Because Pryor died truly a comedy legend…a legend who DID it all…and did it all well…and towards the end of his life received expressions of appreciation for all he had accomplished: the struggle to get noticed in comedy clubs, doing his own style of comedy (which tended to feature brutally honest lampooning of his own flaws, trials and tribulations; a non-cuddly persona; adult language; and impeccable timing)….TV appearances, some of them being comedy gems that nonetheless didn’t garner huge ratings (he was seemingly too big a personality for the tube)…and a highly successful (commercially) film career with a persona made more mass audience “accessible” than the tougher one in his standup comedy appearances.
When the Superman producers wanted to add comic relief and ensure some bigger box offices to one of the sequels who did they get? Pryor.
Over the years Pryor battled drug addiction, alcoholism, burns all over his body while doing drugs. But he’ll be best remembered for being an authentic PIONEER for a generation — generations, really — someone who could be admired by people who detested 50s/60s style humor (they loved his standup) and by people who couldn’t stand modern comedy with the emphasis on sex and foul language (for his funny performances in films that were often not as good as he was). In standup comedy, he was one of the key players who helped lift it out of the Borscht Belt and one liner era into comedy where personality, personal experiences and irony played a larger role.
His film career was derailed only due to multiple sclerosis having kicked in in the mid-1980s. And because he was largely out of sight the past few years — appearing at special tributes to him and other events — the mass audience tended to forget what a huge giant he was in his prime and will remain in show biz history.
His courage in performance charting a new path in performance content and style — and in dealing with his illness — justify the largely laudatory news stories about him. The AP:
LOS ANGELES -Richard Pryor, the groundbreaking comedian whose profanely personal insights into race relations and modern life made him one of Hollywood’s biggest black stars, died of a heart attack Saturday. He was 65.
Pryor died shortly before 8 a.m. after being taken to a hospital from his home in the San Fernando Valley, said his business manager, Karen Finch. He had been ill for years with multiple sclerosis, a degenerative disease of the nervous system.
Pryor lived dangerously close to the edge both on stage and off.
He was regarded early in his career as one of the most foul-mouthed comics in the business, but he gained a wide following for his universal and frequently personal routines. After nearly losing his life in 1980 when he caught on fire while freebasing cocaine, he incorporated the ordeal into his later routines.
His audacious style influenced generations of stand-up artists, from
Eddie Murphy and Chris Rock to Robin Williams and David Letterman, among others.
Pryor, winner of the first Kennedy Center Mark Twain Humor Prize in 1999, had suffered from multiple sclerosis since the mid-1980s. After spending more than two decades at the forefront of American popular culture with Grammy-winning comedy records, regular television appearances and roles in movies such as “Lady Sings the Blues,” “Car Wash” and “Silver Streak,” he spent the last several years of his life quietly tending to his debilitating condition. He suffered the heart attack in his San Fernando Valley home in Los Angeles and died at a nearby hospital shortly before 8 a.m.
From the mid-1960s until well into the 1980s, he was a comic superstar. His frank talk about sex, drugs and race relations made his comedy a social force to compare with that of a select few counterculture figures, such as Lenny Bruce.
Richard Pryor, the outrageously raunchy and uproariously funny comedian and actor who defied the boundaries of taste, decency and race to become the comic voice of a generation, died yesterday at a Los Angeles hospital, where he had been taken after a heart attack. Pryor, who was 65, had been in deteriorating health for years because of multiple sclerosis.
Throughout the 1970s and early ’80s, Pryor rode his uninhibited and foul-mouthed comedy to the heights of stardom, notching one hit movie after another, selling millions of recordings and drawing huge audiences to his one-man show, which treated some of the most volatile social issues of the time with a penetrating, unsparing comic eye. In 1998, he was the first person to receive the Kennedy Center’s Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.
After beginning his career with relatively tame, race-neutral comedy, he delved deep into his experiences and anger as a black American and emerged with a fresh, daring approach that put race, sex and obscenity — and all the anxieties these once-taboo subjects evoked — at the forefront of his almost stream-of-consciousness comedy.
