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The Greatest
2005-12-10 16:32
by Alex Belth
Note: The Bronx Banter blog has moved to bronxbanterblog.com.

Richard Pryor, one of the most famous and influencial comedians of them all, died today of a heart attack. He was 65. Pryor suffered from MS for years now. Considering the kind of hard living and abuse he put his body through over the course of time, the news of his passing doesn't exactly come as a shock. Still, it is a sad moment because Pryor took the art of stand-up comedy and elevated it to a level of social commentary and personal vulnerability that few, if any, performers have ever reached. I think he the natural heir to Lenny Bruce, but he remains in a category of his own. In his prime, during the late 1970s, he was arguably the greatest comedian of all-time. All the black comedians who have come after him--Eddie Murphy, the Wayans brothers, Bernie Mac, Dave Chappelle, are in a sense, his children. He is to stand-up what Bob Dylan was to rock and roll.

After the crossover hit "Silver Streak," and then his rousing concert film "Live in Concert," Pryor became the first black actor to be the number one box office draw ever. It was capped off by his second feature with Gene Wilder, "Stir Crazy," in 1980. But Pryor's moment on top would be fleeting, as his struggles with cocaine overwhelmed him. In a free-basing accident not long after "Stir Crazy" had been released, Pryor set fire to himself, and in some ways, his career never recovered.

During his early days, in the mid 1960s, Pryor had made a name for himself on the talk show circut, essentially doing the kind of clean act that had made Bill Cosby a star. But by the end of the sixites, Pryor, like many other African Americans at the time, became increasingly politicized. He stopped doing his Cosby routine and went back to the drawing board. Over the next several years he developed a routine that was far more personal, and far more political. Pryor stopped doing jokes in the traditional sense and began acting out scenes and characters.

"Live and Smoking" is a concert film of these transitional years, and the material is often unfunny, with Pryor and the audience not quite sure what to make of his new approach. They are still feeling each other out. Yet is a fascinating recording when you consider the heights he would soon achive with his best work: "That Nigger's Crazy," "Is it Something I Said?" and "Wanted: Live in Concert."

The film critic Pauline Kael wrote in 1982:

When Chaplin began to talk onscreen, he used a cultivated voice and high-flown words, and became a deeply unfunny man; if he had found the street language to match his lowlife, tramp movements, he might have been something like Richard Pryor, who's all of a piece--a master of lyrical obscenity. Pryor is the only great poet satirist among our comics. His lyricism seems to come out of his thin-skinned nature; he's so empathic he's all wired up. His 1979 film "Richard Pryor Live in Concert" was a cosummation of his years as an entertainer, and then some. He had a lifetime of matieral at his fingertips, and he seemed to go beyond himself. He personified objects, animals, people, the warring parts of his own body, even thougts in the heads of men and women--black, white, Oriental--and he seeemed possessed by the spirits he pulled out of himself. To those of us who thougt it was one of the greatest performances we'd ever seen or ever would see, his new one-man show "Richard Pryor Live on the Sunset Strip" may be disappointing yet emotionally stirring.

Pryor was raw but what distinguished him was his vulnerability. It was this quality that helped make him a terrific actor. He was mostly in crappy movies, but he had a great turn in "Lady Sings the Blues" and later in Paul Schrader's "Blue Collar." Pryor was too unhinged to sustain a steady career in movies. He also did a great turn for a Lily Tomlin TV special in the late 70s and his short-lived NBC variety show has its moments and is now available on DVD.

I highly reccommend "Live in Concert" and the three albums I mentnioned above. (Rhino has an excellent compilation "And it's Deep Too," which features all of his classic routines--Black Ben the Blacksmith, Wino and the Junkie, as well as his incomperable storyteller, Mudbone.) I know them all by heart and think they display a kind of brilliance--both moving and threatening, compassionate and hiliarous--that is unique.

Considering all the pain that Pryor experienced in his life, I hope he is in a calmer, more peaceful place now. He was one of the true legends of our time.

Comments
2005-12-10 17:42:13
1.   Sam DC
Funny to land here and learn this news. I was just heaping praise on Richard Pryor on Dodger Thoughts about six months ago (or less or more). When he was on, he was pitch perfect. I was lucky to have him around when I was kid who was just barely old enough to listen (even though I really shouldn't have been). Wonderful elegy, Alex.
2005-12-10 18:25:23
2.   BklynBomber
Nice post, Alex. Pryor was a true American creative, and talk about living a full life, from the bottom to the top, then back and forth — holy shit! — he lived it. One bit I'll always remember was his first standup after recovering from the crack pipe incident, (which fans and critics alike were eagerly anticipating) explaining how he "dipped the cookie... into the milk... and... bang!!!"

RIP, Richard. And thank you.

2005-12-10 18:31:34
3.   Suffering Bruin
I e-mailed him a few months back. I had heard he had a site and that he occasionally responded. I wrote how when my son grows up I'm going to share with him the extraordinary gift I received everytime I saw Richard Pryor perform--lots of laughter.

