by Barry Michael Cooper
(originally published in City Paper, 12.28.2005)
Did u know Rchrd Pryr died?
This is the message I got on my Sprint Mobile on Saturday, Dec. 10, 6:20 p.m. At the time I had just returned home from the Barnes and Noble at the Inner Harbor, hypermanic from a double espresso and the fact that I was quoted by primo art critic and curator Franklin Sirmans in the latest book on Jean-Michel Basquiat. But that frozen text staring back at me from the midget screen brought all of my egocentric spin to a grinding halt.
Rchrd Pryr: Richard Pryor, the Original King of Comedy, was dead at 65 years old.
I was stunned, because like the rest of us who had watched this comic genius being gradually dismantled by multiple sclerosis to a sad, near vegetative state, I still couldn’t believe it. Or maybe I just couldn’t accept the fact that Pryor’s death personally represented the end of an era. That happens when we turn human beings who have died (Kennedy, King, Lennon, Tupac, Cobain, B.I.G., you fill in the blank) into icons, and then into personal chronological markers inking the time line of our lives. And when the ink dries, it tends to put our mortality in italics, too.
I can remember, 26 summers ago on my 21st birthday, sniffing $400 of “fish scale” coke for the first time (elasticized from a $200 purchase by a new deck of Ace playing cards, a triple-beam balance, and Bonita baby laxative) at a friend’s apartment in the Gladys Hampton Houses in Harlem, while almost passing out laughing to an obscure Pryor album titled Craps. (A redneck drill sergeant to his Marine recruits, teaching them martial arts: “Kick! Godd*&#%$, I said kick!” And then Pryor makes the sound of a really hard THUD!, before mimicking the macho officer’s falsetto response: “Class dismissed!”)
I can remember swallowing a transparent wafer of “blotta” acid for the last time, while working on the “flats” conveyer belt at the Madison Square Garden post office, simultaneously separating the metered from the stamped envelopes and doing the Patty Duke while singing along to Kool and the Gang’s “Ladies Night” with a few other dope-fiends/co-workers as we heard the news that Pryor had set himself on fire while freebasing. In that moment, it seemed like GOD was telling me to stop getting high before I wound up like that fool. Flash-forward to Oct. 19, 1980, after a two-day nose-bleed/vomit session resulting from sniffing a fiddy of some bad rock that was supposed to be flake. My bad, because I forgot to follow the ’Hood Consumer Report caveat and take a freeze on the gums and tongue before any perico consumption. My good, because it was the last time I got high, thank GOD. Good look, Rich.
Unlike his show-biz spermatozoa—Eddie Murphy, Dave Chappelle, Jamie Foxx, and Martin Lawrence—we never saw Richard Pryor in a gossip column. No blind items from Ted Casablancas or Mary Hart about some hot young black comic jogging down Hollywood Boulevard in boxer shorts after smoking a spliff of Oooh-WEE!. No picking up a whoa!-Man? on Santa Monica with big knuckles and chest hair and a glottis the size of a Granny Smith, who later mysteriously falls out of a apartment window and splatters all over Santa Monica Boulevard before penning a tell-all on the ha-ha kid whose portrayal of a CGI donkey sidekick to a green ogre with a Scottish brogue grosses 80 gazillion. No running away from $50 million in Comedy Central money and the most successful TV DVD to date, all the way to soothing South African shores of Durban, trailed by whispers of a crack habit as long and fiery as a comet’s tail.
Never that. Pryor put his biz in the street.
