Larry King asked Richard Pryor; “Are you more of a comedy actor?”
Pryor responded; “I’m just me.”
This seems to summarize the recent living legend that died of a heart attack after suffering for years with multiple sclerosis. Richard Pryor was original; he outweighed and challenged the standard for not only comedians at his time, but he impacted the timeless art of comedy for the better.
And I knew little about him.
For being a student right now at Chicago’s world famous institution The Second City, its unfortunate to have to admit that Richard Pryor, although one of the most influential comedians of our time, seemed to have little influence on me. Or I may think. Without realizing it, Pryor is the kind of man who through changing the face of comedy imprinted a style and composition upon the way people deliver in performance. Like many legends, Pryor has influenced all of us more than we would think.
Born December 1, 1940, Richard Franklin Lennox Thomas Pryor III was the son of a prostitute, Gertrude nee Thomas, and LeRoy Pryor Jr. (a.k.a. Buck Carter) a boxer and a WWII vet. He was raised by his grandmother as one of four children in her Peoria, Illinois, home. He experienced rape at age six and molestation by a local priest during catechism (a series of questions asked used to test religious knowledge in advance of Christian baptism or confirmation). Pryor found little escape from these traumatic moments, and he began to frequent the local theater and gain influence from greats like John Ford (The Grapes of Wrath) and Howard Hawks (Rio Bravo, El Dorado). From the screen through the eyes of a small affected boy came an aspiration to become great.
Following in the footsteps of Bill Cosby, Pryor moved to New York in 1963 to pursue his dreams. Performing stand-up comedy in clubs he soon found a mentorship with none other than Woody Allen.
He played roles in many films on and off the screen that have influenced the genre of modern comedy; like his cohesive effort writing the 1974 western comedy Blazing Saddles with Mel Brooks. Having over forty years of experience in the spotlight, he appeared in over 35 films including The Wiz (1978), The Muppet Movie (1979), The Toy (1982) and Superman 3 (1983).
There is not enough to say about a man who seemed to break all kinds of barriers from racial to political through a medium like comedy. He influenced generations of people, especially comedians and entertainers. Bernie Mac was quoted in a recent article announcing; “without Richard, there would be no me.”
Its easy to say “I love Eddie Murphy,” or talk about Jim Carrey as if he is the originator of all comedy, but if Murphy or Carrey were asked about their influences, Pryor’s would be in the first few names.
Through hardship comes learning, through learning comes growth and when looking at the life of someone like Richard Pryor, someone many would call him the funniest comedian of all time, but we see a hard life. Robin Williams spoke of his ability to relate hard situations to an audience through comedy; "Richard Pryor is an alchemist who can turn the darkest pain into the deepest comedy. [He] doesn’t go for the jugular—he goes straight for the aorta.”
This is something I have been noticing in our culture, a love for honesty and authenticity but a lack of tolerance for it when it is seen or heard. We’re getting all the scraps left over from such wonderful comedians like Pryor; I see something hysterical and forget to look to the root of why that joke is funny or why that comedian is making thousands of youth laugh. It is funny to see a new comedian using age-old methods because each person has their own style; some styles are just funnier than others.
Pryor’s was funny.
But like Williams said, he took “dark pain,” the darkest of experiences, from drug use to sex, and transformed them into “deep comedy.” This is where true comedy comes from, this must be what some comedians, actors, performers understand and others find themselves too busy trying to imitate others. Maybe we need influencers, teachers and people like Pryor because from their teaching of the blueprints, we can then build our own house around the basics.
I am funny. My life is funny. You are funny. Your life is funny.
Jim Carrey said; "Some people are born wearing an iron shoe. They’re the ones who kick doors down and enter the places that before them have been untouched even by light. Theirs is always a mission filled with loneliness and broken bones. Richard Pryor is one of the bravest of them."
Embarking on the entertainment-career road seems to be less about imitation and more about authenticity, coming to a place like Pryor, who came from situations like his prostitute mother and janitor work at strip clubs and made those experiences his comedy.