Unlike Biggie, Richard Pryor really was ready to die. When I interviewed him a few years ago, he told me what bothered him the most about his MS was not being able to jump around like he used to, reminding us that this most verbal of men was also as physically comedic as Chaplin. For those reasons Pryor’s demise was a sweet release, a right fitting and proper breaking on through to that other side. Yet it remains a mournful event for the rest of us because, like Baldwin, Pryor—or “Richard,” as we knew him in the ’70s, because he was the only Richard you could possibly be talking about—always seemed less a negro celebrity than a beloved family member, one whose death automatically becomes a nostalgic reminder that better, funkier days are behind us. Like the equally monumental departures of Rosa Parks and Luther Vandross, his exit throws into relief the incredible triteness of Black American being in this historical moment.
I have no doubt Dave Chappelle remembered that the 40 million bucks Pryor got from Columbia Pictures was the beginning of the end of his ability to control the forces around him and within him. But I also know that Pryor, like every Black badass muhfuh of his generation, made his public self-destruction into a work of art and an object lesson in how Soul is a terrible thing to waste. We’re smarter about money, careers, and lawyers now thanks to Pryor and Ali, who not only raised the price tag on performative Black culture but rendered unto it the currency it has today. What’s been lost in the Faustian nigga bargain is that fearless, breakneck do- or-die-for-the-art-and-The-People ethic Pryor and Miles and Nina and Jimi and Marvin brought to the Culture—that quality of tortured, intrepid, and successful Black genius looking into an abyss that winked back before they laughed, then leaped into that mother, spearfishing for pearls. Lauryn Hill, D’Angelo, and Dave Chappelle are as gifted, charismatic, and sharp as any who’ve come before, but you get the sense they’d all rather just be crazy than be the kind of crazy about your art that has you drop a That Nigger’s Crazy, Bicentennial Nigger, Is It Something I Said?, or a What’s Going On, Let’s Get It On, and Here My Dear in rapid succession.
Point being that Pryor recognized how that kind of work demanded a protection of one’s nuts, one’s nerve, and one’s nakedness at the same time. In that regard he may have been born with a leg up on the rest of us, for Pryor was raised in a brothel where his grandmother was the madam and his mother was one of her sex workers. So though he tried hard to be one of Cosby’s kids early on, he could never be comfortable in that role. When he decided it was time to get real, he took his inspiration from two other mavericks of the depths, Lenny Bruce and Malcolm X. Two of his best friends, Jim Brown and Miles Davis, were also his two of his major icons, but superfreakish Black machismo was not his mask or mission. What Pryor poked and prodded us with instead was raging Black male vulnerability served on a stick, his own mostly, hung way out there to dry and never snatched back. As in the bit where he tells his lover hows he’s going to get some new pussy and his lover cuts back with how he’d find some new pussy right at home if he had an inch more dick.
His was the kind of comedy that often took a bullet for the home team and wrapped the humanity of the ‘hood in a bow. Pryor practically invented the golden-egg ghettocentricity we lust for today, but never just for a punch line’s sake—as raw as he could get you knew he was only doing it because the Black and human truths he was relating demanded every nigger shit fuck that came out his monologist mouth. Never more refined as a story-telling tool than on That Nigger’s Crazy, the greatest Black pop album of 1974 and we now know the most prophetic. That was the year you couldn’t go to any Black home in Chocolate City, from Anacostia to the Gold Coast, and not find it on infinite repeat and folk laid out convulsed with hysteria. You have to go to Chekhov or Edward P. Jones to find small lives rendered with as much epic detail and epiphanal force as Pryor unveils on that albums “Wino & Junkie,” a hellacious and ruthlessly hilarious vision of life beneath the underdog that erects a totem to Black male oblivion out of the parsed lines his Boswell wino relates about his junkie Johnson. “Nigger used to be a genius, I ain’t lying, booked the numbers didn’t need paper or pencil. Now the nigger don’t know who he is.”
The apotheosis of Pryor’s commitment to truth in stand-up came in his film masterpieces Live in Concert, Live on Sunset Strip, Here and Now, and Live and Smoking, where he rose from freebase ashes and essayed on addiction, self-immolation, and killing the car his wife was trying to leave him in, and indelibly portrayed himself having a heart attack like his aorta was using him for a conga drum. Any list of Pryor’s greatest hits would also include all his Carson appearances and his sweet duets with Lily Tomlin. With the films there’s good, there’s great, and there’s atrocious, but, Denzel notwithstanding, more solid stuff to choose from than any Black actor besides Poitier when you think about it. He’s a scene-stealing riot in my favorite blaxpolitation flick The Mack; a heartbreaking wonder of empathy as Piano Man in Lady Sings The Blues; a slapstick marvel in Which Way Is Up?; a working-class hedonist in Blue Collar; and a fake Spanish jokebutt in Bingo Long. Silver Streak and Stir Crazy, his buddy movies with Gene Wilder, are as good as crossover vehicles can get. There some in there you wish he’d never made too, like Superman III and most egregiously The Toy, with Eddie Murphy’s Harlem Nights not far behind. But though the qualitative gap between his stand-up and his films was wide enough to drive a fleet of Humvees through, Pryor’s career in total was a masterpiece of how to keep it moving. While being Black ain’t easy and the pretend Blackness of most comedians might be the epitome of laziness, Pryor took on the same challenge as Miles, Sun Ra, and George Clinton. With the fluidity of bebop and the cutthroat poetics of the blues, he made Blackness articulate and conceptual in ways that respected nuance and transcended mimicry and minstrelsy. So that Pryor’s greatest gift to his comedic sons and daughters—Chris Rock, the Saturday Night Live Eddie Murphy, Dave Chappelle, The Boondocks‘s Aaron McGruder, Sarah Silverman, and Wanda Sykes—lies in demonstrating that while any fool can be Black and funny, coaxing bellylaughs out of Black and confrontational requires the gift of tongues and a funnybone made of pure balls. Peace go with you Rich.