Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Rest In Peace, Richard Pryor

RIP Richard Pryor

“God bless the child that got his own.” - Billie Holiday

I was culling the Internet for news and ideas for commentaries early Sunday morning and I saw a post that greatly saddened me, comedian Richard Pryor made his transition to the spirit realm. He died Saturday evening in Encino Hospital near LA following a heart attack. For those who don’t know, Richard Pryor was the seminal voice of black comedic genius, one of a long line of oral story tellers, tricksters, mimics and wise crackers who took that genre to another level altogether. In many ways Richard Pryor was the Charlie Parker of comedy. Pryor was a certified genius whose keen insight into the human condition juxtaposed against his own personal struggles for artistic integrity amid the virulent realities of race and color oppression in AmeriKKKa shaped both his art and his personality. I watched his progression from a naturally funny guy who told safe, acceptable jokes and stories about chemicals in deodorant to a black man who told political jokes that mirrored the times; like his joke about Frankenstein on a bad LSD trip who morphed into President Lyndon B. Johnson. Then out of nowhere Pryor evolved into the outrageous story teller and chronicler of black life who genuinely shocked the world with his wit, truth and candor. Pryor exhibited a classic example of what black psychologist Dr. Joe White calls gallows humor. He made fun of himself and the myriad changes he was going through at any particular time in his own life whether it was abut his family members, male-female relationships, his drug addiction, his heart attack or his sharing of an epiphany on a trip to African where he saw Africans running their country and conducting business and he vowed never to use the N word again in his act.
Like Redd Foxx, Dick Gregory and Bill Cosby before him Pryor blazed trails for future comedians to follow. But Pryor singled handedly pushed the envelop of acceptable humor. I remember when his was starting to blow up right after he appeared in the Watts Stax film; he was booked at the flashy Latin Casino in Cherry Hill New Jersey near Philadelphia. Some friends, my wife and I stood outside in a long line waiting to get in to see him. The lines were sooo long and it was all black folks; but the mood was festive in anticipation of seeing The Man. Total strangers were laughing and talking together wondering what Pryor was going to say or do to turn the place out. A couple was standing in front of us in line, the brother turned around and said matter of factly, “Ain’t this a bitch, all these N... standing in line in Cherry Hill New Jersey just to see Richard Pryor tell jokes.” The brother hit it on the head because at that time not many black performers were booked at the Latin Casino, only those with wide crossover appeal, folks like Ray Charles, Sammy Davis Jr or Aretha Franklin. Richard Pryor did not disappoint. There was something about him, something that resonated with everyday ordinary folks, something we connected with that made us love him and appreciate him in spite of the numerous crazy episodes and outlandish stuff he did in his personal life. He boldly and routinely uttered seriously outrageous and heavy stuff about life. Things we might have thought about, but when he said it, he made it funny!! He shook his fist at life and bounced back even more bodaciously when life kicked him in dead in his ass. On top of that, Pryor had the audacity to make jokes about it!! I first saw him on some white bread TV show in the mid ‘60's when it was a rarity for blacks to be featured on network television. He was doing funny material, his body language and facial expressions enhanced his performance but you could see here was a seriously funny dude. But back then his material was safe. A friend of mine’s parents had one of his earlier albums and we would sneak to listen to it. It was funny but was no where near as funny as he would become. I followed Richard Pryor’s career as he took the entertainment world by storm. Over the years it seemed Pryor would self-destruct because Hollywood and the show biz world weren’t ready for an authentic black man. His quest for integrity took its toll on him. It seems, just like most black folks growing up in dysfunctional AmeriKKKa, this nations fixation with racial and color caste seeped into Pryor’s personal life early. According to Pryor, he grew up in Peoria Illinois and spent much of his time living with his grandmother who ran a brothel. It was these experiences, the raw sights and sounds of unpretentious ordinary black life that provided the wellspring for Pryor’s later comedic material. The characters like Mudbone the quintessential philosopher , the wino and of course Pryor’s own personal life were the cliff notes he used to tell his stories.
Once Pryor hit the silver screen, he became larger than life. Even in the C grade blaxpolitation films like Adios Amigos, Pryor’s charisma was evident. And in his more serious films like Lady Sings The Blues his genius shined through brilliantly. At one time Pryor was so big, he appeared in one of the Superman movies and he got paid more than the actor who played Superman! In recent years Pryor was slowed physically by the debilitating affects of Multiple Sclerosis, but he never lost his sense of humor nor from I could see in interviews his zest for life. I’m sure he wondered how and why MS happened o him but like always he just bounced back and kept on keepin’ on. He even continued to perform stand up (pardon the shameless pun) in comedy clubs until his health made it too difficult. On Saturday, December 10,2005 Richard Pryor shed his frail mortal robe and took flight into the spirit world. He leaves to honor his memory, a host of imitators (although no one ever could duplicate him), countless admirers and rabid fans, including me. Rest in Peace Richard.



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