02-19-2017  8:45 am      •     

LOS ANGELES—It is one of those indelible images from the late 1960s that remains locked in the minds of those who were there.

It's a comedy album photograph of a nearly naked Richard Pryor, dressed in a loincloth, with bones through his nose and beads around his neck like a stereotypical African bushman from an old "Tarzan" movie.

But there is a glare on the comedian's face on 1968's "Richard Pryor" album that seems to say, "I'm here and I'm going to change your thinking about race relations in every way possible."

That's what Pryor, who died Saturday of a heart attack at age 65, did for people all across America in the 1970s, his breakthrough decade and a time when the country was hotly divided not only by the Vietnam War but by the civil rights battles of the 1950s and '60s that preceded it.

He did it by bringing Black and White audiences together to laugh as one, at least for the length of a concert or a comedy album, at the madness all around them.

"He was a brilliant and incredibly courageous performer," recalled humorist Paul Krassner, whose magazine "The Realist" once published an essay by the comedian commenting on the disproportionate number of Black soldiers that seemed to be fighting the Vietnam War. Pryor headlined it, "Uncle Sam Wants You, Nigger."

It was a word he would use frequently in the 1970s, even using it in the name of his second album as he tried to take the sting out of the epithet by repeating it over and over.

After a visit to Africa in 1980, however, he would renounce it and say he no longer wanted to hear the word, either from his "hip White friends" or his fellow Blacks. A subsequent recording was titled "That African American is Still Crazy," with the offending word crossed out.

Such upfront, no-holds-barred, socially conscious commentary won Pryor the admiration of seemingly every Black comic who followed him, an admiration perhaps best summed up by Keenen Ivory Wayans, who once said Pryor demonstrated "you can be Black and have a Black voice and be successful."

Pryor's comedy also drew equally warm reactions from White comedians, including Bob Newhart, who on Saturday called Pryor "the single most seminal comedic influence in the last 50 years."

Although he was not the first comedian to liberally use the N-word or the F-word or any number of other once-unspoken-in-public words, Pryor seemed to use them to greater comedic effect than anyone else. When he was at his best he was not just funny, he was laugh-out-loud, falling-down, tears-in-your-eyes funny.

Twisting and writhing his body into any number of contortions, Pryor would switch effortlessly from accent to accent as he told stories that made fun of every ethnicity and nationality he'd encountered.

In one of the routines from his classic 1981 performance, "Live on the Sunset Strip," the comedian recalled working for a Mafia-run nightclub that wasn't paying him the money it had promised.

Grabbing a gun and doing "my best Black s—-" he tried to rob the club owner, only to find that his performance, one that he recalled "usually scares" the average White person, provoked only laughter from an Italian American mobster.

"Do it again, Rich, put the gun up here," he had the mobster telling him before going on to regale Pryor with stories of all the people he'd rubbed out.

Like Bill Cosby, Pryor would often draw on such personal experience for his comedy, but his material was far darker.

The life he lived provided him a wellspring of material. Raised in a Peoria, Ill., brothel that was run by his grandmother, he would grow up to be not only the highest-paid Black entertainer in the country in the 1980s, but one of the most troubled as well.

"I was a drug-addicted, paranoid, lonely, sad and frustrated comedian who had gotten too big for his britches," Pryor, who had gone into seclusion in recent years as he battled multiple sclerosis, said in the liner notes to the 2000 album, "And It's Deep Too!"

Among other things, he shot up a car in 1978 while two of his wife's friends were sitting in it. In 1980, he nearly burned himself to death while freebasing cocaine.

He would go on to joke about both incidents, noting of the first that he put down the gun when the police arrived because he knew they would be far more likely to shoot a Black man than a car. Returning to the stage after the cocaine incident, he struck a match, waved it in front of his face and said, "What's this? Richard Pryor running down the street."

He could also do broader comedy, a talent that was displayed clearly in his best nonconcert films, "Silver Streak" and "Stir Crazy" with Gene Wilder. He even handled the occasional dramatic turn well, and he won an Emmy as a writer for one of Lily Tomlin's TV comedy specials.

But standup, where he was left unbridled by censors, would become his legacy and win him five Grammy Awards for comedy album.

Fellow comedian Steve Martin noted upon Pryor's death: "By expressing his heart, anger and joy, Richard Pryor took comedy to its highest form."


— The Associated Press

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