And It's Twisty Too

If anyone qualified as a Not Ready for Prime Time Player, though, it was Pryor. He struggled against his crossover jones so hard that the series spawned by the special went belly-up after four episodes. Pryor subsequently divided his time between stand-up and B films, and aside from an unsuccessful 1984 CBS series, only appeared in cameos on TV. But the late '70s saw his most fertile stand-up period—inevitably, the worst part of his life created the best part of his art. By Wanted: Richard Pryor (1978), his anecdotes had veered away from universal observation and rushed headlong into self-reference. Megastardom thrust his drug habit, heart attack, ballistic divorces, suicide attempt, and womanizing into the public sphere. So he took advantage of the fact that America loves to absolve a sinner as long as it gets to hear all the sordid details. When he spared himself the least, he earned the most attention and money. This is such a complicated position for an African American man to occupy that it'd take a dissertation to completely unpack.

That Pryor had the most audacious mind and imagination of any comic his age just adds complication. His signature method is to personify some aspect of a situation. In the routine about his heart attack, he imagines his heart saying, "Don't breathe, motherfucker!" The crack pipe tells him not to go out: "We've got smoking to do!" His dick talks to him. Dogs talk to him. Monkeys fuck him in the ear and shout at him. You could read into this technique a measure of paranoia and some considerable desire to deflect responsibility, but ascribing his genius to addict behavior alone is ass-backward. All aspects of his fractured identity grind against one another to create the unexpected twists and turns of his humor. In an early routine he advises, "Don't marry a white woman in California," then—suddenly self-conscious—continues, "A lot of you sisters are like, 'Don't marry a white woman anyway.' " The punch line comes from left field: "Shit, why should you be happy?"

Richard Pryor told the truth but told it slant, leaving room for humor to sneak in.
photo: Henry Diltz
Richard Pryor told the truth but told it slant, leaving room for humor to sneak in.


Richard Pryor
. . . And Its Deep Too: The Complete Warner Bros. Recordings (19751992)
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Since Pryor's personality is nearly indistinguishable from his humor, it's all the more poignant that the climactic routine on the unsparing, quirky ninth CD, That African-American Is Still Crazy, consists of material about MS, impotence, disagreements with his penis, and his resultant inability to get pussy. Terminal illnesses, contrary to expectation, are a shallow mine for comedy. A clown facing real doom is too frightening to produce more than an uncomfortable chuckle, as comedians exist, after all, to help people forget that they're going to die. Accordingly, the most self-aware moment in a boxful of self-aware routines arrives on the rarities CD's "My Funeral." "I want to be cremated," Pryor declares. "Sprinkle my ashes in about two pounds of cocaine. Snort me up!"

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