The world of movies and television is given to hyperbole; everybody is a star, and utterly fantastic. The irony of this is that they usually fail to see or recognise when something truly significant happens. The shooting star that was Richard Pryor changed Hollywood’s perception of, and the manner in which they dealt with black America. There may have been Negro performers before he arrived, but there weren’t any black ones.
His death on Saturday, December 10th was a reminder of how recently that change actually occurred. He was the first African American performer who wasn’t safe. He didn’t tell cute jokes about the ghetto, or have any catch phrases to make a studio audience laugh.
While most of white America was laughing at Good Times’ trivialization of life in the inner city, Richard Pryor was rubbing his audiences’ faces in the reality of being a black man in America in the 1970’s. Even his short-lived television show pushed the envelope at times, so much so that he would run into problems with the network.
Like a lot of great many stand-up and sketch comics, his talents never seemed to make a really good transfer over to the movie screen. Silver Streak, the first of his pairings with Gene Wilder, was by far the best of them but very few of them allowed him to fully utilize his talents. Even the autobiographical Jo Jo Dancer, You Life Is Calling was more a personal catharsis than a good movie.
But it was a distinguishing mark of the man’s career; his ability and willingness to face up to truths about himself in public. Richard Pryor was the first comic I saw who wasn’t funny. He was brilliant in that, like Lenny Bruce, his material was too honest to be really funny. You laughed at his routines because it fell a little better than crying.
How many comedians today have the honesty to make the type of jokes he did? In 1980, he was severely burned after setting himself on fire while free-basing cocaine. He would later incorporate the incident into his routine by commenting on “how quickly people get out of your way when you’re on fire”.
Long before it became fashionable for celebrities to check into detoxification centres and deal with their problems in public on “The Oprah Show”, Richard Pryor had the courage and the strength to turn his life around. When he was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS), I often wondered how much his previous drug lifestyle could have played a role in it. Quite a few people I’ve known who were heavy drug users, especially chemicals that affect the nervous system, developed MS later in life.
Although when compared to even the language in some rap songs these days, his was pretty mild, a big deal was made about the profanity he used during his stand-ups. Compare him with subsequent performers like Eddie Murphy however, and you understand the difference between in context and gratuitous.
In the time period that Mr. Pryor worked and performed, a black man had never gotten up on stage and been human before, even Bill Cosby had shuffled a bit for his audience with his cute stories of Fat Albert and Weird Harold. There was nothing cute or kowtowing about Mr. Pryor, and his language was an integral part of ensuring that characterization.
How important was Mr. Pryor? Well, he was the first black male actor to be able to write his own ticket with studios, signing a five-year multi-picture deal with Columbia for $40 million in 1983. Look at the people who were involved with his television show in the seventies. It was directed by Robert Altman (Mash, Gosford Park and many more) and featured young comics by the names of Robin Williams, Sandra Bernhardt, and Tim Reid.
His influence and inspiration went far beyond just African American comedians. He blazed the trail for making comedy dangerous again. For the first time since Lenny Bruce, a comic was doing social commentary and testing the limits of free speech. While Lenny was brought down by drug addiction and court battles over his language, Pryor triumphed over the former and redefined the latter for generations of comics to come
Seeing him brought down by MS later in life was sad. Here was a man who had brought pride to the screen for African American men, reduced to someone dependent on others for almost everything. Even then he was still able to laugh and be brave enough to portray a less than sympathetic disabled man on the television show Chicago Hope.
Hopefully, when people remember Richard Pryor, it will be for his honesty and integrity, not for the mediocre movies he made that were unable showcase his talents. During the bleak, bland years of the seventies,, he was one of the few bright spots amidst the great mass of mediocrity. For that, if nothing else we owe him a debt of gratitude.