayed the black American experience in its hilariously unburdened entirety. He found inherent humor where previously there was disavowal, humor that someone of any heritage could understand.
Rich began by traveling the comedy circuit in the mid 1960s, spouting the average, mannered routine of a button-down, middle-class, non-threatening Negro. He got little satisfaction from this role as the expected artist, and in his autobiography Pryor Convictions he wrote:
“I only know my days of pretending to be as slick and colorless as Cosby were numbered. There was a world of junkies and winos, pool hustlers and prostitutes, women and family screaming inside my head, trying to be heard.”
He walked away from performing in 1967, quite in the middle of a packed show in Las Vegas.
When he returned a year later, like Cassius Clay making that heroic leap to Ali, Rich had found the truth in himself. He had broken free of ignorance and advice to find inspiration in the voices of characters he heard and believed in. He no longer played by the rules.
Rich told the truth without confessing, and if you think that’s easy, try it sometime.
To do this, Rich made a crossroads deal, that Faustian agreement with the darkness to speak with a voice of such rhythm, character and insight he seemed possessed with the unknown. He spoke staggeringly divine revelations with the devil’s vulgar tongue, and that’s the juice. That’s also the pain, because to honestly portray the full ravishment of human experience, his eyes were permanently opened to it all…the euphoria, the deceit, the memories and costs, hating it all, taunting it, accepting it and, not least, wanting it all.
Rich’s eyes never closed, and thankfully neither did his mouth.
“The truth is gonna be funny, but it’s gonna scare the shit outta folks,” his most famous character, Mudbone, would say.
Rich told the truth without confessing, and if you think that’s easy, try it sometime. He was a transmitter, a vibrating conduit of awareness, speaking in sonatas of feeling rather than feckless staccato observations. He played our Holy Fool in the most mythical sense, dangling his abundant indiscretions and uncertainties before us to recognize and claim as our own, the only things we can truly posses.
He understood what made us real and confided in us, his audience, as friends, without shame, keeping no intimacies for himself. In this way he gained our trust, freeing our hearts from fear to laugh at the darkest of subjects…ourselves. It seems the only thing that never held him back was a reluctance to hold anything back.
“The comedy gods… swoop down and touch you at different times. But when they do it’s like salvation. Or deliverance. It’s as close to flying as man gets,” he wrote in Pryor Convictions.
For an hour or so at a time, Rich gave us wings and a solid, connected identity as human beings, flawed and fucking beautiful. One minute he’s rapping about freebasing coke and the next he’s a black American visiting Africa for the first time, finding the funk and the flight in both subjects. That’s the transcendence of true art.
Mark Twain birthed American humor, and H.L. Mencken educated it, but Richard Pryor stripped it of its gospel and gave it a soul. His death was no surprise, but it reminds us how much this country needs to step back and laugh at itself. There is no one to fill his shoes, although many try them on for size, then trip over the untied laces of his influence.
While he was here, Rich prodded, suggested, created desire and delivered, but he never forced anything on us. Instead we sought him out for his magic gift, as he once did, playing that midnight fool from Peoria, ignoring his father’s rules, and staying out late to meet the devil for some juice at the crossroads.
Sleep well, Rich…you finally got your ass home by 11.
Don’t waste your time on anything less than the recorded box set …And It’s Deep Too from Warner/Rhino and Pryor Convictions, his autobiography.