Richard Franklin Lennox Thomas Pryor (December 1, 1940 — December 10, 2005) is often cited as one of the greatest stand-up comedians of all time (and a lot of people say the best). And just for once, they might actually be onto something there. His act influenced (and continues to influence) comedians varying from Eddie Murphy to Bill Hicks to Eddie Izzard.
He started out as a fairly non-controversial figure, influenced more by Bill Cosby than Lenny Bruce, and generally peddled his safe observational material to predominantly white audiences. It wasn't until an "epiphany" during a performance in Las Vegas in 1967 — where he exclaimed "What the fuck am I doing here?!" over the microphone, before walking off the stage — that he would begin to develop his own profane, raw, and increasingly confessional style of comedy.
Although he took pot shots at a variety of targets, it's arguable that his most hilarious and biting material concerned his own life. Whether it was shooting up his own car with a magnum, his drug addictions, his childhood, or his health problems, Pryor would bare his private life in front of his audience in a way that even his most devoted followers could rarely come close to. His most notable routine concerned nearly accidentally burning himself to death in 1980 while freebasing cocaine, documented on his 1982 album Live At The Sunset Strip, and also in the 1984 film Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling, a semi-autobiographic drama that Pryor wrote and directed. (Seriously, can you even picture Eddie Murphy trying to laugh off his "Good Samaritan" incident with a transvestite prostitute in his stand-up?)
Despite the controversies over his lifestyle and material (in 1974, he was replaced by Cleavon Little Jr., for the role of Bart in Blazing Saddles, because Warner Bros. deemed him uninsurable due to his drug habits; in 1977, a variety show created by Pryor on NBC only lasted 4 episodes note ). Pryor eventually found a degree of mainstream success, most notably in two films (Silver Streak and Stir Crazy) where he was paired with Gene Wilder note , and in Superman III. He largely retired from the public eye after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1986, but made occasional posts online, and even made an appearance in the David Lynch film Lost Highway. In 1998, he became the first recipient of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.
He died in 2005 following a heart attack. In 2008, in a poll taken from nearly 5000 of his fellow stand-up comedians, he was voted the funniest stand-up comedian of all time, narrowly beating out his long-time friend, George Carlin, for the title.note
Examples in Stand Up Comedy
- Actually Pretty Funny: Pryor once tried to rob/stick-up some mafioso club owners using a starter pistol. The mobsters simply burst out laughing, and forced him to stay and entertain them.
- Cluster F-Bomb: "Fuck censorship and his Mama."
- Crazy Jealous Guy: Admits that he could be this way when his drug use caused him to be paranoid.
- Disabled Character, Disabled Actor: In his later years, his characters were written as disabled because of his multiple sclerosis. His last TV role was playing a disabled old man on Norm MacDonald's sketch comedy show.
- Domestic Abuse: All but one of his 5 ex-wives accused him of abuse and he admits to throttling his wife Jennifer in his autobiography.
- Early Installment Weirdness: He started out as a middlebrow comic in the vein of Bill Cosby with far less controversial material.
- Gallows Humor: Pretty much his whole act after a while.
- Man on Fire: He lit himself on fire inadvertently when he was freebasing. He was reported to run a route described as "being a long distance in a car". He later admitted in his autobiography that he had done it on purpose in a drug haze."When you're on fire and running down the street, people will get out of your way. Except for one old drunk, going, (pantomiming holding a cigarette) 'Hey, buddy? Can I get a light?'"
- Never Heard That One Before: He was aware of the jokes that people were making about his Man on Fire incident— even pointing one of them out the first time that he talked about it."'Do you know what this is?' (lights a match) 'It's Richard Pryor, running down the street.'"
- N-Word Privileges: He originally used it, even releasing albums called That Nigger's Crazy and Bicentennial Nigger. Averted following a visit to Africa, where he resolved to stop using the word in his routine. (His love of the word "motherfucker", however, remained undiminished.)
- Out with a Bang: Apparently the way his father died. ("He came and went at the same time!")
- The Prima Donna: He developed a reputation for being demanding and disrespectful on film sets, and for making selfish and difficult requests. In his autobiography Kiss Me Like a Stranger, Gene Wilder says that Pryor was frequently late to the set during filming of Stir Crazy, and that he demanded, among other things, a helicopter to fly him to and from the set because he was the star. Pryor was also accused of using allegations of on-set racism to force the hand of film producers into giving him more money:One day during our lunch hour in the last week of filming, the craft service man handed out slices of watermelon to each of us. Richard, the whole camera crew, and I sat together in a big sound studio eating a number of watermelon slices, talking and joking. As a gag, some members of the crew used a piece of watermelon as a Frisbee and tossed it back and forth to each other. One piece of watermelon landed at Richard's feet. He got up and went home. Filming stopped. The next day, Richard announced that he knew very well what the significance of watermelon was. He said that he was quitting show business and would not return to this film. The day after that, Richard walked in, all smiles. I wasn't privy to all the negotiations that went on between Columbia and Richard's lawyers, but the camera operator who had thrown that errant piece of watermelon had been fired that day. I assume now that Richard was using drugs during Stir Crazy.
- Rape as Backstory: As a child by a man in his neighborhood.
- Refuge in Audacity: He took a Smith & Wesson-made Magnum handgun and shot a brand new Mercedes-Benz, destroying the engine. He discusses this in Richard Pryor Live in Concert.
- "Sesame Street" Cred: Doing the alphabet back in 1976 in this video. And then there's Pryor's Place.
- Son of a Whore: His mother was a prostitute and he even grew up in her brothel.
- Talking Animal: Usually dogs.
- Teeth-Clenched Teamwork: While they didn't outright dislike each other, the chemistry that he and Gene Wilder displayed on-screen did not translate off-screen due to their very different personalities. The filming of Stir Crazy, in particular, was a low point (as stated above).
- This Is Gonna Suck: The aftermath of him shooting (and "killing") a brand new Mercedes with a magnum revolver:"And then I went inside the house. Because the cops came. And they got magnums, too. But they don't kill cars, they kill ni-gars."
- White Dude, Black Dude: The original. Accept no substitutes.
- Wisdom from the Gutter: Subverted in the aforementioned "Wino & Junkie" bit."I'm gonna help you, boy. 'Cause I believe you got potential. You know what your problem is? You don't know how to deal with the white man! You got a white-man complex. I know how to deal with him. That's why I'm in the position I'm in today."
- Wrong Side of the Tracks: His mother was a prostitute, his father was her pimp, and he was raised in his grandmother's brothel. Need we say more? His was a Hilariously Abusive Childhood, although not so hilarious outside of his stand-up.
Examples in Movies:
- Angry Black Man: In See No Evil, Hear No Evil. Subverted in Stir Crazy.
- Longer-Than-Life Sentence: In one of his concert films Pryor riffed on a convict he met who was serving triple life:How do you do triple life? That means if he dies, and comes back, he gotta go to the penitentiary! "Fuck kindergarten, kid, you comin' with us..."