Andy Kaufman frequently bragged that he was a stand-up comedian who never told a joke. In his late career, Richard Pryor stopped telling jokes too—and now MS has limited his other activities as well. He liked to exaggerate, stretching the logic of his material to absurd conclusions, but his most effective comedy was deceptively simple. He told the truth but told it slant, providing the necessary distance for humor to sneak in. His first comedy act, he explains in the shaky autobiography Pryor Convictions, consisted of deliberately slipping in a pile of dogshit for his grandmother’s amusement. His most famous monologue recounts a suicide attempt by self-immolation, an act so unspeakable that conventional wisdom has chosen to record it as a freebasing accident. “Have you ever heard of a motherfucker burning up freebasing other than me?” he asks.
That devastating routine from Live on the Sunset Strip has now been reissued along with eight other out-of-print albums as the box set . . . And It’s Deep Too! No doubt seeded by Pryor’s 1998 Kennedy Center honors and Mark Twain Award, not to mention rampant speculation about his imminent demise, the collection is limited to his Warner Bros. output. Though it elegantly delineates the arc of Pryor’s career from the club-circuit cult figure of Richard Pryor to the iconoclastic superstar of Sunset Strip, it also gives the false impression that his best material was his best known, omitting, for example, the pivotal Craps (After Hours), his first venture into the self-revealing style he perfected, reissued along with several other missing albums by Loose Cannon in the mid ’90s. Recordings, of course, also deny access to Pryor’s gift for physical comedy; since a third of this compilation is available in concert film form, one feels a little robbed having to imagine what face black women make when they see a small dick. Given the consistently B quality of Pryor’s film acting, the box may lead to the conclusion that Richard Pryor left his most indelible marks on television and hip-hop consciousness. He won Grammies and Emmies, after all, and Jo Jo Dancer wasn’t even nominated. You can imagine Eddie Murphy happening without Pryor, but not 2 Live Crew, N.W.A, Lil’ Kim, 3000 lame “skits,” or least of all, Chris Rock.
In November of 1974, while guest-hosting The Mike Douglas Show, Pryor provided perhaps the best example of what kind of person and artist he would become, giving America the opportunity to compare and contrast post-Lenny Bruce, post-civil rights comedy with crusty, moribund vaudeville. In an early segment, an earnest if addled Pryor describes to a nervously chuckling Douglas how, as a child, he’d enjoyed drowning rats in the bathtub of the Peoria, Illinois, whorehouse where he grew up. Then Pryor bursts into tears when his childhood drama teacher Juliette Whittaker makes a surprise visit. In brilliantly childlike fashion, he leaps up and reenacts a scene from an adaptation of Rumpelstiltskin he’d performed in at age 15. By the time Milton Berle shows up to promote a confessional autobiography, Pryor’s at fever pitch.
Berle, who made his reputation pretending to be the prick he actually was, sits between Douglas and Pryor, demanding to be taken seriously. During a particularly awkward Berle story about taking a young actress to Tijuana to get an abortion in 1931, Pryor lets out a short burst of laughter. Berle ignores him and continues, earnestly pledging never to reveal the woman’s identity. “I’d better keep saying ‘Linda Smith,’ ” he says. “I hope I don’t slip and say who it is.” Pryor blurts out a name. It’s unclear whether or not he’s exposed Berle, but the elder comedian is perturbed, and attempts to protect himself by balancing superciliousness on top of condescension. “Pick your spots, baby,” he warns Pryor, chucking him under the chin. Pryor backtracks, yelping in his trademark pubescent falsetto, “I laughed ’cause it’s funny, man! The insanity of all this is funny!”
It’s a profound misunderstanding. In Berle’s generation, clear boundaries existed between tragedy and comedy, personal and private. Henny Youngman’s one-liners about marital strife came closer to autobiographical humor than most. Nevertheless, comedians then as now were among the most frustrated, insecure, and emotionally twisted of artists. Pryor’s generation, on the crest of a larger cultural wave, drowned the hypocrisy of Berle’s era in naked, cathartic confession, and as Berle demonstrates, this was impossible for the older guys to comprehend—they thought tragedy was the opposite of comedy. The only essential difference between Berle’s tragedy and Pryor’s comedy was the Dirty Speech Movement and a kilo of coke.
In his autobiography, the comedian recalls his work on The Richard Pryor Special? as a hellish battle against NBC’s censors, but his inability to shout “motherfucker” for a cheap laugh produced a milestone—one of the blackest, most hilarious in mainstream television up to that time, often cited as a precursor to In Living Color (where Pryor collaborator Paul Mooney was head writer). His sensibility remained intact, even gained some weight—its accessibility only increased its subversiveness. Pryor viciously sends up money-grubbing preachers, lets hoodlums rip off the police, parodies Gladys Knight & the Pips, and performs a weird, quasi-O’Neill drunk-people-in-a-bar play, at the end of which Maya Angelou lends a creaky pathos to the whole endeavor in the role of his dutiful wife. Cameos include Sandra Bernhard as the white girl backing up the Black Panthers who take over Pryor’s writing staff, and John Belushi as a slave-ship captain.
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?”
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!”