"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice

I Come from Criminal People

His humor was so much larger than the comedy today. Today’s comedy is all about divisiveness. But as edgy and scathing and biting as he was, he was never oppresive. The laughter came from that interior recognition.

…Richard was okay not being on top of it all. Pain, sweetness, rage–when he came on stage, you felt his essence. there are some people who are just…open. And he was open.

Lily Tomlin

Just a few last thoughts on Richard Pryor, who passed away last weekend. There was a nice appreciation of the legendary comedian by Jesse McKinley in the Times earlier this week (I don’t have the link but it appeared in Tuesday’s paper), and Jerry Seinfeld of all people had some insightful comments:

Jerry Seinfeld, for example, who worked the same clubs as Mr. Pryor in the late 1970’s and early 80’s, said he distinctly recalled nights when Mr. Pryor would “walk the room,” comedian lingo for driving patrons out into the streets.

“I remember people talking, saying Richard bombed last night,” Mr. Seinfeld said. “Guys with reputations like that, they stay to the tried and true. You risk a little bit, but Richard risked everything all the time. He was the ultimate bullfighter on stage. He never let his instinct for self-preservation get in the way.”

…”He started with what he knew and brought you to it,” Mr. Seinfeld said. “He made you fall in love with him. And he did it so that you would relate to things you didn’t think you could relate to.”

Pryor hosted an early Saturday Night Live and it remains one of the show’s best broadcasts.

“The truth was an incredibly hot commodity in 1974-75,” said [SNL creator, Lorne] Michaels, who watched as Mr. Pryor did two long monologues that night, exactly 30 years ago today. “The distrust of authority was at its absolute peak, with Watergate and the war, and he caught the wave.”

One of the most troubling Pryor moments I’ve run across is an interview he gave on the set of “Stir Crazy.” This was less than a year before his freebasing accident and Pryor is cocked and loaded, really giving the poor (white) interviewer a hard time. I’ve got a recording of the interview on bootleg and, though the sound quality is poor, it is still absorbing. At turns, it’s really painful, because he’s clearly zonked out, an really mixed up guy, but every time it reaches the point where you want to cringe, the guy turns on a dime and is flat-out funny (he has the crew breaking up the entire time). Here is a portion of what was said:

Pryor: I don’t know nothing. Do you understand me, I don’t know shit. I’m lucky. I threw seven seventeen times. And my number’s up but I kept the money. All I want to do is leave Tuscon alive…fuck all you motherfuckers, I got my money. I’m rich. I’m a rich, black, ignorant nigger.

Interviewer: I don’t believe that.

Pryor: Well, Good. Cause you the only one. The rest of them out there in the audience know. You ask some of these cowboys if they want to lynch me or not…Richard Pryor will never do anything y’all want. Richard Pryor is a criminal. I come from criminal people. I will be a criminal. I didn’t get caught yesterday buying seven pounds of cocaine in front of eight policeman. They couldn’t catch me. I am a lucky, black, greasy motherfucker.

Interviewer: Listen, can I ask you a serious question–

Pryor: I ain’t no good, I ain’t trying to be no good. I don’t care what y’all think. Cause you always told me my mother was illegal, my father was illegal, my uncle was illegal–he just had a heart attact two days ago, and he gunna live through that. I’ve had a heart attack, I’ve lived through that. Here I am, they paying me a million-and-a-half-dollars to do this movie: fuck you. I didn’t earn it. I don’t know how much a million is. You ever counted a million? You have to have an accountant: a Jew.

Interviewer: Have we got the beeper machine going?

Pryor:…the real people know, when they watching this at 12:30 in the morning.

Interviewer: What do you think about censorship?

Pryor: Fuck censorship and his momma. I ain’t no good, I ain’t trying to be no good. I’m happy. I just sucked three, young white girls’ pussy. I’m leaving town today…if they don’t kill me.

With Pryor, sometimes you had to laugh to keep from crying.

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver