Five marriages, voracious cocaine use, setting himself on fire - Richard Pryor's life has been almost wilfully excessive. But, says Tom Cox, it has produced poignant, inspirational comedy
Saturday 27 January 2001
AMID the tirade of profanities on . . .And It's Deep Too, a new nine-disc box set celebrating Richard Pryor's stand-up comedy career, there are many moments of pathos, but relatively little time to savour them. Pryor tends to slip his philosophical nuggets in adroitly, leaving them hanging there just long enough to get their hooks in, but then he jives on at the speed of light to the next expletive, without sacrificing a nanosecond of comic timing. So when the big moment does finally arrive, you're left feeling shell-shocked, distressed, wondering why there wasn't a huge fluorescent sticker on the box to warn you about it.
The big moment comes towards the end of disc eight, which includes Pryor's 1983 live album, Here and Now. So far Pryor has shared with us unimaginable details about his life: how he had a heart attack while his uninterested kids looked on; pretended to be a six-year-old child while having sex; wandered alone among rapacious lions in the Kenyan wilderness.
He has just finished yelping about urinal etiquette. There's a pause, and it seems as if the album is over. Then a little, frail voice pipes up, answering a barely audible question. "It's like pulling teeth without being anaesthetised," croaks the voice. "Sometimes I analyse myself while I'm doing it: Why am I saying that? Sometimes I just don't let the work happen."
It takes a few dumbfounded moments to realise that the voice is Pryor - still in 1983, but backstage now, discussing his art, displaying the kind of vulnerability that you can't fake. He has just finished another persuasive, generous, sad, uplifting, insightful show, but he doesn't feel he's doing enough. If the public confrontation of personal demons is the ultimate gift from performer to audience, then perhaps nobody has ever loved his fans as much as Pryor.
Born in Illinois in 1940, Pryor grew up in a brothel run by his grandmother, was sexually abused at seven, indulged in petty crime throughout his teenage years, and found out at 17 that his wife had slept with his father. After forging a career as "the new Bill Cosby" in the early Sixties, Pryor entered the Seventies with a style of socially aware comedy all of his own. He preached honesty, influencing an entire generation of black artists and risque stand-ups.
In 1978, when he shot the Mercedes that belonged to his third wife in an attempt to stop her leaving him, he talked about it. When he had bad sex, he talked about it. When he had good sex, he talked about it. When he used cocaine (ie most of the time), he talked about it. In 1980 when he attempted suicide by pouring rum over his body and setting himself on fire, he talked about it.
Pryor cackled at his secrets, then challenged his audience to be equally strong about their own weaknesses. He didn't die for his work, but it wasn't for want of trying. It's probably no coincidence that his best work - 1978's Wanted, 1982's Live on Sunset Strip - dates from the most debauched period of his life. His material was his life.
"When Richard wasn't on stage he was always finding a way to create comedy," Jennifer Lee, his manager and ex-wife, told me. "I was flattered that what I discussed with him ended up on stage. What I didn't know at first was that he would often create chaos in order to have material. I can specifically remember fist fights that he would get up there and talk about."
Pryor, who is only matched by Lenny Bruce in the tortured funny-man stakes, is often likened to rock stars for the intense, hedonistic pitch of his personal life. The creative mission might have made a balanced life a logistical impossibility for Gram Parsons, Kurt Cobain, Ian Curtis and Brian Wilson, but how many of them would consciously screw up for the sake of a few more minutes of entertainment on stage?
It's chilling to think that Pryor might have been married five times, not because of some personality defect or bad luck but for research, or that, as he shot his car or ran down the street, on fire and screaming, he was already mentally constructing a stand-up routine around the incident.
By the early Eighties, Pryor was hailed by some black Americans as a social saviour. "I think Richard felt the pressure of the black community needing a voice," says Lee. "When people compared him to Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, he freaked. It was too much for him, and he began to buckle."
After a mind-opening trip to Africa, he renounced his use of the word "nigga", declaring that "everyone started off on this earth the same". His stand-up work remained strong (if hardly prolific) as the Eighties progressed, but his film career, never as challenging, plumbed new depths.
Africa calmed Pryor down, made him more thoughtful, Lee recalls, but he was hardly unenlightened in the first place. From the off, Pryor's work displays an instinctive knowledge about the world, which makes him more than a comedian, more than the Eddie Murphy of the Seventies.
His racial observations were never any more racist than, say, the dialogue written for Apu, the Kwiki Mart manager in The Simpsons - that is to say, not racist at all. On 1974's That Nigga's Crazy, he repeatedly and hilariously observes that "white folks do things a lot different to niggas". "They [white folks] eat quieter: 'Pass the potatoes - thank you, darling. Could I have a bit of that sauce? How are the kids coming along with their studies? Do you think we'll be having sexual intercourse tonight? We're not? Well, what the heck?' Black folks have more rhythm: 'OHeybitchwhe'thefood?' " There's no hatred there, just the observation that we're all the same, all different and all flawed.
For the past decade, since he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, Prior has barely been in the public gaze. But listening to him in his heyday, it seems impossible that a man could be so frenetic, yet so anthropologically aware. "If Richard wasn't doing cocaine and acting crazy, he would be very quiet, soaking things in," says Lee. "Yesterday I was in the doctor's surgery with him, and I could see his eyes raise ever so slightly. He still says and sees so much with his eyes."
Going by the plaudits in the sleevenotes to the Rhino records box set - and as a Channel 4 documentary scheduled for later this year should testify - Pryor is the formative influence of every black American entertainer of the past 30 years. Yet that sad, frail voice at the end of Here and Now doesn't seem to have any true measure of its power. Towards the end of the interview, Pryor is talking about goals: "What I want to do is get up on stage and tell my life story. I start sometimes, but I get scared." Then the voice becomes feeble, almost apologetic: "I'm sure it would be interesting to someone. . ."
While other comedians
were blandly repeating themselves and inventing pseudoselves, Pryor was
presenting himself naked, yet not even realising it, forever increasing
the calamity and decreasing the intervals in the formula that says that
tragedy plus time passed equals comedy. Maybe that's the true genius of
Richard Pryor: that he knew everything about everyone, apart from himself.