The original NWA

Iain Boyd on Richard Pryor

‘Sitting naked in a corner sandwiched between two Norwegian models, also in their birthday suits, with enough cocaine on the table to make Scarface jealous, Richard welcomed me into the room,’ recalls director and friend Robert Altman. ‘He said in his usual charming voice, “You can’t stay Robert…..I just wanted to give you some motivation”.'

And this was Pryor in a moment it seems. Enjoying himself. Taking the piss. Not giving a fuck. His life was defined by a motivation to escape his troubled upbringing and his subsequent achievements inspired a generation. You didn’t need to see him setting himself on fire after a drug-induced psychotic episode to realise he was a colourful character. His use of the N-word, and C-word for that matter, on stage, even from an African-American, not only shocked his black and white audiences alike but pushed the boundaries and the likes of Eddie Murphy and Dave Chappell to greatness.

Now the greatest African American to have lived is Muhammad Ali. While this is subjective (think Luther King, think Malcolm X) it’s also a fact – a contradiction of terms that fuels many stand-ip acts.

However we have a number of contenders for the crown of greatest ever comedian. In the red corner weighing in with years of baggage, abuse, angst, torture and torment coupled with anger, hatred and general apathy is Lenny Bruce, who arguably started the revolution alongside Bob Hope, Woody Allen, Bill Cosby – whom Pryor admired and initially styled himself on – plus George Carlin. In the blue corner we have the ‘had it easy’ new crew namely Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock, Dave Chappell inspired by Pryor plus Jerry Seinfeld, Robin Williams and Jim Carey weighing in with many role models and little angst. And the list goes on.

Now Bruce, one of the best, was the pioneer. Why? Well he took comedy to the next level. He said things no one else said. He was outrageous. And in the Sixties that WAS outrageous and he was arrested for it. A Jewish man couldn’t say: ‘People ask me, “Why did you kill Christ?” to which I’d answer ‘I dunno, it was one of those parties, got out of hand, you know…”’ but Bruce did. You couldn’t say ‘cocksucker’, but he did. Any comedian has influences and those they have influenced. Bruce only has the later.

Influential San Francisco columnist Herb Caen, was an early and enthusiastic supporter, writing in 1959: ‘They call Lenny Bruce a sick comic and sick he is. Sick of all the pretentious phoniness of a generation that makes his vicious humour meaningful. He is a rebel, but not without a cause, for there are shirts that need un-stuffing, egos that need deflating. Sometimes you feel guilty laughing at some of Lenny’s mordant jabs, but that disappears a second later when your inner voice tells you with pleased surprise, “but that’s true.”’ Well said, that critic. So Bruce stood out because he was vulgar and spoke the truth. But was he clever? Indeed do you have to be to be a great comedian and what do the greats have in common?

Well Pryor had problems – clearly. Allen had problems. Bruce was angry. Comedy is tragedy plus time. One of four children, raised in his grandmother’s brothel, Richard experienced rape at the age of six and molestation by a Catholic priest. He watched his mother perform sexual acts with the mayor of his native Peoria and was in and out of the penal system in his youth. So could Pryor have been so good had he not been a tortured soul? ‘No absolutely not, says Gerry Sont from Australia’s National Institute of Dramatic Art, ‘because he wouldn’t have been Richard Pryor – he’d have been Jerry Seinfeld. And anyway he tried that.’

Sont refers to the time when Pryor was’t swearing, and performed a softer act, appealing to the mainstream white middle classes, appearing regularly on the Jonny Carson show. However it wasn’t him and at the Aladdin hotel in Las Vegas in 1967, tormented and torn, he stormed off stage in front of a celebrity audience.

In the ensuing months he moved to Berkeley, California, where he unleashed himself and became the Pryor he was destined to be. Cosby recalls: ‘He finally killed the Cosby in him”. And being himself was being outrageous like nobody have ever seen before…….well not since Bruce.

However Pryor was different. ‘Bruce was outrageous but not that funny’ says Dave Jory, a senior comedian on the Australian circuit. ‘Pryor said what everyone was thinking, especially his black audience. Talking about life on the streets they thought, “I know that guy. That’s how I feel. I’m pissed off, I’m treated differently. That’s what I’m like as well.”’ Coupling that with the many tragedies of his own life (cocaine addiction, tumultuous marriages, two heart attacks, quadruple by-pass surgery and the famous incident of setting himself on fire) and you had a serious mofo act.

In an interesting connection to anger and problems it’s notable that Pryor and Cosby, Allen and Bruce are either African American or Jewish. So are white, middle class Protestants not funny? Do they not have enough tragedy in their lives? Again Sont offers an opinion: ‘The greats of everything are black or Jewish: sports stars, presidents,’ he says wryly ‘because the world is run by white people. They are raging against the machine. That puts the fire in the belly and drives them.’

One such tormented Jew was Allen. In 1963 Pryor went to New York and garnered some mentorship from him. Very much like Pryor, Allen was a great writer. But he was essentially an actor, even in his self-effacing stand-up performances, Sont says. Struggling for every word, he played a low-status character,always toiling through life. ‘That’s what the audience appreciated, the underdog, but they also realise it was an act.’

Pryor was like Allen then, with no act. Allen’s life was kosher. Pryor wasn’t and that was what was endearing about him. ‘He was mad as a cut snake, he got really nervous and the reason was he was really putting his heart on the line….he wasn’t hiding behind anything.’

One fact Pryor couldn’t – nor wanted to – hide from was that he was a self professed ‘nigger’. At the start of one show he began ‘nigger, nigger, nigger,nigger...’ repeating it some 30 times to mixed response from a shocked audience, well more shocked than usual. He said ‘I’m going to keep saying nigger until it don’t mean nigger no more.’ And he was right. However when he later abandoned the word in his stage performances, it attracted death threats, hate mail and attacks on his home from some deranged former fans. But he stuck to his beliefs. Because he was a leader. Because he was Richard Pryor.

So what about today? Are we in a good place? ‘Well Seinfeld, Williams and Jim Carrey definitely come into the great category,’ claims Jory ‘but they didn’t have angst or pain and that’s what appeals to me more about great comedy.’ Sont likes Williams: ‘I’ve got tapes where he spoke so fast, so quick. He’d pick up something from the audience and roll with it immediately. However everyone is different. You can’t really compare comedians. It’s like comparing a blockbuster with a love story.’

What does seem evident though, in comparison, is that no one is really angry any more. Is that still required or have styles changed? Jory reckons comedians are trying to be more shocking, if that is possible, than ever before. ‘People are trying stupid shit,’ he says ‘Some dude singing songs that rhythm gets laughs. Dirty shocking stuff gets laughs.’ But wasn’t Pryor shocking? ‘Yes he was but in a clever way. He never used profanity as a punch line. Trends come and go in comedy but they get old. You are better off being fundamentally good and I think Pryor was.’

As Jim Carrey, a modern pretender, said: ‘Some people are born wearing an iron shoe. They’re the ones who kick doors down and enter the places that before them have been untouched even by light. Theirs is always a mission filled with loneliness and broken bones. Richard Pryor was one of the bravest of them.’

With said door long since demolished it seems that only one man’s shadow, this King of Comedy, stands proudly in its frame.

Published: 4 May 2011

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