Richard Pryor: His mixture of pain, brilliance pushed comedy’s limits

Richard Franklin Lennox Thomas Pryor III was a star of any arena he entered, all while being a black man — not one in a dress, one in a rage.

Comedy is pain plus time. And good gracious did Richard Pryor show the world so much of both.

With a boxer-turned-father-turned-pimp-to-his-mother and the reported experience of walking in on his mother with the white mayor of Peoria, Illinois, Pryor could only have been funny and been funny about race. But he was so much more.

Richard Pryor, seen here in 1976, is one of the most influential comedians in history. He died in 2005. PAUL HOSEFROS / THE NEW YORK TIMES

When Pryor died in 2005, comic star Lily Tomlin spoke in Entertainment Weekly about her friend: "The last time I saw Richard, I was in the audience at the Santa Barbara film festival honoring him for his work. For almost two hours, I watched the greatest pioneering comic artist of the last three generations at the top of his genius — this gifted, raging, soaring, plummeting, deeply human man with the tender boy inside."

Richard Franklin Lennox Thomas Pryor III was a star of any arena he entered, all while being a black man — not one in a dress, one in a rage.

Sure, there are the films that Pryor and fellow comedy juggernaut Gene Wilder did together like “Silver Streak,” “Stir Crazy” and “See No Evil, Hear No Evil.” But then there are the straighter roles, which were often more black-focused roles.

Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder walking down street in scene from the film 'Another You', 1991. (Photo by TriStar/Getty Images)

Credit: Columbia TriStar

Credit: Columbia TriStar

Pryor portrayed NASCAR’s first black champion, Wendell Scott, in “Greased Lightning.” And he was The Wiz in “The Wiz,” which had an all-black cast that included Diana Ross and Michael Jackson, retelling the story of “The Wizard of Oz.”

And then he reinvented the way people stand at a microphone and make audiences laugh.

Confessional and raw, Pryor’s routines knew no bounds. Lenny Bruce courageously used comedy to defy arcane obscenity laws, but he did it as a white guy.

Because people seem to hold only one archetype for a person of color in their head at a time, Pryor was compared to America's silly — and since disgraced — dad Bill Cosby. And Pryor could be goofy, like when musing about a wino interacting with Dracula, but he also drew opinions from his friend Huey P. Newton, head of the Black Panther party.

And so Pryor gave the world comedy reality as they had never seen before; ever self-reflective, he held a mirror to society on issues of race.

In his language, Pryor would refer to women with derogatory terms, and he would also freely use the n-word in an effort to take the “sting” out of the term.

But in 1979, he went to Kenya.

After touring Kenya's national museum, according to The New York Times, he was in a hotel lobby and he realized something.

“There are no (n-words) here. … The people here, they still have their self-respect, their pride.”

He discussed the epiphany in a special later that year.

“To this day, I wish I’d never said the word. I felt its lameness. It was misunderstood by people. They didn’t get what I was talking about. Neither did I,” according to the book “Richard Pryor: The Life and Legacy of a ‘Crazy’ Black Man.”

He vowed not to use the word again.

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For a man known for so much, Pryor is maybe best known for one day in 1980, when in a drug-induced haze he poured 151-proof rum all over his body and lit himself on fire while freebasing cocaine.

He then ran ablaze down the California neighborhood street and was hospitalized for weeks before crafting a routine about the incident, creating one of the most hysterically despairing comedy bits ever.

It was included on one of the best-regarded comedy recordings ever with “Richard Pryor: Live on the Sunset Strip” in 1982.

“I fell in love with this pipe. This pipe controlled my very being,” he said.

The album represents one of his five Grammy wins, according to the Recording Academy. (Pryor also was posthumously awarded a Lifetime Achievement Grammy.)

He went on in 1983 to become the highest-paid African-American actor in Hollywood when he earned $4 million for his role in "Superman III," reported NPR.

Richard Pryor changed comedy forever. That's why The Atlanta Journal-Constitution chose to highlight him for this year's celebration of Black History Month.

Credit: National Portrait Gallery; File photo

Credit: National Portrait Gallery; File photo

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As evidenced by his drug use, the success and money didn’t help calm the demons, which could also be seen with Pryor being wretched and physically abusing women.

He later admitted on air to Barbara Walters, as retold in a GQ story, that he had beaten women, including some of his seven wives.

“They pissed me off. I’m sorry to say that. I know emotionally inside of me, because I was weak. That’s really the reason. I was weak.”

In 1986, he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a disease that attacks the central nervous system. He continued performing, making “See No Evil, Hear No Evil” with Wilder in 1989.

Richard Pryor, lower right, with (L-R) daughter Rain Pryor, wife Jennifer Lee, son-in-law Jerry Stordeur, and daughter Elizabeth Pryor at the Kennedy Center Oct. 20, 1998, when he received the Mark Twain Prize.

He died in December 2005 at a Los Angeles hospital.

Even with his flaws, it’s a shame Pryor isn’t here to join in on the continuing debate of issues with black America decades after he first broached them on stage.

“I went to Zimbabwe. I know how white people feel in America now: Relaxed! Cause when I heard the police car I knew they weren’t coming after me!”


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