Pryor came under fire for his use of language in some quarters (and still does) but the New York Times puts it in perspective:
Mr. Pryor’s brilliant comic imagination and creative use of the blunt cadences of street language were revelations to most Americans. He did not simply tell stories, he brought them to vivid life, revealing the entire range of black America’s humor, from its folksy rural origins to its raunchier urban expressions.
At the height of his career, in the late 1970’s, Mr. Pryor prowled the stage like a restless cat, dispensing what critics regarded as the most poignant and penetrating comedic view of African-American life ever afforded the American public. He was volatile yet vulnerable, crass but sensitive, streetwise and cocky but somehow still diffident and anxious. And he could unleash an astonishing array of dramatic and comic skills to win acceptance and approval for a kind of stark humor.
“Pryor started it all,” the director and comedian Keenen Ivory Wayans said. “He made the blueprint for the progressive thinking of black comedians, unlocking that irreverent style.”
For the actor Eddie Murphy, Richard Pryor was simply “better than anyone who ever picked up a microphone.” The playwright Neil Simon called him “the most brilliant comic in America.”
Did you note in the above quote that:
–Pryor is praised by the up-and-coming comedians.
–Pryor is praised by a traditional comedy writer such as Neil Simon.
So those who upon his death simply dismiss him as someone who hurled swear words around totally miss his significance in terms of show business. Whether it was on in a comedy club or on the big screen, Pryor was bigger than life and a megastar who opened the doors to others who sought to take comedy in a different direction.
Some of Pryor’s critics have said that he went too commercial towards the end of his career by making movies as silly as The Toy. But they forget that he was huge box office, loved by millions — millions who fell in love with him on the screen who had NEVER SEEN his standup act with all the adult language. He proved he could not just work “blue” but work “clean” — and had the charisma to do well in all venues.
Upon his death we’ve gotten emails from some folks saying they’ve heard Pryor being dumped on for his language, for not catching on as a TV star. So? He was giant in comedy clubs — and remained a giant on the screen and his performances weren’t stilled by audiences tiring of him, but his body rebelling against him.
Even today, comedians will study his comedy club performances. And aspiring comic actors will want to watch him in films because even in a film such as The Toy, where he worked with the great Jackie Gleason (one of Gleason’s last films), Pryor held the screen with his expert timing and likability. He wasn’t cuddly in the clubs…but on the screen he came close.
UPDATE: The BEST PIECE on Richard Pryor is THIS ONE by Roger Simon, who worked with him. (Another Simon link is below but this is his later one that is REQUIRED READING)
SOME OTHER VOICES ON RICHARD PRYOR’S PASSING (these are excerpts so please go to link and read entire posts):
Richard Pryor, one the greatest comic artists of the modern era, has died after a long illness. I had the honor of working with Richard for about eighteen months off and on as a screenwriter on the movie Bustin’ Loose. Besides having been, as most know, an extraordinary talent, he was also an incredibly compassionate man with a remarkable capacity for empathy. Working with Richard was among the most memorable experiences of my life.
—Digby saw Pryor in concert:
It was more than comedy, and it sure as hell was more than “R” rated. It was cultural observation so universal and so penetrating that I saw the world differently from that night on. He didn’t just talk about race, although he talked about it a lot and in the most bracing, uncompromising terms possible. He also talked about men and women, age, relationships, family, politics and culture so hilariously that my jaw literally ached the next day. He was rude, profane and sexist. But there was also this undercurrent of vulnerability and melancholy running beneath the comedy that exposed a canny understanding of human foible. His personal angst seemed to me to be almost uncomfortably plain.
—Crooks And Liars has some info on where to send condolences.
—Captain’s Quarters: “Pryor started off trying to be the next Bill Cosby — another American original — but Pryor soon discovered that he could not spend his life ignoring his own viewpoint. While I would hardly claim to agree with much of what Pryor said and did in his life, he never quailed at talking about his failures and making them part of his always-hilarious act. His brutal honesty towards his own shortcomings made his pointed barbs at others around him easier to take and to get a laugh. He inspired two generations of comedians and helped pioneer stand-up into an art form.”
