Latest Entry: The RSS feed for this blog has moved

Washington Post staff writers offer a window into the art of obituary writing, the culture of death, and more about the end of the story.

Read more | What is this blog?

More From the Obits Section: Search the Archives  |   RSS Feeds RSS Feed   |   Submit an Obituary  |   Twitter Twitter
Correction to This Article
The Dec. 11 obituary of Richard Pryor incorrectly said that he was nominated for an Academy Award in 1972 for best supporting actor in "Lady Sings the Blues." It also incorrectly said that the cover of his 1975 album "Is It Something I Said?" depicts Klansmen; the album cover shows dark-robed figures.
Richard Pryor, 1940-2005

With Humor and Anger On Race Issues, Comic Inspired a Generation

Pryor, shown during a 1972 performance, initially drew influences from Bill Cosby, Redd Foxx and Jerry Lewis. But by the late 1960s, he had found his own voice in a series of characters lacerating conventions of the day.
Pryor, shown during a 1972 performance, initially drew influences from Bill Cosby, Redd Foxx and Jerry Lewis. But by the late 1960s, he had found his own voice in a series of characters lacerating conventions of the day. (Stax/fantasy Inc.)

Network News

X Profile
View More Activity
By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 11, 2005

Richard Pryor, the outrageously raunchy and uproariously funny comedian and actor who defied the boundaries of taste, decency and race to become the comic voice of a generation, died yesterday at a Los Angeles hospital, where he had been taken after a heart attack. Pryor, who was 65, had been in deteriorating health for years because of multiple sclerosis.

Throughout the 1970s and early '80s, Pryor rode his uninhibited and foul-mouthed comedy to the heights of stardom, notching one hit movie after another, selling millions of recordings and drawing huge audiences to his one-man show, which treated some of the most volatile social issues of the time with a penetrating, unsparing comic eye. In 1998, he was the first person to receive the Kennedy Center's Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.

After beginning his career with relatively tame, race-neutral comedy, he delved deep into his experiences and anger as a black American and emerged with a fresh, daring approach that put race, sex and obscenity -- and all the anxieties these once-taboo subjects evoked -- at the forefront of his almost stream-of-consciousness comedy.

He drew his humor straight from the lives and speech of working-class black Americans in an overt, unapologetic way never before seen. In so doing, he helped bring black customs and language into the American mainstream and exerted a lasting influence on the nation's humor and cultural life. He assailed the nation's inequities, unabashedly used the n-word and adopted a variety of exaggerated facial expressions to touch on some of the deepest and unspoken fears of all Americans.

Once forced off a Las Vegas stage for obscenity, Pryor saw his ribald routines adopted as the standard comic fare of a later generation of comedians of all races. Without his bold example, the careers of Eddie Murphy, Whoopi Goldberg, Robin Williams, Dave Chappelle, Margaret Cho and Chris Rock would scarcely be possible.

An article in Ebony magazine in the 1970s said Pryor "mirrors the black condition without exploiting it" and called his comedy "a major step forward in the evolution of a true black humor in the United States."

In 1998, comedian Damon Wayans told The Washington Post that "Richard basically blazed a trail for black comedy; he defined what it is. As a young black man he was saying what he felt -- and that was shocking."

Pryor had his first gold record in 1974 with his provocatively titled, "That Nigger's Crazy." He followed that a year later with an album whose cover showed him questioning a group of Ku Klux Klansmen about to burn him at the stake, under the title "Is It Something I Said?"

He recorded more than 20 albums in a period of 14 years, including the landmark "Richard Pryor Live on the Sunset Strip" (1982), which was a distillation of his acerbic, lacerating style. Pryor received five Grammy Awards for his comedy albums. He also received an Emmy Award for writing and was nominated for an Academy Award as an actor.

During his prime, almost every joke included a spate of blue language that can't be printed in a newspaper but induced uncontrollable laughter in his audiences. Beneath the humor, though, there lay a raw edge of barely tempered anger. Nothing was too sensitive for his barbs. In a joke about black men in prison, Pryor said: "You go down there looking for justice; that's what you find: just us."

Pryor's humor reflected the turbulence and anger in his life, which was marked by arrests, outbursts of violence, failed marriages and a long history of drug abuse. On June 9, 1980, he almost died when he was freebasing cocaine at his Los Angeles home, set himself on fire and received severe burns on half his body. With his body ablaze, he jumped out a window and onto a city street.

As usual, he turned the episode into humor: "You know something I noticed? When you run down the street on fire, people will move out of your way."


CONTINUED     1           >

More in the Obituary Section

Post Mortem

Post Mortem

The art of obituary writing, the culture of death, and more about the end of the story.

From the Archives

From the Archives

Read Washington Post obituaries and view multimedia tributes to Pope John Paul II, Ronald Reagan, James Brown and more.

[Campaign Finance]

A Local Life

This weekly feature takes a more personal look at extraordinary people in the D.C. area.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company

Network News

X My Profile
View More Activity