Richard Pryor

Richard Pryor

Date of birth: 01-12-1940

Richard Pryor helped define modern stand-up; elevating it from an entertainment to an art with his unflinchingly frank use of his own life, however unflattering, into his coruscating routines.

And what a life it was - forever chasing women, money and drugs in a lifetime of addictive but unfulfilling hedonism that landed him in jail several times, and almost killed him when he set himself alight freebasing cocaine.

Born to a prostitute in his grandmother’s brothel in the ghettos ofPeoria Illinois, he grew up surrounded by performers and freaks. It was a tough area; he found a baby in a shoebox the street when he was seven years old and counted himself lucky that his family kept in.

In his autobiography, he reveals that a priest once  ‘gave me a smooch on the lips… like a girlfriend’. His family conspired to encourage the abuse, in the hope of extorting a quick buck, until his fearsome grandmother put a stop to it.

Even more terrifyingly, a 17-year-old lad once threw Pryor against a wall in an alley and forced him to give him oral sex. He was six at the time.

His first professional performance came at the age of seven, when he played drums at a nightclub.

Pryor started as a mainstream storytelling comedian, inspired by the homely comedy of the hugely successful Bill Cosby – even though such a colourless approach hardly related to Pryor’s harsh reality amid the often murderous racial tensions bubbling in Peoria.

But it was enough earn a few bucks a night at the black-and-tan nightclubs – as venues with a mixed racial clientele were known –giving him a lifestyle that once would have been impossible to him.

'I made a lot of money being Bill Cosby,' he once recalled. 'But I was hiding my personality. I just wanted to be in show business so bad I didn't care how. It started bothering me - I was being a robot comic, repeating the same lines, getting the same laughs for the same jokes. The repetition was killing me.’

Surprisingly, it was Groucho Marx who brought this home, telling Pryor at a party: ‘Do you want a career you’re proud of, or do you want to end up a spitting wad like Jerry Lewis?’  The words made Pryor realise he was ‘pimping his talent like a cheap whore’,  and in 1969, he had a crisis of confidence, abandoning a Las Vegas stage mid-set, saying: 'What the fuck am I doing here?".

He moved to Berkeley, California, and joined the hippies, radicals, bohemains and drug dealers, all the while exploring his attitude to life and to comedy - reclaiming the word nigger and talking with scabrous honesty about everything important to him

Although Pryor spoke frankly about his experiences as a black man in a racially divided America, he was never defined purely by his colour. Almost every stand-up of any skill of the past 30 years has been directly or indirectly influenced by the honesty he brought to the art.

His routines, naturally enough, offended conservative America with their subject matter and their uncompromising language – though he stopped using word 'nigger' in his shows following a trip to Zimbabwe. 'There are no niggers here,' he wrote. 'The people here, they still have their self-respect, their pride.'

He married seven times - twice to Flynn BeLaine and twice to his widow Jennifer who nursed him through his last years. And in 1980, he set himself on fire while freebasing cocaine at home. In a paranoid, hallucinogenic haze, he doused himself with a bottle of cognac and lit it. Flames lapping every inch of his body, he leapt out of a window and ran through the streets, his flesh burning up. His eventual, possibly miraculous, recovery from the 50 per cent burns to his body was long and painful.

In 1974, Pryor was sentenced to three years' probation for tax offences, and in 1978, he fired shots into his wife’s car, an incident which he turned into one of his finest stand-up routines.

But against all the social rhetoric, he could also talk of more mundane matters, such as his love of animals. In his later years, he became a spokesman for animal rights group Petra.

He appeared in several films including Stir Crazy, Superman III, Brewster's Millions and See No Evil, Hear No Evil - but he was always at his most electrifying live. Of his sometimes dubious film roles he said: 'I'm sorry, but they offered us the money. I was a pig, I got greedy.’

Pryor had been lined up to play the sheriff in Blazing Saddles, which he co-wrote with Mel Brooks, but the film's backers shied away from his controversial reputation and he lost the role to Cleavon Little. He is similarly said to have lost the starring role in Trading Places to Eddie Murphy.

He was diagnosed with the wasting disease multiple sclerosis in 1986 and his speech and mobility gradually eroded, a potentially tragic decline to such a vibrant life. After initial uncertainty, Pryor seems to have accepted his conditionwith the ‘shit happens’ attitude that has permeated his life. But by 1992, he was too weak to keep performing

In 1998, he was awarded America's first Mark Twain award for humour. And in 2004, he was voted No 1 in a poll to find the greatest stand-up of all time poll by US cable network Comedy Central.

He once said: 'Comedy rules! Don't let anybody tell you otherwise, and there are no rules in stand-up comedy, which I really like. You can do anything you want and you can say anything that comes to mind - just so long as it's funny. If you ain't funny then get the fuck off the stage, it's that simple.'

He died in Encinio, California, on December 10, 2005, of a heart attack – 14 years after undergoing quadruple bypass surgery.

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Richard Pryor: Live In Concert

Review by Steve Bennett

The single most significant thing to note about this seminal Richard Pryor film is the year of its first release - 1979.

It's a point well worth remembering, since there's nothing in the footage to suggest it was filmed anything other than last week. Well, nothing apart from the hideous fashions in the audience cutaway shots.

But Pryor's comedy hasn't gone out of style. His influence is legendary, and the lineage that continued with Eddie Murphy and Chris Rock so obvious it's barely worth mentioning. But it's not only black acts who owe him a great debt, as the fruits his work can be seen in just about any modern stand-up who draws on their own life for material. Thatis what makes him feel as contemporary today as he was a quarter-century ago.

And what a life Pryor had to draw upon. The son of a prostitute, brought up in his grandmother's whorehouse, as an adult he became hooked on cocaine, radical politics and divorces.

Indeed, in the months before this concert was recorded in Long Beach, California, Pryor was busted by police for shooting up his car and suffered the first of his two heart attacks. Both incidents, naturally enough, stoke his comedy engine. The cardiac arrest, particularly, may be uncomfortable, even bleak, but it's handled with a brilliant comic touch, the underlying seriousness only making the gags even stronger.

Pryor can, and does, talk about everything - and, yes, that includes the sex and drugs that were a big part of his life, even if such talk outraged mainstream America. But he's equally at ease talking about his love for animals, mimicking a Doberman or a monkey, or describing something as simple as a walk in the woods.

If you knew Pryor only by reputation, it would be hard to square these tales of everyday domesticity with the image of a fierce, foul-mouthed comic, but it works because it's honest. Of course, his act is littered with naughty words, but their effect is almost harmless, at least to modern ears, as they form such a natural part of the way he speaks.

The rhythms of his act feel as up-to-date as his material, too - proof that there was little room for improvement on the casual, conversational, but powerful style Pryor perfected before half of today's circuit acts were even born.

Where it came from is hard to tell. Among the extras on the DVD version of this film is some footage of Pryor's early routines, before he found his own voice. Then he was tamely and lamely trying to emulate Bill Cosby's homespun style, and it's hard to believe that was the same man who would go on to cause such a stir.

But the spruced-up film on Live In Concert is not just of historical interest. It's still sublimely funny stand-up; a scorching collection of surefire routines from a talent at the very top of his game. This is why he is a comedy legend, and you'd do well to remind yourself of the fact.

 

> Buy the DVD from Amazon

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Published: 1 Jan 2016

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Past Shows

Edinburgh Fringe 2004

Richard Pryor: Live In Concert


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