RIP Richard Pryor
I spent most of the weekend driving around Virginia attending to various chores, and didn't see or hear any news, so it wasn't until today, when I was driving my kid, Jack, back to school in Richmond, that I learned that Richard Pryor had died. Jack broke the news to me in a quiet way, knowing how much I adored this man. In fact, Jack bought me a Pryor box set for Christmas last year, after discovering for himself that this icon of the 70s and 80s was a lot funnier than the people that come and go on Comedy Central these days.
That was appropriate, since I bought my own father a couple of early Pryor albums--yes, the ones with the n-word in the title, which provided some additional comedy as I struggled to find a way to ask for them from an African-American store clerk--back in the mid-1970s.
You want to know how powerfully funny Richard Pryor was? After memorizing these albums, my father, a middle-aged southern white man from a very conservative background, became Richard Pryor for about a year. Everytime I'd see him, we'd go through a complex call-and-response greeting based on some Pryor routine. (And Pryor also supplied the right thing to say for virtually every occasion; if I'd screwed up in some way, my father was likely to lightly rebuke me with the words of Pryor's wino accosting a Martian: You done landed on Mr. Gilmore's property!)
And to this day, nearly thirty years later, we both know the whole oeuvre by heart. And so does Jack.
A lot's been said, and is being said today, about how Pryor stretched the boundaries of taste in comedy, and in particular, how he confronted the realities and absurdities of race, and that's very true. Indeed, his routine on the experience of being a black man pulled over by a white traffic cop (Get out of the car; raise yo' hands, drop yo' pants, spread yo' cheeks. A gas station's been robbed, and you look just like the n---- who done it!) probably provided a lot of white people with their first understanding of racial profiling, and what it's like to be a permanent suspect in your own country.
But Pryor was ultimately not just a "great black comic;" he was simply the funniest man alive, by a large margin. If, like me, you agree with the late Hunter Thompson that "a sense of humor is the only prima facie evidence of sanity," then Richard Pryor was, for all the foibles in his personal life, one of the sanest men alive, and one who helped keep the rest of us sane as well.
May God give him rest, and return to him the joy he gave so many others. --