“We are gathered here today at this sorrowful occasion to say goodbye to the dearly departed. He was dearly, and he has departed. Thus, we call him the dearly departed.”
— Richard Pryor’s funeral-home skit
The lengthy obituaries for Richard Pryor hardly tell the whole story or convey the full societal impact this comedic genius who was born in a brothel leaves as his legacy.
Mr. Pryor, who died Saturday at 65 in a Los Angeles hospital after suffering a heart attack, set himself and the world on fire with his satire and social commentary.
“My comedy is not comedy as society has defined it,” said Mr. Pryor, whose deeds and misdeeds are well-documented elsewhere.
We all can recite our favorite Pryor characters, antics, recordings, movies, expressions and biting sarcasms. Like many, I loved Mudbone and Piano Man in “Lady Sings the Blues.” But the captivating skit I remember most is one that evokes empathy rather than laughter. It occurred when Mr. Pryor was first washed after setting himself on fire while freebasing cocaine in 1980. His long, painful facial contortions are a poignant metaphor for the long, circuitous and often treacherous territory he traveled as a black man in America. It speaks volumes to many who share his experience and understand the double meaning underlying his often-profane routines.
“A lie is a profanity; a lie is the worst thing in the world. Art is the ability to tell the truth, especially about oneself,” Mr. Pryor said.
His crossover appeal came from his enormous talent to make us laugh at ourselves, black and white, and the contradictory racial confines of American society under which we all attempt to relate and survive.
Musical producer Quincy Jones called him “the Charlie Parker of comedy, a master of telling the truth that influenced every comedian that came after him.”
When Mr. Pryor received the Mark Twain Prize at the Kennedy Center in 1998, he said: “I am proud, that, like Mark Twain, I have been able to use humor to lesson people’s hatred.”
Indeed, Mudbone tells us in Mr. Pryor’s 1995 autobiography, “Pryor Convictions: And Other Life Sentences,” that “the truth is going to be funny, but it’s gonna scare … folks.”
Yes, he was arguably the funniest man in America, but he was also one of the most courageous writers, telling his stories his way and in his language. From one great writer to another, playwright Neil Simon told the New York Times that Mr. Pryor was “the most brilliant comic in America.”
Because he was so funny, Mr. Pryor was able to make his work look effortless. But it takes intelligence, research, person-ality, commitment, courage and a deep sense of caring to make comedy of tragedy.
David Denby wrote in New York Magazine that Mr. Pryor “works directly with the life around him, and he digs deeper in to fear and lust and anger and pain than many of the novelists and playwrights now taken seriously.”
Comedian Bill Cosby once told People magazine that “for Richard, the line between comedy and tragedy is as fine as you can paint it.”
Racial discrimination is not a joke. One of Mr. Pryor’s most notable lines is about the inequities of the country’s criminal-justice system: “You go down there looking for justice, and that’s just what you find — just us.” And, “they hand out time down there like it’s lunches.” Yet, he still marveled: “I live in racist America, and I’m uneducated, yet a lot of people love me and like what I do, and I can make a living from it. You can’t do much better than that.”
Mr. Pryor started on what was called the “Chitlin’ Circuit” and he built his comedy on stars such as Red Foxx, Jackie “Moms” Mabley and Dick Gregory, who played to segregated audiences at places including the District’s Howard Theater. And, he served as the bridge of his generation that crossed the color line and charted new opportunities for those who came after him, such as Whoopi Goldberg, Dave Chappelle and Jamie Foxx.
Mr. Pryor’s name once was synonymous with the “n-word” that flows so loosely out of so many comedians’ and rappers’ foul mouths today.
At first, Mr. Pryor said he used the derogatory term because “I decided to take the sting out of it. As if saying it over and over again would numb me and everybody else to its wretchedness.” But after a 1979 trip to Kenya, Mr. Pryor had an epiphany after seeing so many blacks involved in every sector of society. He vowed never to use the racial epithet again. “There were no [expletive] here. The people here, they still have their self-respect, their pride.
“I left enlightened. … I also left regretting ever having uttered the word, … on a stage or off it. It was a wretched word. Its connotations weren’t funny, even when people laughed. 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.”
Fittingly, during the funeral-home skit, Mr. Pryor poses this understated challenge about the “dearly departed”: “He faced, however, the ultimate test, as each man and woman must eventually face the ultimate test … and, the ultimate test is whether or not you can survive death.”
Surely, as the sun smiles in the sky, Richard Franklin Lennox Thomas Pryor III will pass the ultimate test.