In the years that followed the King, Kennedy, and Malcolm X assassinations, a Tricky Dick-led flimflam presidential administration, an unjust war in Vietnam, and damaged civil rights at home, Pryor’s honest commentary was more than just refreshing. To see him act out a bad acid trip, replete with odd voices and painful looking body contortions; to see his eyes set to beat-down mode when Chevy Chase floated the word “nigger” to Pryor as a job applicant in the classic word-association skit on Saturday Night Live (Chase: “Jungle Bunny!” Pryor: “Honky!” Chase: “Spade!” Pryor “Honky honky!” Chase: “Niggerrrrrr.” Pryor: “Dead Honky!!”); to hear the spot-on racial mimicry of the differences between black guys and white guys when they don’t get the draws on the first date; to hear Pryor turn gut-ripping pathos into piss-pants humor, recalling his father hurrying the pastor along to inter his deceased wife at the graveyard because of the inclement weather (“Hurry up and bury the bitch. It’s cold out here . . . ”)—it was a cultural rebirth. Pryor’s candor seemed to help unify the fractious masses. His comedy didn’t attack whites, nor did it condemn blacks. Pryor just snapped a collective Polaroid of connected consciousness and let it dry for us to see that we were not as different as we seemed.
So it was no wonder that Robin Williams’ humanist-Sybil-on-crystal-meth shtick was cribbed from copious notes taken when he was one of the featured performers on Pryor’s short-lived NBC variety show. Williams was mining for the truth.
And it was no wonder that movies like Silver Streak and Stir Crazy (both co-starring Gene Wilder) were two of first comedies to gross more than $50 million and $100 million, respectively, or that Wanted: Richard Pryor on the Sunset Strip was the highest-grossing live comedy film ever, cha-chinging to the tune of more than $30 mil, until Eddie Murphy’s Raw shut the game down with over $50 million. As a nation, as a culture, and as a people, we, too, were mining for the truth, that Neil Young Heart of Gold, because we were gettin’ old. We were thirsty for the reals. Pryor’s frankness saturated our drought.
However, Pryor’s expressway of public disclosure had its speed bumps. Not all comedians lived for the rush of flying the freak flag at the top of the mast for the whole ever-lovin’ world to see, and especially not Uncle Miltie. Red Buttons, Sid Caesar, Jackie Gleason, Jerry Lewis, and Milton Berle represented a generation of comedians who kept their private life private and their public life fraudulent—that’s what gentlemen of the guffaw profession were expected to do.
So when the pompous but emotionally fragile Berle began to unexpectedly use a November 1974 episode of popular TV chat fest The Mike Douglas Show as a tear-clogged, videotaped confessional—embarking on a mewling jag about an actress he wouldn’t name, whom he sequestered to Meh-hee-ko to have an abortion for their love child in the late ’30s, and how his mother always taught him to respect women—fellow guest Pryor began to chuckle uncontrollably.
And so did the audience. Pryor even blurted out a name. I’m not sure if he exposed the name of the actress Berle was trying to cloak, but it was embarrassing, spectacular, spontaneous, and powerful television, a moment that had me and my usually unflappable dad watching with our mouths open with wonder.
Pryor’s spotty, childlike chuckle—like a kid in the back pew of Sunday school trying to squelch his laughter at the jackleg preacher’s busted Afro and countrified accent—began to grow into uncontrollable amusement, as Berle’s animus at Pryor’s lack of empathy and show-biz decorum grew, too. When Berle tapped Pryor under the chin lightly with a clenched fist and growled, “Pick your spots, Baby”—read: “Watch your place, nigger”—it was on and poppin’. Pryor leaned back like Fat Joe and said—“In his trademark pubescent falsetto,” as described by Village Voice writer James Hannaham, in his 2001 account of the infamous talk-show event—“I laughed because it’s funny, man! The insanity of all this is funny!”
Though the applause among the studio audience was scattered, it was vigorous, and it seemed to break the back of Berle’s grotesque story and profane condescension, so much so that Berle scurried to gain ego points. Near the end of the show, a Russian bear trainer came out with his 700-pound, declawed charge and it tossed a beach ball toward Pryor. Berle jumped up off his stool and squealed, “Look! It’s the Niggras Brothers!” Pryor calmly looked at Berle, and then a stunned Douglas, and then the studio audience, and then broke the fourth wall with a droll smirk that was much louder and much stiffer than a fuck you or a middle finger.
Richard Pryor. The ultimate populist. The real people’s champ.
