Sunday, December 11, 2005

Richard Pryor

Well, Richard Pryor has no more pain.

I first encountered him (if memory serves, and it usually doesn't) on The Mike Douglas Show. He was the first black comic I'd ever seen: not a comic who happened to be black, like Nipsey Russell, but a comic whose humor--even in his clean-cut, mainstream phase--was as it was because he was black. In one bit, he pretended to be a weightlifter, using the microphone stand as a set of weights. I'd never seen anything like it before, and, looking back on it, I realize that his blackness was what made it so: no white comic would have, or could have, done quite the same thing in the same way.

At around that point, I knew Bill Cosby only from a friend's recordings. I Spy was not on the list of watchable shows at our house, and, if Cosby was ever on Ed Sullivan, I never knew it. Frankly, I didn't get him at all, though I was charitable enough to think that seeing him might add the comedy that the recorded word lacked. But Pryor was, to me, hilariously funny, and remained so, even when he started doing the "blue" stuff that was supposed to offend us dumb honkies.

His candidature for Martyr of Humor, in the footsteps of Charles Lamb, Sir Arthur Sullivan and others, was in the bag when I heard him, not long after he'd famously set himself on fire, delivering a monologue on the incident. At one point, he said something like "I learned one thing: when you're on fire . . . and you're running down the street . . . People will get out of your way." That line brought the house down, including the house in which I happened to be sitting at the time.


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