Today is Richard Pryor’s birthday and finding profiles/articles/interviews on him is surprisingly difficult, though there are a ton of videos. Here are the best of what I found.
The definitive Richard Pryor #longread is this 1999 profile by Hilton Als in the New Yorker. This is just a great article.
Before Richard Pryor, there were only three aspects of black maleness to be found on TV or in the movies: the suave, pimp-style blandness of Billy Dee Williams; the big-dicked, quiet machismo of the football hero Jim Brown; and the cable-knit homilies of Bill Cosby. Pryor was the first image we’d ever had of black male fear. Not the kind of Stepin Fetchit noggin-bumpin’-into-walls fear that turned Buckwheat white when he saw a ghost in the “Our Gang” comedies popular in the twenties, thirties, and forties—a character that Eddie Murphy resuscitated in a presumably ironic way in the eighties on “Saturday Night Live.” Pryor was filled with dread and panic—an existential fear, based on real things, like racism and lost love. (In a skit on “In Living Color,” the actor Damon Wayans played Pryor sitting in his kitchen and looking terrified, while a voiceover said, “Richard Pryor—afraid of absolutely everything.”)
“Hi. I’m Richard Pryor.” Pause. “Hope I’m funny.” That was how he introduced himself to audiences for years, but he never sounded entirely convinced that he cared about being funny. Instead, Pryor embodied the voice of injured humanity. A satirist of his own experience, he revealed what could be considered family secrets—secrets about his past, and about blacks in general, and about his relationship to the black and white worlds he did and did not belong to. In the black community, correctness, political or otherwise, remains part of the mortar that holds lives together. Pryor’s comedy was a high-wire act: how to stay funny to a black audience while satirizing the moral strictures that make black American life like no other.
“I’m not for integration and I’m not against it. What I am for is justice for everyone, just like it says in the Constitution. If you ask me about women’s lib, I say I don’t even know what that is. I say what about people’s lib? I’m for human lib, the liberation of all people, not just black people or female people or gay people. I also say that if there isn’t a response to what’s been happening to the people out there, there’s going to be a great explosion one of these days, and this will not be one of the nicest places to live.
Here’s a transcript of the classic “Interview” sketch from SNL with Chevy Chase.
Interviewer: [ quickly wraps the interview up ] Okay, Mr. Wilson, I think you’re qualified for this job. How about a starting salary of $5,000?
Mr. Wilson: Your momma!
Interviewer: [ fumbling ] Uh.. $7,500 a year?
Mr. Wilson: Your grandmomma!
Interviewer: [ desperate ] $15,000, Mr. Wilson. You’ll be the highest paid janitor in America. Just, don’t.. don’t hurt me, please..
Mr. Wilson: Okay.
Interviewer: [ relieved ] Okay.
Mr. Wilson: You want me to start now?
Interviewer: Oh, no, no.. that’s alright. I’ll clean all this up. Take a couple of weeks off, you look tired.
Margaret Cho on Pryor in 2003.
I saw your movies, the first one “Live at the Sunset Strip,” changed my life, my destiny. It was the first time I realized who I was, and what I would be. I never really knew what I wanted to be when I grew up because I never saw anyone that made me want to grow up, and then there was you. You were telling your tales, making motherfuckers helpless with laughter in the aisles. Black people, white people, everyone, right at the time when we all had a hard time sitting together, we came to see you, because you were beyond race, you disarmed us, we couldn’t hang on to our guns because we were trying not to pee from laughing.
I think about dying. I’ve come to realize we all die alone in one way or another. You can have a roomful of people when it’s your time to walk into the light, but you can bet your ass not one person will offer to go with ya. Sure, I have friends, plenty of friends, and they all come around wantin’ to borrow money. I’ve always been generous with my friends and family, with money, but selfish with the important stuff like love. I don’t know nothin’ about that — do any of us?
Although the obituaries will make much of his nearly fatal accident and his long battle with multiple sclerosis, the most significant entry may be this one: In 1998, he won the first Mark Twain Prize for humor from the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. He said in his acceptance speech he had been able to use humor as Mark Twain did, “to lessen people’s hatred.”
When you look again at his three great performance films, you realize that was exactly what he did: It was when he was live in front of an audience that the full range of his gifts was seen most clearly. Drugs muddled some of the early stages of his career, and his disease finally silenced him, but in the early 1980s, after he was clean and sober and before he fell ill, there was a flowering of genius. In 2004, Comedy Central placed him first on its list of the greatest stand-up comedians of all time.
People Magazine 1980: “Richard Pryor’s Tragic Accident Spotlights a Dangerous Drug Craze: Freebasing”
Interview with Paul Mooney, one of Pryor’s writers.
The story of your first meeting, before you became friends, is hilarious.
I was living in a cheap apartment on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. A bunch of people would come and stay there with us, because nobody had any money, and we let them all sleep on the floor and in the bathtub or wherever. I was having a party, and a friend of my sister’s, who was dancing at the Whiskey a Go-Go, had dated Richard and brought him to the apartment. This was during that whole era of [1969 comedy] Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice when everybody was sleeping with everybody. So Richard came in and said, “Let’s all get into bed and have an orgy.” And I threw him out.