—The Talking Dog says it all (but insists he doesn’t):”…Richard Pryor was just the definition of comedy: numerous Grammy winning albums, appeared in 40 movies, everywhere, and he was out there, willing to use any form of language… obscenity back when it was still shocking (not to mention back when it was funny.) Nothing I can say about him will do him justice, so I won’t say anything.”
–Daily Kos’ Armando:
In many ways, Richard Pryor provided the first truly unvarnished discussion of race relations that people of all races could understand. Not in the way Republicans want to have a “real” discussion, but in an honest way. Warts and all — everybody’s warts, but within the context of the realities of what the African-American experience has been.
—Baldilocks:”It’s not a surprise, due to his illness and to his use and abuse of various substances, but it still hurts. He was the first “blue” comedian I ever heard and, as I was just saying the other day, his comedy stands the test of time…..He was even funny on television, where he had to clean it up considerably.
—The Heretik: “THE COMIC COMES among us for a moment and in a mere minute makes us forget the trouble of this world. Or remember it sharply. We are lost in laughter. And we find a common humanity. Richard Pryor met his demons and has now met his end. Some will be surprised Richard lasted this long. His laughter lives immortal, a bitter, sweet song.”
—Ruminate This: “Richard Pryor was a cultural icon, a man who made his mark in our minds not because of the movies that he was in (because that wasn’t really him) but because of the way that his standup comedy gigs made come to a better understandings of our failures as a society and actually laugh at them. We could, under Prior’s obscene (for the day) and not too gentle ministrations, come to an understanding, for at least a few hours if not for the rest of the week, or the month, or our lives….”
—Macsmind: “Sadly as much humor as he gave us, his personal life was many times less than funny, and in the end, not funny at all as he battled with multiple sclerosis, a debilitating disease. He was the inspiration for today’s comedians such as Chris Rock, Jamie Fox, and other, and the world lost a real treasure. So Long Mr. Funny, thanks for the laughs, and RIP!”
—Independent Sources: “Stated simply, he was a Redd Foxx that my generation could understand. Few comics today will talk about their own careers without mentioning the inspiration they received from Pryor. His White People characterizations are offered with such good humor and truth that those mimicked laugh the loudest.”
—The Tension: “While I was only a distant fan of Pryor’s, my meditation on his passing invokes feelings about something very close to me: the power of neurological diseases such as multiple sclerosis (MS) to cripple healthy and vibrant lives.”
–And a younger set of eyes from Brain Diva: “I haven’t seen a lot of his work but I caught some of his classic 70s standup on The Comedy Network, and I was impressed how he could make awful, painful things funny. RIP, Mr. Pryor.”
—Adventures of Steanso: “He was an incredibly funny, intelligent, and insightful guy, and I think his style of brave, honest, self-revealing comedy is something that a lot of modern comics strive to emulate (some with more success than others)….. We probably wouldn’t have Chris Rock or Dave Chappelle without Richard Pryor.
—Shazapp’s Blog: “But it wasn’t the language that was funny to me. It was the characters, facial expressions and routines about things that I think everyone thought about but no one would say out loud…and there were other things that came from a mind that seemed to think like no one else at the time.”
—Neptunus Lex: “You know, Iâ€™m not entirely sure? But I kind of think that Richard Pryor, for all his faults, did more for race relations in this country than all the saints of any color. You want to scare somebody off, or close their mind? Preach at them. You want to make them think? First you make them laugh. Make them laugh, and youâ€™ve got their attention….”
—John Judy: “Putting aside his lesser stuff which even he admitted was paycheck driven crap, if you look at his best work youâ€™ve got a man of his time and circumstance doing extraordinarily brave, original, and honest work. It is a huge loss that his illness prevented him from doing more such stuff in the past and sadder still that we will never enjoy what he might have written in years to come. At his best he left every other comedian Iâ€™ve ever seen in the dust.”
—Lawyers, Guns And Money: “I think it’s easy for people of my generation to underrate him because of his generally dreary feature film career, but Richard Pryor was a genius comedian, one of the very greatest. I’ve been listening to his collection of comedy recordings–mostly from his peak in the mid-70s–and it’s just brilliant stuff, a must-own if you’re interested in the genre at all.”