Richard Pryor: vulnerability and bravado
Reading the news of Richard Pryor's death yesterday, I have to say that it surprised me--not that he died, but that he'd still been alive. He had been so sadly debilitated in recent years that it seemed remarkable that he'd lived so long.
And it was remarkable, considering the ways in which he'd abused his body and mind when younger, and the bad luck he had in also coming down with a vicious case of MS.
So, RIP Richard Pryor.
You may or may not have noticed (probably not) that in my old normblog profile, I answered one of Norm's questions this way:
Who is your favourite comedian or humorist? > I liked Richard Pryor when he was in his prime, and also the classic early Saturday Night Live crew.
I thought this might be a good time to explain why I went out of my way to mention Pryor.
He was shocking, he was crazy, yes, but that wasn't it for me. He was funny, really really funny. I haven't watched any of his stuff in decades, so I don't know how I'd react to it today, but at the time it came out, I thought his "Live in Concert" act was a work of genius.
What was it about Pryor, way back then? Well, first of all, he truly was groundbreaking. Even though he talked about race, and talked more raunchily and freely than I'd heard previous comics speak on the subject, it seemed that he was talking person to person, from the heart.
As Roger Simon (who knew him) wrote today:
...it was Richard’s remarkable humanity [the audience was] reacting to, his ability to express a people’s pain without rancor or anger, with a forgiving grace that finally defused all rage in laughter and put everything on a different, even strangely color-blind, level.
My sentiments exactly. Pryor sometimes (although not always, by any means) focused on race, but his routines transcended race at the same time. How did he do this?
If you watch those old Pryor routines, look at his eyes. I was always transfixed by them. They are the eyes of a brave but very very frightened child. An intense and very feeling one, as well, who seems almost too vulnerable to bear the world and its hardships, but is going forward nevertheless into every experience it has to offer.
I'm not saying Pryor was a child. But he kept within him, quite close to the surface (and somehow managed to express, despite his all-too-adult persona and his wild comic flair) the intensity of vulnerability and pain most people feel when very young. For the majority of us this pain and vulnerability lessens, or goes underground, with adulthood. But for Pryor, both always appeared all-too-easily accessible--much too easily for his own good.
And it was his own good that he seemed famously and carelessly unconcerned with, developing a legendary cocaine habit that probably was responsible for an early heart attack, as well as being the mechanism for his near-death (and probable suicide attempt) back in 1980.
In "Live in Concert," Pryor isn't just a comedian, he's an actor. He becomes each character he talks about, using his body effectively to create the illusions of change. But what I considered the most memorable part of the evening was the portion of his routine (although it was anything but "routine") about his heart attack. He was somehow screamingly funny (how could that be?) while at the same time deadly serious as he described what it had felt like. This had nothing to do with race, and everything to do with humanity.
As for his actual death from a heart attack at age 65--well, according to Wikipedia (so I suppose we need to take it with a grain of salt), Pryor:
...was brought to the hospital after his wife's attempts to resuscitate him failed. His wife was quoted as saying that "at the end there was a smile on his face."
It's possible. If anyone could die with a smile on his face, it might just be Richard Pryor.