Good looking to Long Form Reads for linking to Hilton Als’ 1999 New Yorker profile of Richard Pyror:
Pryor’s art defies the very definition of the word “order.” He based his style on digressions and riffs—the monologue as jam session. He reinvented standup, which until he developed his signature style, in 1971, had consisted largely of borscht-belt-style male comedians telling tales in the Jewish vernacular, regardless of their own religion or background. Pryor managed to make blacks interesting to audiences that were used to responding to a liberal Jewish sensibility—and, unlike some of his colored colleagues, he did so without “becoming” Jewish himself. (Dick Gregory, for example, was a political comedian in the tradition of Mort Sahl; Bill Cosby was a droll Jack Benny.) At the height of his career, Pryor never spoke purely in the complaint mode. He was often baffled by life’s complexities, but he rarely told my-wife-made-me-sleep-on-the-sofa jokes or did “bits” whose sole purpose was to “kill” an audience with a boffo punch line. Instead, he talked about characters—black street people, mostly. Because the life rhythm of a black junkie, say, implies a certain drift, Pryor’s stories did not have badda-bing conclusions. Instead, they were encapsulated in a physical attitude: each character was represented in Pryor’s walk, in his gestures—which always contained a kind of vicarious wonder at the lives he was enacting. Take, for instance, his sketch of a wino in Peoria, Illinois—Pryor’s hometown and the land of his imagination—as he encounters Dracula. In the voice of a Southern black man, down on his luck:
Hey man, say, nigger—you with the cape. . . . What’s your name, boy? Dracula? What kind of name is that for a nigger? Where you from, fool? Transylvania? I know where it is, nigger! You ain’t the smartest motherfucker in the world, even though you is the ugliest. Oh yeah, you a ugly motherfucker. Why you don’t get your teeth fixed, nigger? That shit hanging all out your mouth. Why you don’t get you an orthodontist? . . . This is 1975, boy. Get your shit together. What’s wrong with your natural? Got that dirt all in the back of your neck. You’s a filthy little motherfucker, too. You got to be home ’fore the sun come up? You ain’t lyin’, motherfucker. See your ass during the day, you liable to get arrested. You want to suck what? You some kind of freak, boy? . . . You ain’t suckin’ nothing here, junior.
Als contends that Pryor’s two greatest albums are “That Nigger’s Crazy,” and “Bicentennial Nigger.” I love the former but think the later is not nearly as good as “Is it Something I Said?” and “Wanted: Live in Concert.” But I do think that Pryor at his peak reached a place that no comic has ever approached, before or since.
[Picture by Ken Taylor]