I first heard Richard Pryor about the time “That Nigger’s Crazy” came out. How old was I? High school, I guess. Lived in an all-white neighborhood, but I’d read Dick Gregory’s autobiography and was the usual desperately-seeking-hipness white suburban girl, so while I can’t say I was shocked, I will say that I laughed my ass off. Who wouldn’t? The guy was hilarious.
I found a strange backwater of Rotten.com with a Pryor bio that resurrected some of his routines from that era. This one is typical, with some dead-on commentary from an anonymous writer at Rotten.com:
Pryor’s racial observations were about as tame as dialogue written for Apu on The Simpsons — but his frenetic, sociologically-aware inflections gave his stories overarching comic weight. Pinched, uptight impersonations of white people were delivered with depressing believability, and always worth the price of admission. White folks do things a lot different than niggas. They eat quieter. Pass the potatoes, thank you darling, could I have a bit of that sauce. How are the kids coming along with their studies? Do you think we’ll be having sexual intercourse tonight? We’re not? Well, what the heck? The text alone is hardly funny if you’ve been contaminated by the contemporary recycling of it by the likes of Sinbad.
I remember him sketching out the downfall of Leon Spinks, knocking on his coke dealer’s door:
What you want, Leon?
A dollar-fiddy cent worth of cocaine.
Of course Richard Pryor could say that because you know that at one time he was probably the one scratching at the man’s door with six quarters in his hand. You look at Pryor and you think, if he could be that funny when he was high (because, for years and years, he was always high), what could he have been sober?
I like to think he wouldn’t have made so many crappy movies. Although I liked him in “Lady Sings the Blues,” a movie Alan refused to watch earlier this year. (“Diana Ross as Billie Holiday?!?”)
Today Neil Steinberg reprinted a portion of a column he wrote five years ago, when Pryor’s hometown of Peoria, Ill., refused to name a street after him. I think he gets it exactly right:
Richard Pryor was raised in a whorehouse in Peoria. His grandma was a madam and his mom was a hooker.
A stark way to put it, but then Richard Pryor never minced words.
“I was born in Pee-oria, Illinois,” he said, beginning his famous Mudbone routine. “What’s that?” a heckler shouted, in the version I listened to for solace after hearing that Pryor’s hometown is snubbing him. “That’s a city, nickel,” Pryor explained, not using the word “nickel” but a word that, on his lips, sounded very much like it.
Pryor’s hometown declined to honor him last week. The city council voted 6-5 to reject a proposal to name a street for the comedian.
To be expected, of course, as unsurprising as stale bread. Artists escape their backwater boondock hometowns only to be forever tweaked by them, long distance. Oak Park mostly cringed from Ernest Hemingway while he was alive, only recently finding its sense of pride, prodded not by sudden literary sense, but by hunger for tourist dollars.
Rejecting Pryor is the Peoria City Council’s way of striking a blow against the drug menace. Only two thoughts are in the public mind today at the mention of Richard Pryor’s name: drugs and obscenity.
Everyone knows that Pryor ruined his life with cocaine, burning himself horribly while on a crack binge in 1980. We know it so well because Pryor mined his tragedy for laughs, as he always did. But that really doesn’t matter. We are an unforgiving people, particularly when it comes to drugs. All those prisons we keep building are testimony to that.
He wasn’t just a comic who took drugs and swore. He was the man who introduced mainstream white America to the black underclass. He created a world of wonderful characters — drifters and deadbeats, junkies and winos and young sharpies and old storytellers like Mudbone. (“He’d dip snuff and he’d sit in front of the barbecue pit and he’d spit,” Pryor said. “See, that was his job. I was pretty sure that was his job because that’s all he did.”)
They were the ones white America never thought about before, never considered human, until Richard Pryor came along and gave them a voice.
Without humor, white America wouldn’t have cared. But Pryor was so funny he cut through the indifference.
A person who could ignore 100 serious journalistic ghetto exposes would pay cash money to hear Pryor talk about the very same group, only as individuals.
If we think of culture as having a boundary, a line between the glittery, golden fake surface of artifice and the sweaty, compromised funk of reality, then Richard Pryor moved that line about six yards toward the muddy end of the field. Maybe you hate that. Maybe you hate that there are curse words in Newsweek, and that kids watch South Park and the Simpsons and all those black comedies on the WB. Tough, that’s life today, and Pryor helped bring us here.