Sunday, December 11, 2005

Richard Pryor

Richard Pryor wasn't the first comedian to make me laugh but he was certainly the first to make me cry. I grew up very poor in an alcoholic household and was pretty much an outcast wherever I went to school. Some things happened to me when I was young that I couldn't face down until I quit drinking and drugging in my Thirties. Because of these things my life was largely interior.

I'm not equating my experience with that of a black man's but there was just enough similarity in Pryor's pain and mine that listening to him was a cathartic experience. He never quite entered his own house justified, to quote Sam Pekcinpah in Ride The High Country. For all that had been done to him--the fucking priests refusing to let his alcoholic father be buried in hallowed ground; and the poor nuns giving the man a sort of funeral in one half of the gym while the girls played basketball at the other end of the court--his rage and pain were such that he could never outrun them. Nor could he outrun the shame he felt for what he'd done. You listen to him talking about pumping bullets into his wife's empty car and you hear the remorse of drunks and dopers everywhere. Laugh and cry become indivisible.

As has been said many times this weekend, he wasn't a comedian, he was a performance artist. Like all of us in show biz, he turned in a bad performance now and then but I don't believe he ever turned in a dishonest one after he found his own voice back in the early `70s. I remember somebody on the set of Paul Schrader's powerful working class film Blue Collar saying that they'd remembered Pryor as being a nice young Negro man on his numerous Ed Sullivan show appearances. He went on to say that he wondered if physical and spiritual violence of of Schrader's script hadn't helped bring Pryor out. Whatever, that nice young Negro man was now somebody you didn't dare approach. He was just plain sick of all the bullshit.

People loved him. The one time I saw him the audience clearly revered him. This wasn't Johnny Carson time. This was psychodrama. This was confession. This was, for the audience, a hilarious trip through hell that they could discuss on their way home in their BMWs.

As much as those who've come after are clever and amusing--and I mean both white and black--none have the courage to reveal themselves, good and bad, the way he did. Or the skill. It takes a level of craft that approaches true art to stand there on stage and forget all the Vegas crapola and simply tell the truth.

He always said it was scarey up there all alone and I have no doubt it was.


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