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Sunday
Feb172008

Send In The Clowns, Richard Pryor

Richard Pryor was frantic, manic, out of control - and almost out of his own skin. To watch him, in his glory days, rant and pant and stalk a stage was to see a heat seeking panther pouncing straight on the truths white people didn't wanna admit and black people were often ashamed to be judged by.

And in shooting straight, telling an unburnished truth in a full-tilt, almost confrontational way - as he slipped in and out of streets characters, many lifted directly from his youth growing up in the bars and brothels his grandmother ran in Peoria, Illinois - Pryor tore down the walls of denial, of glossy racial perceptual fronts. Pryor had stopping power. He had veracity. He had the will to tell-it-like-it-is, as fellow African American comic Flip Wilson would crow as his cross-dressing hottie Geraldine would crow.

In Richard Pryor, black Americans not only had a voice, they had a champion - a man who could see the rhythm, the language, the truth of the hustlin' black experience and bring a cavalier here-it-is to the table, in a way that told the stories of the street with a humor that disarmed, then charmed and finally electrified people. Richard Pryor was the man, man - and young whites, as well as blacks, responded aggressively to his no-holds-barred comedy.

He - like Lenny Bruce, notable for his rant about "The 7 Words" (you can't say on the radio) - shattered the rules, spoke the unspeakable, pulled back the curtains on societal hypocracy. And as a black man, hurled the word "nigger" as a battle cry.

By putting such taboos not just front and center, but front, center and loud, the man who started his career working from the fringes to the homogenized mainstream ascended into something more. Because the man who grew up poor, scrappy and struggling - using humor to deflect unwanted aggression and attention - realized that while it was safe to ape the user friendly jokes of Bill Cosby and make a good living doing it, it wasn't authentic to his life, his past or who he was inside.

Eschewing the obvious financial security, Pryor went into the theater of his memory and his mind to pull out the irony of every day living in the poor part of town, to seek the characters of his youth and their immutable, incontrovertible way of walking through this world as inspiration. Rather than telling jokes, he brought people to life, let them weave their tales, gave them wings and reacted - coming out of the piece - with a nonplussed pseudo shrug.

Not that most people remember the polite standard issue Pryor. No, This Nigger's Crazy blew up any chance of his beige past being a factor. Here was a man who would challenge the stereotypes, working dirty language and bits about the difference between black and white male sexual performance as if he was telling "knock, knock" jokes. And you bet, if it was Pryor, it was way more likely to be knocking the boots than knock, knock who?

At a time when there was women's lib, free loe and Black Panthers, Richard Pryor took Red Foxx's blue humor and made it social commentary by bringing to life the people so many never see. He shocked and scandalized, but he electrified - and the envelope ripped open by Bruce was pushed a little farther, like a thumb on a bruised spot.

All he had to do was become himself.

Like so many poor kids, though, who crave fame as validation, money as liberation and shock as payback, Pryor got vertigo. Trapped in a fuck-you-rock-&-roll lifestyle of cars, broads and drugs, the excess - then living up to others' expectations of said excesses - overwhelmed him.

When you'd see him sweat onstage, it seemed like more than the lights. Watching the quick ticks when he'd host "Saturday Night Live" in the '70s, you could call it adrenalin - likening it to the way athletes get revved up before the big game.

Renegade comics, after all, get to lead outlaw lives.

They are beyond the rules. even when they're getting busted, or turning themselves into human torches, free-basing cocaine in a never-ending quest for the feel-good-high-to-end-all-highs. Sometimes they get trapped in other people's expectations - how wild can they be? - and sometimes they demonstrate kindness in ways that defy the out of control, utter insanity of a comic on the verge.

Richard Pryor influenced countless comics. Showed people the way to the prize was by being, or magnifying the things that set them apart. Offer yourself up in extreme - and find a voice that nails hypocracy, mundanity, social inertia. Be as outlandish as you wish, scare/shock/incite - and always tether your humor to the truth.

It was another young comic from Peoria, Illinois who embodied that thinking. A chubby kid with a preacher father who lived somewhere on either side of the poverty line. A kid who grew up to teeter on the brink of evangelism, only to get so tangled in the crosswires of faith and finance, that he finally tumbled onto the stage - all fire and brimstone, looking for a place to explode.

