April 1, 2001
BY NEIL STEINBERG SUN-TIMES COLUMNIST
Richard Pryor was raised in a whorehouse in Peoria. His grandma was a madam and his mom was a hooker.
A stark way to put it, but then Richard Pryor never minced words.
"I was born in Pee-oria, Illinois," he said, beginning his famous Mudbone routine. "What's that?" a heckler shouted, in the version I listened to for solace after hearing that Pryor's hometown is snubbing him. "That's a city, nickel," Pryor explained, not using the word "nickel" but a word that, on his lips, sounded very much like it.
Pryor's hometown declined to honor him last week. The city council voted 6-5 to reject a proposal to name a street for the comedian.
To be expected, of course, as unsurprising as stale bread. Artists escape their back-water boondock hometowns only to be forever tweaked by them, long distance.
Oak Park mostly cringed from Ernest Hemingway while he was alive, only recently finding its sense of pride, prodded not by sudden literary sense, but by hunger for tourist dollars.
Rejecting Pryor is the Peoria City Council's way of striking a blow against the drug menace. Only two thoughts are in the public mind today at the mention of Richard Pryor's name: drugs and obscenity.
Everyone knows that Pryor ruined his life with cocaine, burning himself horribly while on a crack binge in 1980. We know it so well because Pryor mined his tragedy for laughs, as he always did. But that really doesn't matter. We are an unforgiving people, particularly when it comes to drugs. All those prisons we keep building are testimony to that.
Though Peoria's snubbing Pryor is nothing surprising, we should still take this opportunity to remember who he really was and what he accomplished. (Pryor, now 60 years old and physically broken after 15 years of multiple sclerosis, isn't dead, yet, but keeps such a low profile it doesn't seem correct to speak of him as still on the scene, either.)
He wasn't just a comic who took drugs and swore. He was the man who introduced mainstream white America to the black underclass. He created a world of wonderful characters--drifters and deadbeats, junkies and winos and young sharpies and old storytellers like Mudbone. ("He'd dip snuff and he'd sit in front of the barbecue pit and he'd spit," Pryor said. "See, that was his job. I was pretty sure that was his job because that's all he did.")
They were the ones white America never thought about before, never considered human, until Richard Pryor came along and gave them a voice.
Without humor, white America wouldn't have cared. But Pryor was so funny he cut through the indifference.
A person who could ignore 100 serious journalistic ghetto exposes would pay cash money to hear Pryor talk about the very same group, only as individuals.
Pryor was also more than a stand-up. He was an actor. He put in a nuanced performance with Diana Ross in "Lady Sings the Blues." When Pryor appeared in "Uptown Saturday Night" with Sidney Poitier, Roger Ebert praised Pryor for his ability to "strike some kind of instant rapport with movie audiences; they instantly like him."
If we think of culture as having a boundary, a line between the glittery, golden fake surface of artifice and the sweaty, compromised funk of reality, then Richard Pryor moved that line about six yards toward the muddy end of the field. Maybe you hate that. Maybe you hate that there are curse words in Newsweek, and that kids watch South Park and the Simpsons and all those black comedies on the WB. Tough, that's life today, and Pryor helped bring us here.
He has already gotten honors aplenty. He was nominated for an Academy Award for "Lady Sings the Blues." In 1998, the Kennedy Center gave him its first Mark Twain Prize.
If Peoria thinks it knows better, then it is only confirming that it is too dumb to honor its brightest star. This doesn't make the place extraordinary. Few municipalities would do otherwise. Last year Chicago couldn't name a street in honor of Hugh Hefner without tying itself into knots the way it used to do when "Georgy Girl" tried to open in theaters. And if we're still the hidebound hick town Nelson Algren laughed at, what can you really expect from Downstate? (Come to think of it, we failed to name a street for Algren, too.)
To put the matter in perspective: Last month they named a school for Carol Moseley-Braun, the personification of ineptitude, too lame to even make it to the dedication ceremony on her first try. Moseley-Braun is the sort of middling mediocrity that people delight to honor. Which makes it doubly galling that Pryor, stiff-arming addiction long enough to bring these deathless, unheard voices to the American ear, gets brushed aside, while Moseley-Braun, her career a dismal litany of error and scandal and incompetence and inaction, gets an elementary school. Is that fair?
Yes, Pryor did drugs. Though I would think nearly burning to death would be punishment aplenty without Peoria withholding its little tribute. I don't know how we became such an unforgiving people, so harsh and stark and humorless. I wish Richard Pryor were still working, were still around to laugh at us. Because we could all use a good laugh.
E-mail Neil Steinbergat NSTEINB748@AOL.COM.