The great medieval poet Geoffrey Chaucer created timeless characters in his Canterbury Tales; archetypal personalities such as the Wife of Bath and the Miller endure to this day. Through them Chaucer could readily celebrate, criticize and satirize different aspects of the society of his time. Additionally, Chaucer, as a public servant and man of the people, preserved a vernacular that may otherwise have been lost.
The late Richard Pryor, often hailed as the greatest comic to ever take the stage, is the American Chaucer. A master storyteller in the grand tradition of West African griots, fired by passion and pain, possessed of keen insight, he was also a brilliant impersonator with amazing range, an intuitive actor who never got his due, a social critic, a writer, a folklorist, a philosopher, and, most importantly, one funny motherfucker…
[On being severely burned] “I got to the hospital—You can really tell when you’re fucked up, when the doctor goes, ‘AAAUGH! Holy shit! Why don’t we just get some cole slaw and serve this up, whattaya say?'” – Richard Pryor, ‘Live on the Sunset Strip’
Bill Cosby, Buddy Hackett and other comedy legends were renowned raconteurs, but Pryor was without parallel. In addition to his own humorous observations, cheeky sex talk and ingratiating self-deprecation, Pryor would often perform as a host of characters in continuous, nuanced dialogue, sensitive to the humanity of the souls he portrayed even while gleefully sending them up. He relished dialects, slang, cadence, street parlance, foreign accents… Pryor adored the music of language, especially in the guise of his alter ego Mudbone, whereas Pryor’s contemporary George Carlin savored the meaning of words. They complemented each other, a duopoly of comedic brilliance that reigned supreme for decades. Pryor in particular spawned legions of copycats and imitators, including a young Eddie Murphy, who in his earliest gigs would perform Pryor’s material verbatim and call it a tribute. But no one could match Pryor’s boundless wit, liberating raunchiness, and gift for connecting with the audience.
“To fully appreciate the power of Richard Pryor as a stand-up comedian, you had to follow him at the Comedy Store. I did once, and I’m lucky to be alive.” – David Letterman
Pryor was brave, too. He regularly poked fun at his own impulsive libido and temperamental persona with an unprecedented frankness, earning him deep adulation among his fellow comics as well as the devotion of women spellbound by his charismatic vulnerability. He made light of his troubles and his contradictions, exposed his pains and fears, made it okay to laugh at how hopelessly human we all are. He rarely wasted a line; no matter what he said on the stage, whether in packed clubs or sold-out arenas, there was typically a larger point to the punchline, whether to lay bare an injustice, bind us with our myriad commonalities, or even find redemption in a reflective moment.
“Richard had that thing where he could make you laugh so hard and then all of a sudden he’d break your heart.” – Robert Townsend
Times have changed since Pryor’s prime. Some say the 1970’s was a wasted decade, full of garishness, scandal and pollution. Yet heroes, icons, agents of real and lasting change, smashers of stereotypes, molders of youthful opinion, abounded: Muhammad Ali. Bruce Lee. Billie Jean King. Shirley Chisholm. Harvey Milk. Daniel Ellsberg. Gloria Steinem. César Chávez. Ralph Nader. John Denver. Carl Sagan. George Carlin. And Richard Pryor… a skinny kid from the backstreets of Peoria who lived out the American dream by parlaying his considerable talents into superstardom, and who played a part in the nation’s social progress that still has yet to be fully understood or appreciated.
Perhaps inevitably, in the ever-changing American big picture, Pryor’s image has begun to fade; history will likely render him obscure, his life story shrouded and much of his humor made anachronistic by the passage of time. But his enormous influence will reverberate among the people, as would that of any great storyteller down through the ages, for as long as America exists.
“I was leaving [Africa], and I was sitting in a hotel, and a voice said to me, said, ‘Look around, what do you see?’ And I said, ‘I see all colors of people doing everything, you know?’ And the voice said, ‘Do you see any niggers?’ And I said, ‘No.’ It said, ‘You know why? Cause there aren’t any.’ And it hit me like a shot! Man, I started crying and shit, I was sittin’ there, I said, ‘Yeah, I’ve been here three weeks, I haven’t even said it. I haven’t even thought it!’ And it made me say, ‘Oh my God, I’ve been wrong. I’ve been wrong, I got to re-group my shit.’ I mean, I said, ‘I ain’t gonna never call another black man ‘nigger.'” – Richard Pryor, ‘Live on the Sunset Strip’