The person who gave Sam Kinison permission to scream and rage and wail was the brothel boy from the same hometown. If Pryor was a molten ticket for his inner-city truths, then Sam Kinison was a rocker with a penchant for taking on tension and realities between men and women, racial slurs - and the attendant attitudes that inspired them, sexual taboos and yes, old time religion.

If Pryor threw down, Kinison seethed - and each struck chords of truths activists couldn't get to in a million years. But just as importantly, Pryor taught Kinison and a lot of the up-and-coming comics about giving back, about being present, about sharing the knowledge with the next wave to come up.

Sam Kinison and his best friend Carl LaBove would tell stories about Pryor holding court -- often at the Hyatt House, next door to the legendary Comedy Store, on Sunset, telling them to pay attention to the way they hit their set-ups, the way they focused on the world around them - always looking for the next bit, the next joke, the next punchline.

He encouraged. He emboldened. He enlivened. But especially, he cared.

And when you're an unknown misfit that's emptying the club - and can only go on in the latest slots - to have a certified master, an absolute groundbreaker, a man who was genius in how he distilled his truth into 180 proof shockwaves pay attention, validate, it can make all the difference in the world. Because in those moments of doubt, knowing someone who knows sees it, it can keep you holding on until the big break comes.

Waiting on a dream is a bitch.

Waiting on the dream when you're decidedly out of the box, freakish, angry, aggressive or perform in a way that's deemed to confrontational is the worst.

Richard Pryor knew that. It's why he made it point to rally the rank and file. He gave them the kind of support for brazen individualism that wasn't necessarily rewarded - and indeed thwarted when he was transitioning from standard-issue-stand-up in the mid-60s to the guy who's upside down attack on the standards netted a Grammy, gold records, sold-out concert tours in the same hockey rinks the biggest rock acts played, a concert film by which all other stand-up comedy movies are judged.

Not only did Pryor's fierce individualism set three generations of stand-ups free to be themselves, it reminded them to give back. Kinison took the lead a bit further - putting together the Outlaws of Comedy, to give young renegade voices the opportunity to open for him in major concert halls and possibly develop a voice.

Indeed, it's in those unseen ways that Pryor's impact becomes exponential. Yes, he was able to charm America with his big screen roles - playing street-wise guys with a way with a punchline, whether it was the Gene Wilder-goes-ghetto switch-up crime/comedy "Silver Streak" or "XXXXX." He imbued a humanity in black culture that was being lost in non-empiric stereotypes, fear of the unknown and fear of ourselves. Richard Pryor opened up a sense that poor black people were just as no-nonsense and eye-rolling about white people and each other as we were.

In telling the truth, he gave us permission to see things for how they were. He may've sent people grafted to the status quo reeling, but he sent the rest of the country free. In laughing at ourselves, we saw a culture that's not easily accessible for what it was - and we were challenged to think about every bias we held.

Yes, comics often mine their own trials, tribulations and observations for laughs. But as they say at the gym, "No pain, no gain." Still, there is no greater harvest than laughter and thought-provoking recalibration. because after the laughter and "can you believe THAT guy?"s faded, there were shifts in how we looked at the world.

Laughter is perhaps the most dangerous weapon. For in jokes you can say things that are unsayable, tell truths that are unspeakable - and open eyes that are committed to staying shut. The best part is that the people listening go willingly. No harangues, no forced acceptance.

They come. They hear. They laugh. They think. And then they are changed.

Richard Pryor wasn't a social agitator, nor was he an activist. A trip to Africa -taken after his tragic freebase accident - inspired him to retire the N word forever, out of respect for the black men he saw there, who were leaders and innovators in their countries. Still even before that, he had a consciousness - and that's where most of his best stuff came from.

From Richard Pryor's best, we - the fortunate - drew not only laughter, but perspective. It was a helluva way to learn to be open, but it was more fun than almost anything else you could get your hands, eyes or ears on. In the end, that's all that matters.

Somewhere, Richard Pryor looks down and laughs. He knew it all along. He just had to get to where he could do it the way he wanted. Ironically, in setting himself free, he took us all along with him - and it was a ride unlike any other.

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