Richard Pryor: Preacher of Truth

By Eugene Robinson
Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Whenever he took the stage, Richard Pryor brought with him a collection of lost souls -- manic cokeheads with eyes as big as saucers, pimps so cool they couldn't be bothered to move their lips when they spoke, women of exceedingly loose morals, prison inmates who richly deserved their incarceration, sex fiends whose energy and imagination would have made both Masters and Johnson blush.

But along with the fallen, Pryor also portrayed men of the cloth -- black preachers whom he cleverly used to deliver social commentary. It didn't matter how puffed-up he made them sound, or how foolishly he had them preen and strut; it didn't matter that they might be paying undue attention to shapely female parishioners or the contents of the collection plate. Pryor always gave his preachers an air of dignity and command that their sins could not diminish. On a 1975 album -- " . . . Is It Something I Said?" -- Pryor complained that "white church" was "too scary for me," with its otherworldly music and somber iconography. "In black church," he said, "you get a show for your money."

It makes perfect sense that the most influential comedian of his time would identify with preachers who knew how to put on a proper show, who gave a committed performance, who refused to hold anything back -- and who told the truth. If the preacher was delivering a eulogy and the dearly departed had been a no-good dirty dog, well, that's what the preacher said. And the church said amen.

Comedians, critics and scholars are almost unanimous in citing Pryor, who died Saturday morning at 65, as the creator of modern stand-up comedy. He was the genius who saw and realized possibilities that others couldn't even imagine -- just as Picasso somehow had seen that an Avignon demoiselle's face would reveal a new kind of truth and beauty if he gave it the nose of an African mask. Comedian Damon Wayans best described Pryor's amazing technical skill in a tribute on Pryor's Web site: "There are many different kinds of comedians . . . the observational humorist, the impressionist, the character creator, the physical comedian, the self-deprecator, and the dirty-joke teller. What made Richard Pryor so brilliant is he was able to incorporate all these styles at once."

Pryor wasn't the first African American comedian who made it big in the television era -- Nipsey Russell, Bill Cosby, Flip Wilson and Godfrey Cambridge preceded him. But those great comics produced mainstream art, unthreatening to white audiences, while Pryor's stunning cultural impact came from his decision to present his comedy unfiltered. What came out of Pryor's mouth was black and raw.

Black audiences were accustomed to hearing ribald, race-specific comedy from artists such as Moms Mabley and Redd Foxx, who could be as daring and risque -- actually, nasty is what I'm trying to say -- as any comic working today. Sex, after all, is not a recent invention. But when Mabley and Foxx appeared on Ed Sullivan, they cleaned up their acts to the point that America came to think of them as sweet, kindly, eccentric senior citizens. Black folks knew better.

Pryor gave black people permission to laugh in front of white America the way we laughed among ourselves. The shock was not just that he said the things he said, but that he said them in front of white people. You'd hear the words coming out of his mouth, and all you could say was, "Oh no, he didn't !" But he did, again and again.

Those who took the ghetto world Pryor created as a literal representation of reality were as misguided as those who would look for literal, three-dimensional space in a Matisse or a de Kooning. Pryor was an artist, not a journalist; he exaggerated, flattened, telescoped, stretched and technicolored ordinary reality until it told a heightened truth.

He used his own messy life as raw material. Some critics have blasted Pryor for being a negative role model, but he always turned his manifold weaknesses and failings into cautionary tales. Take one riff on his drug use: "I snorted cocaine for 15 years, with my dumb [self]. I must have snorted up Peru. I could have bought Peru for all the [stuff] I snorted." That's not exactly an advertisement for drug use.

Pryor even came back to the stage after a cocaine-fueled attempt at suicide by self-immolation and managed to make people laugh about it. "When you run down the street on fire," he observed, "people will move out of your way."

He was a lot like those preachers he portrayed -- foolish, human, perceptive, painfully honest. And even when it hurt unbearably, he always gave people a show.

I say amen.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company