The reply I got back: "Beautiful!"

I found out later he typed all of his posts the best he could with the help of either his daughter or an assistant. I thought about whether that was him that responded. I pictured him either trying to type or struggling to get a word to describe his feelings. I want to believe the word "Beautiful" came out because I want to believe I gave something to the man who gave so much to us.

I cried then. I'm crying now. And thank you, Alex, for that post.

2005-12-10 19:03:36
4.   wsporter
When he did Live at the Sun Set Strip after his free basing F up and started telling the Richard Prior jokes that everyone had been telling while he was laying in the burn-ward you knew the guy just got it. He was the funniest and the saddest man I ever saw. We were all memorizing Cheech and Chong and Carlin in high school. But it was Richard Pryor we were memorizing and doing in college along with Woody Allen, Firesign Theatre and Bob Newhart. It was the Golden Age of S.N.L. but he was hands down the funniest thing around. I didn't realize this happened till I read your post; I hope your right Alex and he finds a kinder, warmer, happier place. This bites.
2005-12-10 19:51:33
5.   Alex Belth
Yeah, I tell you I'm feeling really sad about it. Like I said, the weird thing is that part of me is thinking it could be any time for a guy like Pryor, but now that it has happened, just seeing some of the old stock photos of him around now that the news is posted, has really got to me. Seeing him in his prime, just realizing how much humanity there was in him--warts and all. That was one guy who bared his ass and his soul for us. Really, I think they thing with him, beyond his wit, and his rage, was the vulnerability. It's what set him apart.

Eddie Murphy is a comedian from my generation and a man of many talents. He picked up what Pryor struggled for years to attain, and ran with it. 48 Hours, then Trading Places and then Beverly Hills Cop. The kid took off like a shot.

Pryor was so close to the bone and emotional that he had the ability to be a great actor (though it was seldom realized because of his choice in movies). Murphy, on the other hand is a picture-perfect movie star, a fantastic mimick. He bit Pryor's routines but brought his own cocky young rock star flair to it. Murphy was pretty and non-threatening in ways that Pryor could never hope to be. He was the boy-next-door, but not a sellout.

But while Murphy has been a great star he's never been a great comedian and certainly not a great actor. Starting with his second album, "Delirous" and especially with his follow-up concert film, "Raw," Murphy proved that he could be as crude as Pryor, as "black" as Pryor. But he missed the vulnerability, the insight and sensitivity. Murphy came across as angry and meanspirited, and his obscenities became redundant and flat. He never achieved the kind of poetry, or the depth of emotion that Pryor conveyed.

If Pryor left it all out in the open for everyone to see, Murphy always held something back, and hid behind the facade of the super-hip comic, the brilliant impersinatior.
You never felt closer to Murphy by watching him, or like you knew him any better. At his best, Murphy has a gift for making you feel like you are in on the joke with him (a trick all the great hipsters, from Bugs Bunny on down all possess). But Pryor went deeper. He exposed himself for his craft. It was a kind of daring that few performers are willing to attempt. But the repsonse he received--and you can feel the empathy, the rapport between Pryor and the audience burst from those great albums--was something special.

I don't mean to put Murphy down here. They both have their strengths, but without the messy genius of Pryor, the smooth, calculated success of Eddie Murphy would likely have never come about.

2005-12-10 20:21:02
6.   wsporter
Alex, I don't think you put Eddie Murphy down, they were different. You always had the sense that there was something heavy and powerful and wealthy behind Eddie Murphy. You never had that sense with Richard Pryor. He was, at his height and in his time, an archetypal counter culture figure. And you're right he did display a vulnerability that I think all great comedians display, its their humanity on parade. It's what allows us to put ourselves in their place. You knew that Pryor was way out there alone on a limb and he was sawing it off the tree just as fast as he could. I think its how he showed us he was one of us. Its weird but I think Newhart does or did the same sort of thing with that stammer of his and that nerdy I'm an accountant stance. Just in a very different way.

Richard Pryor was so human. With him you were watching someone you thought was funny and cool yet tragically vulnerable, he was absolutely compelling. How could you not identify with him, especially as a young person. Thanks for this tonight.

2005-12-10 21:24:46
7.   Rich
I think Pryor has as much influence on white comedians who came after him as those that are black.

btw, He was great in several SNL episodes, including this one:

http://snltranscripts.jt.org/75/75ginterview.phtml

2005-12-11 06:41:46
8.   Simone
Eddie Murphy was the comedian of my generation also. I first heard Richard Pryor when visiting a friend who had his "That Nigger's Crazy" album. Richard Pryor's comedy was funny, but it was also devastatingly painful and uncomfortable. As someone who wasn't a big fan of comedy, I didn't even know there was could be that kind of difference. Thanks, Richard. Rest in Peace.
2005-12-11 06:44:56
9.   Matt B
Great piece, Alex, and your Murphy-Pryor comparison was spot-on.

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