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Kennedy Center Taps Funny Bone

By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 16, 1998

  Style Showcase

The Kennedy Center announced yesterday that it is establishing an annual prize and televised salute honoring American humor, and has designated comedian Richard Pryor as the first recipient.

The Mark Twain Prize will be given Oct. 20 in the Concert Hall at an evening of tributes to Pryor. The 57-year-old comedian, who first brought his biting social commentary and unforgettable characters to the club scene in the early 1960s, has been battling multiple sclerosis since 1986 but plans to attend the event.

Some of today's best-known comics, many of whom have credited Pryor as their inspiration, will be present. Robin Williams, Whoopi Goldberg, Chevy Chase and Damon Wayans, as well as actor Danny Glover, will lead a series of tributes; Tim Allen, Gene Wilder and a number of others will tape their greetings. A highlight of the evening will be a recasting of Pryor's famous Mudbone character, which he is personally updating for a performance by the award-winning actor Morgan Freeman.

"We were talking about the extraordinary role humor plays in our lives, and isn't it a shame there isn't a way to recognize those people who make us take an honest look at ourselves and entertain us at the same time?" said Kennedy Center President Lawrence J. Wilker. He developed the idea with entertainment marketers John Schreiber and Mark Krantz, special events producers Bob and Peter Kaminsky, and the Comedy Central cable network. The Oct. 20 show, the culmination of a three-day "Celebration of American Humor," will be underwritten by Comedy Central and taped for airing on the network in January.

The honor was named for Twain because the 19th-century author was a prototype of the no-holds-barred observer of current events, and his novels, such as the revered "Adventures of Tom Sawyer," became a mainstay in American classrooms. "We tried to think of someone who had a particular nexus with American humor. Twain is one of the greatest humorists and social commentators and a name that would be recognized," Wilker said.

The producers see many connections between Twain and Pryor, besides their superlative ear for dialect and their prominent mustaches. "When you think about the continuum of comedy in America over the last 200 years, Twain is seminal, then Lenny Bruce, and for our generation – I am 43 – Pryor is it. He exposed race, the confrontation between the sexes, in a way everyone could understand the comedy and tragedy of our lives," Schreiber said.

Though Pryor has been largely inactive for the past three years, his name continues to be invoked. Just this past Sunday on the Emmy Awards telecast, Chris Rock remembered in vivid detail a skit on racial word association between Chevy Chase and Pryor that inspired him to be a comedian.

In a statement he released yesterday, Pryor noted the irony of his receiving a Twain Prize. "I feel great about accepting this prize. It is nice to be regarded on par with a great white man – now that's funny! Seriously though, two things people throughout history have had in common are hatred and humor. I am proud that like Mark Twain I have been able to use humor to lessen people's hatred."

A product of a hardscrabble life in Peoria, Ill., Pryor grew up with his grandparents, who ran a whorehouse and a pool hall. His comic takes on life were noticed early on, and he performed in amateur shows in the Army. In the early 1960s, inspired by the witty storytelling of Bill Cosby, he went to New York. Though Pryor found acceptance in such mainstream venues as "The Ed Sullivan Show," he found greater comfort in clubs where his comedy could spin out free-form, spiced with expletives, descriptions of any body part or function that came to mind, and observations about drugs, sex and race. Along with the concert work and a string of successful albums, Pryor made 40 movies, starring with Eddie Murphy, Gene Wilder, John Candy, Christopher Reeve, James Earl Jones, Diana Ross, Sidney Poitier, Beau Bridges and Cosby, among others. Robin Williams was a writer on one of his television series.

Both Twain and Pryor have weathered considerable criticism. After the Civil War, Twain turned from newspaper, essay and travel writing to novels, including the immensely popular "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." The portrait of Jim, Huck's black companion, continues to be a lightning rod for debates about racism and the First Amendment. (Pryor often stepped into the same quandary, forcefully using the n-word.) Twain supporters would say he was writing in the context of the times and that the author despised racism. Pryor partisans would argue that his use of the same word was done with love, not denigration. But several years ago, after a trip to Africa, Pryor swore off using the racial epithet.

Parallel to the enormous admiration for Pryor's talent was concern about his self-destructive streak. One New Year's Eve, he shot up his Mercedes with a .357 magnum. In 1980 he threw cognac all over himself while he was freebasing cocaine and turned into a human torch, suffering burns over 50 percent of his body. He has five ex-wives – including one he married twice – suffered two heart attacks and has had quadruple-bypass surgery. At his depths, Pryor describes himself in his autobiography, "Pryor Convictions and Other Life Sentences," as a "drug-addicted, paranoid, frightened, lonely, sad, and frustrated comedian who had gotten too big for his britches."

The three-day event will include what Wilker calls "a celebration of the genre" with lectures on both Twain and Pryor, comedy workshops, free performances and a concert with an all-star band of jazz and rhythm-and-blues performers. The producers say the edginess of comedy will be acknowledged but the televised part will be tasteful. And that can be tricky. Just recently Chris Rock was cut out of a delayed broadcast of the "Today" show because some of his remarks were considered offensive.

"The guidelines we have given them is that the performances should be personal, directed to Richard. It is not going to be a testimonial or wake or roast. It will be a tasteful evening, a fairly clean evening," Krantz said.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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