Of course, Pryor was no easier on himself. He would hurry to incorporate a potentially devastating personal faux pas into an impromptu stand-up at Mitzi Shore’s Comedy Store on Sunset Boulevard or the Comedy Factory few miles up the road. This was an attempt to circumvent the gossipmongers and the media carrion eaters, and at least own that part of his life, if nothing else. Pryor learned early on that info is power in Hollywon’t, and secrets sucked off by pillow talk will not only put you on blast in the tabloids (and now the internet), but they can be used to control, pimp, and eventually raze a performer flying too high (literally and figuratively). I’m sure Pryor figured if anybody was going to do that, it might as well be the man he ranted to in the mirror.
To watch Richard Pryor’s transformation from a hyperanimated comic genius who played the stage higher and faster than Air Jordan played the boards during his round-six/six-ring Kiss the Game Goodbye tour, bigger and deffer than Jigga putting the stage on smash during his Fade to Black extravaganza at the Garden, to an angry, muted proxy of himself in recent years proved discomforting and discombobulating, to say the least. To say there will never be another Richard Pryor is an understatement. Yes, Chappelle is sharp, but $50 mil got him twisted and bent out of his psyche, so, uhhhhh, I’m going to let that marinate and not pass that crown so fast.
I was in the audience sitting with Allen Payne at Sweetwaters supper club in the shadow of New York’s Lincoln Center back in August 1991 for the pilot taping of Def Comedy Jam when Chris Rock hosted Adele Givens, Hamburger, and a blur of young, gifted, and black comedians blowing a blue streak of one-liners and ghetto tableaus out of their mouths. They missed the lesson Pryor was teaching. He cursed to get your attention and make an insightful point. His raciest vignettes had depth, from the voodoo priestess with the nipples that winked like eyes to the superendowed drifters taking a whiz from a bridge with joints so long they could kiss the sky or touch the river, making one proclaim, “Say, the whatter cold.” His obviously longer friend comments, “Yeah, and it deep, too!”
“And it deep, too,” wasn’t lost on all of the young comics. I witnessed this for myself back almost nine Junes ago when I was working with Arsenio Hall on a movie for Sony Pictures that never materialized. I was to meet Hall this night at the Comedy Store on Sunset. I marveled at the framed black-and-whites wallpapering the hallway: Pryor, Williams, Letterman, Murphy, Crystal. This was hallowed ground for those young dysfunctional folk who wanted to make a career of us laughing at their misery. Inside, the place was pitch black and the aisles were narrow, so as Hall waved me over, my 6-foot-2, nervous, 285-pound knock-kneed ass knocked over drinks en route to his table in the back of the room, and I almost tripped over a wheelchair.
I heard a familiar, if soft and slurred, voice say, “Hey, watch it, man. What’s wrong with you?!” I couldn’t see the person but apologized profusely. Once I sat down next to Hall, he smiled that hyena smile of his and whispered, “You know who that is sitting next to you, right?” I shook my head no. “It’s Pryor.”
I slowly turned to my right, and Richard Pryor—at this point, in 1996, he was addled by the MS but still very articulate—just looked at me like I was stupid. But it made me smile like a kid, and he flashed a small smile, too. He shook his head at me, before his final wife, the loyal Jenny Lee, wheeled him to the stage. My heart started pumping fast. I was about to see Pryor turn it out, in person!
He began talking about his adventures smoking crack, and how God was now punishing him for smoking crack, and how angry he was at God, but how he kind of understood how God had to make him an example. It was downhill from there, as my 1970s hero began to melt down in public. Lee wheeled him back to where Hall and I were sitting, as the packed club showered Pryor with polite if not pathetic applause. I sat with my neck stiff and looked straight ahead, because I felt bad, and I almost wanted to cry.
That was until Eddie Griffin hit the stage. He took the mic and said to all of us, “Let me try to translate what this crazy nigga was trying to say.” And for the next 20 minutes he did just that. I slowly turned to my right and watched Pryor laugh—I mean, really chuckle, to the point where his breathing was almost belabored—and I watched tears streak down his cheeks. And in that moment, I was aware that Richard Pryor not only realized that his words, his ideas, and his humor had power, but they had a life of their own.
And it’s deep, too. Good night, King Richard.