Tuesday, December 13, 2005


Half a century ago, most comedians told jokes. Some told long jokes (Danny Thomas). Some told medium-sized jokes (Myron Cohen). Some told mini-jokes (Henny Youngman). Then a new movement swept comedy where comedians started talking about their lives. They were funny, but not everything was a simple set-up punchline. A good example of this observational style is Robert Klein--his line goes directly to Jay Leno, Jerry Seinfeld and hundreds of others.

Another comedian went down this path, but was a lot dirtier. That's Richard Pryor, who may be the most influential comedian of our time. Def Comedy Jam, and countless comedians of all colors are unimaginable without his influence. (The trouble is most of his imitators can copy the filth, but not the talent or depth.) Pryor died on Saturday. He was only 65, but he'd lived a wild life and had been sick for quite a while.

While reasonably popular in the 60s, he shot up to be a top star in the late 70s and early 80s. His movies, especially those with Gene Wilder (such as Silver Streak and Stir Crazy), were big hits. However, a mix of bad choices and multiple sclerosis had him spend his last 20 years making fewer and fewer films.

As big as he was, he wasn't at his best as a film actor, comic or otherwise. Few fictional roles truly explored his talent. He could enliven the comedy (Bingo Long or a bigger part like Silver Streak) or even pull off relatively straight roles (Blue Collar) but a Richard Pryor film festival would likely create more a sense of boredom than discovery.

He also wasn't at his best on TV, except perhaps his groundbreaking Saturday Night Live. TV reined him in too much.

Where he was an unquestioned master was behind a microphone. Luckily for us, he made three stand-up films, especially his first, Richard Pryor Live In Concert (1979). This is the film that turned me from indifferent to a fanatic. I saw it five times. Here was a guy who could do anything. He could be hilarious one second, touching the next. He could turn street language into poetry. He could sound like any sort of person, black or white, male or female. He could even imitate animals. When all else is forgotten, this is what he'll be remembered for.

I saw him live once. It was a tribute at the Director's Guild about 10 years ago. He was already so sick he couldn't peform. They screened some of his TV show which had been too hot for the networks to handle. Most memorable was a sketch where he was the first black President at a press conference and the media taunted him with questions like "will your mother do my windows?" I must admit, though, that after a while, the praise became fulsome. In a Q and A session, one audience member after another stated how proud they were to be on the same planet as such a genius. When it came my turn, I almost asked him if his mother would do my windows just to break the monotony.


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